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I love to shovel snow.  No, I’m serious.  I really enjoy it.  My goal has always been to get the driveway and sidewalk completely clean after a snowfall.  So I start by removing as much snow as possible.  Then I take a metal scraper out and run it over any places where the snow has been pressed down, whether by feet or car tires or whatever.  Once that’s done, I bevel the snow on the edge of the driveway so it’s all nice and even.  It takes a while, but the results are worth it.

I write all that as though it still happens.  It doesn’t.  I’m no longer allowed to shovel snow.  The surgeon that fixed my back last October put shoveling at the top of the list of no-nos.  So now the neighbors tackle it with their snow blowers or my wife takes care of it.  I watch from inside the house.

The Sahara Desert is the largest desert in the world.  Well, technically it’s not because scientists consider the Arctic and Antarctica to be larger deserts.  I don’t know how they’re deserts, but there are a ton of things I don’t know.  Anyways, the Sahara is about as large as the continental United States, and it’s one of the hottest places on earth, with an average temperature approaching 90°F.  If ever there was a place that it wouldn’t snow, it would be in these vast three-and-a-half million North African square miles.

Oh, but it has snowed in the Sahara.  In January of 2012, the desert got snow.  But it’s pretty rare.  In fact, in my digging around, I could only find two instances when snowfall was recorded:  last year and February 18, 1979.

That first snowfall took Algerians by complete surprise, even though it lasted but half an hour.  And it probably snarled traffic and closed schools, despite the fact that it was gone before sundown.  The really good thing is that the sand trucks probably didn’t have far to go to fill up.  I wonder if the kids knew to have a snowball fight, or make a snowman, or snow angels…I hope so.

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I’ve watched a couple of shows about panning for gold.  Not those “reality” programs (which probably aren’t real at all), but documentary-style shows where a guy will detail his methods of searching for that most precious and elusive of elements.  I’ve talked about Dick Proenneke on a couple of occasions, and during his stay in Alaska, he often panned for gold, using it to purchase some of the staples he needed in the wilderness.  And then there’s Johnny Horton’s famous song North to Alaska, from which I’ve learned the best locations to search (“where the river is winding, big nuggets they’re finding…“).

So while I’ve never searched for gold (much to the chagrin of my grandmother), I feel I’m more knowledgeable about the process than, well, maybe a two-year-old goat living on a farm in Scranton, IA.

Anyways, I don’t know how big the nuggets were that Sam McCord found (he’s the guy in the song North to Alaska), but they likely paled in comparison to the one found by a couple of prospectors in the opposite hemisphere on February 5, 1869.  John Deason and Richard Oates found what became known as the Welcome Stranger nugget in Victoria, Australia.  Resting just below the surface near a tree, this chunk of gold weighed in at an astonishing 241 pounds.  Yeah, pounds.  After it was fully trimmed out and refined, it still weighed nearly 157 pounds.  That’s one big piece of gold.  And to date, it’s the largest single chunk of gold ever found.

I just checked and, while prices fluctuate, the current price of gold is $1675.80…an ounce.  And 157 pounds is 2512 ounces.  So if I do the math, that totals out to $4,164,393.60.  I don’t know the world in which you live, but in my world, that’s a retirement number.  Deason and Oates were paid $15,000 (give or take) for Welcome Stranger, which seems rather meager, even by 19th-century standards.

North to Alaska…yeah, right.

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It’s been nearly two weeks again!  Yikes!  But I’ve got another excuse.  Here goes…

The back trouble I’ve been fighting has taken a more serious turn.  Last week, the pain just wouldn’t go away, even with a couple trips to the chiropractor, who usually fixes me right up.  So we went to clinic and got some stronger medicine, which helped my back a lot.  The next day, I felt much better…until I got into the shower.  After three or four minutes, I could hardly stand up.  I grimaced through and dragged myself back to bed.  An MRI on Friday revealed the bad news:  a badly herniated disk in my lower back is pinching a nerve that runs down my leg.

It’s most uncomfortable except when I’m laying on my right side in bed with my legs curled up…which is where I’ve spent about 90% of my time since last Tuesday.  We meet with an orthopedic surgeon tomorrow morning, and surgery is almost certain.  But if it will get things fixed so I can work from the office (instead of curled up – any idea of how hard it is to type?!?) and get back on my bike again, then I’m okay with it.

Well, it’s either that or “the dog ate my homework.”

When someone mentions “disasters” and “1985” in the same sentence, my mind’s eye immediately sees those barfalicious parachute pants, break-dancing, and those glasses girls wore that looked like they were upside down.  It doesn’t get a lot worse than that.  But those are fashion disasters.  And though the carnage from them was great, I suppose it pales in comparison to a real disaster.

A disaster like, say, the one that hit Mexico City on this day.

The sun had just come up over Mexico’s capital on September 19, 1985, when the calm was replaced by a violent shaking.  Some 220 miles offshore, a strong 8.0 earthquake had rattled itself into existence.  Now your mind immediately jump to the giant quake that hit Japan in March of last year.  That earthquake did very little damage.  The massive tsunami that followed shortly after, however, was a completely different story.  But tsunamis were not the issue in Mexico City.

So now you might think that, due to the distance from the quake (actually quakes, as this particular temblor was a two-headed beast), Mexico might avoid serious trouble.  But, unfortunately, that was also not the case.

The earthquake occurred in an area that’s known for stronger seismic activity, as there are a couple of tectonic plates that conflict with each other.  I have an earthquake app on my smartphone, and this region sees small-to-moderate quakes pretty regularly.  But in 1985, it had been a while since there was a “relieving of the pressure” in this particular place, so the pent-up stresses were released all at once rather than gradually over a series of smaller quakes.

But the real culprit was Mexico City itself, or rather, it’s location.  The city, one of the world’s largest, sits in the Valley of Mexico.  Hundreds of years ago, the area was a large lake.  The Aztecs built their capital (then called Tenochtitlan) on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco.  Over time, the city grew.  Then there was a change of ownership when the Spanish came calling, but still the city grew.  It outgrew the island, so over time, the lake was drained for more infrastructure.

I’m no geologist, but I would guess that lake beds don’t make good foundations, because while it may be dry on top, there’s likely still a lot of moisture underneath.  The soils below Mexico City were volcanic clay…with a high water content.  When the shock waves from the quake hit, those soils actually made the shaking worse.  And of course, those soils also settle, which causes buildings on top of them to become very unstable.   That’s what happened in Mexico City.

Hundreds of buildings completely collapsed and thousands more were heavily damaged.  In addition, the shifting landscape tore up roads and wreaked havoc on underground water, sewer, and gas lines.  Sections of the city were completely devastated.  The number of deaths varies widely depending on the source, but ranges run from 10,000 to more than four times that number.

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I enjoy riding my bike to and from work, so in my world, it’s always best when the early morning hours (4:00-7:00am) are dry.  The same holds true for the ride home (2:00pm-5:00pm).  It doesn’t actually take me three hours to make each ride.  In fact, 45-50 minutes is usually enough.  It’s just that, for the trails to be mostly dry, rain needs to stop about two hours before I ride.

Of late, however, central Iowa has been starved for rain.  We had rain on Friday, but it amounted to a measly two-tenths of an inch.  Other than that, we’ve had no serious rainfall in nearly a month.  And our exceptionally mild winter and spring meant less rain as well.  So while us cyclists have been living it up, farmers are starting to worry.  We drove an hour north earlier today and visited my folks and grandmother.  When we left, it was raining in sheets and the storm was heading straight south.  We raced home to close windows, only to have the storms fizzle to nothing.

So I continue to put water on the lawn every couple of days (and water is really expensive here) and pray for rain in the meantime.  Even if it meant I couldn’t ride my bike to work a morning or two, I’d welcome the precipitation.  Two or three days of steady rain would simply be awesome…even a one- or two-inch deluge would be better than nothing.

Speaking of that, Montreal knows a thing about deluges.

On July 14, 1987, the residents of the Island of Montreal awoke to weather more typical of Iowa.  Warm, moist air and hazy sunshine promised yet another in a string of unseasonably hot and humid days.  But as us midwesterners know all too well, high heat and high humidity are two key ingredients needed to spawn thunderstorms.  The other is some form of “destabilizer”, which usually takes the form of cooler air above.  Since heat rises, it displaces the cooler air, causing the turbulence necessary to roughen the weather up a bit.

Or, in the case of Montreal that day, roughen it up quite a bit.  Starting around lunchtime, a series of four severe thunderstorms made their way across the area.  And by the time the mid-afternoon doldrums hit at 3:00pm, the storms were over.  But in their wake…

In the two hours the storms trained across Montreal, they dumped nearly four inches of rain, with some areas reporting higher amounts.  The sewer system, which wasn’t designed to handle these kinds of downpours, was overwhelmed.  In addition, widespread power outages from lightning strikes took down the sewer pumping systems.

Flooding became a serious problem, particularly for lower lying roads.  Thousands of people became stranded in their cars, as the waters quickly rose. The Décarie Expressway (shown above) became a car-clogged river, with motorists scrambling for rescue as the waters inundated their vehicles.

I have the distinct feeling that, had I been in Montreal at the time, even the two-hour gap between the storms and my commute wouldn’t have allowed me to ride my bike home.  Of course, one of my co-workers has a boat…

Send some of that rain our way!!

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I’ve got Google to thank for today’s super-brief piece.  If you’ve been to their site, you’ve seen the little bit of homage they paid to Gideon Sundback.  Born on April 24, 1880, this Swedish-born son of farmers emigrated to the United States in the early 1900s as an engineer and is responsible for one of the most important inventions of the 20th century.

It has helped keep countless garments together when they otherwise would have separated, causing great embarrassment to the owners.  It has helped millions of small children more quickly learn to dress themselves, much to the relief of their sometimes harried and exasperated parents.

It’s the zipper.

Thanks, Mr. Sundback, for a remarkable feat of engineering.

And Happy Birthday!!

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Maybe you’re a fan of Rowan Atkinson because he’s a car nut that has owned a McLaren F1 (one of the world’s rarest and fastest cars).  It could be that you know the man or grew up with him in England.  Or did one of the television shows in which he starred, like The Thin Blue Line or the darker Black Adder series, grab your attention?  He’s been in the movies Rat Race and Johnny English – and maybe others as well – so that might be your hook.  He’s published articles in Car and Evo, two well-known British car magazines (and ones which I always seem to leaf through at the Barnes and Noble magazine stand), maybe that’s your thing.

And maybe you still have no idea who Rowan Atkinson is.  Ok…he was born on January 6, 1955 and if you like birthdays, there’s always that.

But that’s you.  What about me?  Well, it could be a couple of those.  I’ve seen a couple episodes of The Thin Blue Line and Black Adder.  I love cars.  I own the movie Johnny English.  For me, however, it pretty much comes down to two words.

Mr. Bean.

Now maybe you know what I’m talking about.

Mr. Bean is sort of a one-man sketch comedy created and played by Atkinson.  He plays all kinds of characters, but generally it’s a socially inept guy, a kid in a grown-up’s body, who continually gets himself into zany situations, and then tries to extricate himself in the most oddball fashion.  The sketches feature little or no dialogue – and what little there is comes in a goofy low-register voice – but it would be completely superfluous anyways.  Atkinson is a master of facial gestures and his different looks and gazes pretty much tell the story.

And I think the stories are simply hilarious.

There’s one where he goes to the beach and has to put on his swimming trunks.  But he’s not alone and doesn’t want to go all the way back to his car.  His solution left me in stitches.  Speaking of swimming trunks, another sketch has him at the pool, trying to garner enough bravery to jump off the high diving board.  Yet another has him with his girlfriend at a slasher movie…that’s not how you eat popcorn!!

And throughout the sketches, there are these returning idiosyncrasies.  Mr. Bean walks with hands slightly askew, doing a little dance of their own.  There’s that blue three-wheeled car that often shows up, only to be turned on its side.  And of course, Mr. Bean himself always drives a Mini…and drives it very poorly.  There’s the girlfriend that makes occasional appearances, but Mr. Bean just doesn’t know how to act properly with a lady.  And there’s his stuffed teddy bear.

I have to say that the “beach” sketch is one of the better 3-minute escapes you’ll find, and all of them are really funny in their own fashion.  But my favorites are Mr. Bean’s lunch break when he makes a sandwich (“just popped out for lunch!”) and the Christmas episode.  The latter features a hysterical “play time” scene in the store, and another with him conducting the Salvation Army band in God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen…that alone is worth the purchase of the video.

I could go on and on, but suffice to say that you should watch a couple of sketches and see for yourself.

Happy Birthday, Mr. B…uh…Rowan Atkinson!!

Recommended Viewing:  Watch Mr. Bean in action.
Our son just bought a new TV…so did Mr. Bean. Watch him set it up.
Mr. Bean at the beach.
The funniest lunch break.
Christmas, Mr. Bean style.

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Well, I said I might be back.  But as we roll into Christmas, I will probably keep this really brief.

Silent Night is probably one of the more famous Christmas carols.  It’s been covered by hundreds of singers, from Annie Lennox (from the Eurythmics, that 1980s pop duo) to country songwriter Skip Ewing.  It’s probably been sung in every possible way, whether it be with a massive orchestra, a towering pipe organ, a single acoustic guitar, or simply acapella.  And it’s been sung in tons of places, like the Vatican, and Jerusalem, and on a street corner, in front of a church Nativity scene, and in your house.

Everyone may not know the entire song, but most folks could sing the first verse in their sleep.  Ok, I take it back…Silent Night is the most famous of Christmas carols.

It was penned in the small village of Oberndorf dei Salzburg, Austria by Father Joseph Mohr in 1816.  But without a melody, it was just poetry on a page.  It remained that way for two years until, as the story goes, Mohr’s church faced a Christmas Eve crisis.  The church’s pipe organ, which had provided music each Mass for time out of mind, suddenly ceased to work.

Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

I suppose that, for Mohr, this caused a bit of panic.  The service needed music, and drums and guitars and synthesizers and “church bands” were still 150 years in the future.  So he turned to Franz Gruber, who lived nearby in the village of Arnsdorf and was a school teacher and the organ player at the church.  He trudged through the snow to Gruber’s home, showing him the lyrics and requesting music that someone could play on the guitar.

Silent night, holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ, the Saviour is born
Christ, the Saviour is born 

The two men sat down and Gruber put together the tune and the song Silent Night was born.  And that evening…Christmas Eve…December 24, 1818, the song was sung for the first time at the late Christmas Eve Mass.

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth

I hope you all have a wonderful, and very safe, Christmas!

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When I was a junior high student, I maintained a somewhat modest fascination of King Tut.  Well, that may not be strictly true, as I knew (and cared) not at all about his short 20-year life.  His time as Egypt’s leader didn’t register, either.  The cause of his death?…not my concern.


I was interested in all the super-cool gold things that were discovered in his tomb.  Our school library had purchased a book detailing much of Tutankhamun’s life, and I checked it out several times to gawk at the pictures.

Typical junior higher, I suppose.  Now that I’m older, things have changed…I’ve lost much of my fascination with King Tut.

However, that’s not to say I’d ignore an important day related to him or, as in this case, his discovery.

When Howard Carter first discovered what looked to be a stairway under some small ancient buildings in November of 1922, his pulse began to race.  He had been searching for a the tomb of a relatively unknown king named Tutankhamun for some time.  By the end of the day a complete staircase had been excavated and a sealed doorway had been found.  Excitement grew at the potential of finding a tomb untouched by robbers.

At this point, Carter stopped digging and sent word to his boss, Lord Carnavon, that an intact tomb of a to-this-point unknown person had been found.  Three weeks later (on November 24th, as transportation took some time in the 1920s) Carnavon arrived and the digging resumed.

By the end of the next day, there had been numerous discoveries.  There was a seal with Tut’s named on it.  Behind it was a long, sloping passageway also quickly cleared out.  And then there was another sealed door, also bearing Tut’s name.  The crew was breathless with anticipation as evidence for a significant find quickly grew.

On November 26, 1922, Carter punched a small hole in the upper left of the door with trembling hands, big enough for a candle.  He would later write, “At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle to flicker. Presently, details of the room emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold.”

The pent-up anticipation gave way to jubilation.  A long-lost treasure had been found.  But what Carter, Carnavon, and the rest of the team couldn’t yet know was that the gold they saw in the flicker of the candlelight would pale in comparison to the gold they would utlimately find.

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We made a trip to see grandma this weekend.  Born in 1914, she’ll be 98 years old next  March.  Things might be getting a little fuzzy for her, but her mind is still pretty sharp.  We talked for a couple hours and ate lunch.  It was a good time, even though it was brief.

A century…grandma’s nearly made it, and she’s seen an unbelievable amount of change, though she’s lived in pretty much the same rural area her entire life.  Telephones, televisions, engine-powered lawn mowers, computers, automobiles, paved streets, credit cards, a major stock market crash, a pair of world wars, ten-speed bicycles, three-speed washing machines, microwave ovens, turntables…how long do I work on this list?  True, some of these devices were already around when grandma was born, but most were not, and all of them came into their own during her century.

I should add one more to the list…airplanes.  They’ve progressed quite a bit in the last century as well.  From the Wright brothers and Kitty Hawk to the brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, we’ve seen an incredible transition.  For military aircraft, the changes have perhaps been even more remarkable.  There were biplanes, monoplanes, and piston-engined fighters and bombers.  Then came the 1940s and the transition to jet power.  It was followed by advanced avionics, fly-by-wire technology, and terrain-following.  Today, as the F-35 Lightning II enters production, we might be seeing the last generation of human-powered fighters.  We’ve come a long ways.

But for the military, it all started a century ago.  One hundred years ago today, on October 23, 1911, Captain Carlo Piazza made history, though he probably didn’t realize it.  The racing pilot (not that planes went all that fast in 1911) climbed into the cockpit of a Bleriot XI, probably knowing full well he wouldn’t be setting any speed records.  The small monoplane was powered by a 20-horsepower 3-cylinder engine (your little Smart car makes way more power) and could reach a blistering speed of 45 mph in level flight…barely enough to avoid a “too slow” ticket on today’s Interstates.

But the intrepid Piazza took to the skies anyways, flying a recon mission in the Turco-Italian War.  It was the first time an airplane had been used in wartime…ever…for any reason.  From there, things would advance rapidly.  Bombing missions were introduced little more than a week later, true fighters and bombers would arrive on the scene shortly, and a quantum leap in warfare had taken place.

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The computer world is sadder this evening with the news of the passing of Steve Jobs.  Few people have had more of an impact on our technological lives than the founder and long-time CEO of Apple.  Everybody knows about iPhones, iPads, and iPods.  They have become as much as a part of American culture as apple pie and corn on the cob, and all have come into existance under Jobs’ leadership.  Obsessively finicky about product design, incredibly intelligent, and a true visionary, he will be sorely missed and never forgotten.

While I’ve got Jobs on my mind and computers on the brain (they’re what I work with every day, after all), let’s talk for a quick second about Linux.  In case you don’t know, Linux is a computer operating system.  It’s the software that allows a computer to run and manage all the other programs installed on it.  There are many different operating systems functioning in the world, but only two that have a large footprint:  Microsoft Windows and Apple’s (there’s Mr. Jobs again) MacOS.  They run the vast majority of all computers, and are the best known.

Linux is something of a niche OS (but don’t say that too loudly among its avid followers).  It’s also really unique in that it’s an “open source” system, which means no one individual or company is responsible for its development and maintenance.  There are a bunch of different varieties of Linux that have been put together by various groups (Red Hat, Caldera, Debian, and Ubuntu come immediately to mind), but all are based on a single Linux kernel, which was developed by Linus Torvalds.

Torvalds started Linux as a college project in early 1991.  The young Finn, then just 21, had an Intel 386-based machine (remember those?!?…I do) and (much like Steve Jobs) an inquisitive mind.  By mid-August, he had the guts of an operating system and had ported one the more popular C-compilers (gcc, the GNU compiler) to function on it.  That meant more rapid development could take place, since programmers use compilers to turn lots of code into instructions that computers can understand.

On October 5, 1991, Torvalds released the first official version of Linux: version 0.02.  Of course, the 1991 model of the Internet didn’t look anything like it does today.  I don’t even recall that we had a web browser.  We mostly used ftp and knew the raw octets of an IP address to navigate around…ah, the good ole’ days.  Torvalds published the code to an ftp site, posted a notice on a NetNews forums, and the rest is history.

Over the last twenty years, thousands and thousands of people, from all walks of life and all corners of the planet, have collaborated to make Linux a solid, stable, viable operating system with as much (or more) power and flexibility as the big guys.  And because it’s open source, you can simply go to the Internet, download it, and build a Linux-based machine.  If installing an new OS directly from the Web is a bit daunting (and I don’t blame you for feeling that way), there are the various companies I mentioned earlier that have built nice boxed editions with smooth Windows-like installers.  The cost is nominal (I think I paid $40 for my version of Linux).

So, if you think Windows is too big and bloated for your tastes and you don’t have a Mac in the house, Linux just may be your baby.  Inexpensive, solid, fast, and constantly maintained, Linux has come a long way in just 20 years.

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I started writing my farewell post this morning.  I believed I had reached a point where I wasn’t writing enough to justify continuing the process.  It seemed that (at least) a temporary vacation of a month – or maybe a couple of months – would either re-kindle the cooling desire or confirm that Today’s History Lesson had indeed become a part of history.

But then I looked at my upcoming calendar, and there were several topics (like this evening’s) that captured my attention.  Maybe this place wasn’t so dead after all.  So I shelved that “farewell” post…for now.

I’ve talked about rallying on a couple of occasions, and I will again tonight.  It’s a fascinating sport, the ultimate test of man, speed, and machine.  All forms of auto racing require skill – yes, even NASCAR, which involves mostly left-hand turns on concrete…I’ve often said that NASCAR stands for “Not AS Cool As Rally”, which merely displays my bias – but top-level rally drivers are, without question, the finest car-control experts on the planet.

Maybe it’s navigating a highly-powered car through the high-speed gravel tracks and “yumps” of Finland.  It could be the twisting, narrow roads of Corsica.  Or maybe it’s the famed Col de Turini of Monte Carlo.  Whatever the venue, rallying requires a certain amount of panache and flambouyance, an appearance of “disregard for personal safety”, and a splash of “nuts”, all mixed in the proper proportion.  And did I mention the need for unparalleled car control?

Few drivers displayed these characteristics more than Colin McRae.  The Scotsman from Lanark, born August 5, 1968, was a madman behind the wheel, giving an appearance of throwing caution to the four winds, and taking “maximum attack” to new heights.  The talent was there in spades.  The outright speed was astounding. He was brilliant at the controls of every rally car he ever drove.  Colin was (and still is) the youngest driver to ever win the World Rally Championship title, conquering that plateau at just 27 years old.

But along with nearly 150 rally starts, 25 outright victories, and 40+ podium finishes (driving for the Subaru, Ford, and Citroen factory teams) came the inevitable shunts.  Now most rally drivers will tell you that if you don’t ever crash your car, you’re not pushing hard enough.  But rally legend Jimmy McRae’s son often put himself out of the competition in spectacular fashion, earning himself the nickname of “McCrash”.  A couple that come immediately to mind are his crash in 1999’s Rally Australia, where Colin carried too much speed over a sixth-gear jump on day 2 and put his car into the trees.  The other was his crazy end-over-end crash in 2001’s Rally Great Britain, where Colin hit a big hole that was hidden in a right-hand bend, destroyed his car, and ended his shot at a 2nd championship, handing it instead to Richard Burns.  There were dozens of others, and his fans always remember a few.

As 2003 ended, so had Colin’s career…for the most part.  He picked up occasional drives for the next couple years, but as the WRC entered something of a “dry season”, opportunities were few and most of them went to up-and-coming drivers.  But Colin didn’t stray far from motorsports, trying his hand at the Dakar Rally, the 24 Hours of LeMans, and even Britain’s version of NASCAR racing.

And all along the way, there was the Colin McRae Rally video games, introducing millions of gamers not only to the sport of rallying, but also to the man behind the box’s title.  Other than maybe American rally legend John Buffum, no other man of rallying is better know in the United States (where a WRC event will probably never come again) than Colin McRae.

Having cheated death so many times behind the wheel, it’s somewhat ironic that McRae’s death in 2007 came behind of the controls of his personal helicopter.

McRae had just celebrated his 39th birthday the month before.

Happy Birthday, Colin McRae!!  You’re rallying magic is sorely missed, but will not be forgotten.

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I take up the keyboard this evening surrounded by thunder, lightning, and heavy rain.  It’s another one of those “heckuva” storm nights, where cell after cell comes rumbling through.  I try to ride my bike to work 3 or 4 times a week, but I have a big goose egg to show for this week.  Blistering heat to begin it, and then storms to finish it off.  Tomorrow morning’s ride is already in doubt.  I can live in hope for next week.


Several years ago, I watched a show on Public Television about the search for George Mallory.  In case you don’t know, Mallory was one of the first men (or maybe he was the first) to attempt to climb Mount Everest.  Back in May, I mentioned Junko Tabei’s successful ascent as the mountain’s first female conqueror.  Unfortunately for Mallory, his success is shrouded in mystery.

He made three attempts to reach the summit.  The first, in 1921, ended 6,000′ short of the summit due to high winds.  The following year, a second shot ended in an avalanche that killed several members of the party.  It’s the third attempt that narrows our focus.

In 1924, Mallory again attempted the summit.  The first week of June saw he and his men make their initial approaches, but weather again forced them down.  On June 4th, a lack of oxygen forced Edward North and Howard Somervell (Mallory’s co-climbers) to stop less than 1,000 feet from their elusive goal.

On June 8th, it was Mallory’s turn again, this time with Everest rookie Andrew Irvine, and it’s here that the “shrouded in mystery” part takes over.  At just before 1:00pm, Noel Odell (a support climber) spotted the two men well above him nearing the final climbing area to the summit…

…and that was the last they would be seen for a very long time.

A storm moved in, forcing Odell to take cover.  Four hours later, when the skies cleared, no sign of Mallory nor Irvine was seen.  On June 9, 1924, Odell climbed back up a ways, but still could see nothing of the two men.  And in those extreme conditions, Odell pretty much knew the score.  George Mallory and Sandy Irvine were dead.

It turns out that Odell was right, of course.  Both men had died.  But where were they?  And just as important, had they reached the summit?  Until their bodies could be found, no one would know for sure.  The two men had a taken a camera to record the event, so if one of them could be found with the camera, the end of the story might be developed through pictures.

And this was where the show on Public TV picked up the story.  A subsequent expedition (or maybe several of them) had come back with the report of seeing a body on the mountain.  The relative location led experts to believe that maybe it was Mallory, but until a formal search could be made, the mystery, now more than 70 years old, would remain.

So the search began, and…well…let’s look at that when the time is more appropriate…

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We’ll keep it brief this evening, especially since tonight’s subject is one with which I’m not nearly as familiar as I should be.  In fact, I should probably just pass this one by.

But I won’t…

Since it was reformed as an independent state in 1948, the nation of Israel has existed on a razor’s edge.  Whether one likes the country, dislikes the country, or is indifferent, that is the simple truth.  Israel has become the most volatile flashpoint on the planet.  Maybe I’m generalizing based on what I see on the television, but it looks like any given day in Israel is chock full of danger, protests, the threat of bombs and missiles, and destruction.

Those that support Israel say the Jewish nation has been placed in a completely untenable position.  She is surrounded on all sides by sworn enemies, committed to her annihilation.  She is forced to defend herself aggressively against not only terrorist organizations, but against nation-states.  Some of those nations have publicly voiced their desire to see Israel removed from the map, and those that haven’t have discussed peace with Israel behind the blunt end of a gun.

Those that take a more pro-Arab position contend that Israel has used its admittedly difficult position as a cover for all kinds of aggressive and inhumane actions against the Palestinians, who simply want a country of their own.  She acts as a belligerent while simultaneously talking about wanting peace with the Palestinians and neighboring Arab states.  Her refusal to come clean about nuclear weapons has put nearly every country in the region on the defensive, forcing them to act aggressively as well.

And there has been constant fighting over territory.  No set of territorial boundaries is more disputed than Israel’s.  And within the last couple of weeks, President Obama has called for Israel to give up territory it won in the Six-Day War.

Begun on June 5, 1967, the Six-Day War was, from the Israeli perspective, essentially a kill-or-be-killed series of preemptive strikes against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.  The Israelis contended that these countries had gathered nearly a quarter of a million troops and many hundreds of tanks and aircraft, placing them near their respective borders with Israel.  An attack looked imminent.

Outnumbered by better than 2-to-1, Israel took the action she deemed gave her the best chance for success…take the fight to the enemy.  In the space of six days, she devastated the military might of those nations around her.  She captured the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and all of Sinai (which I believe was given back to Egypt in exchange for a peace treaty).

Of course, many of these place-names are well known to us (even if we don’t know exactly where they are), as we hear about them every day.  Most are still disputed, and the President, as I mentioned, has suggested that they be returned to their original owners as a way to possibly achieve peace.  To this point, Prime Minister Netanyahu has steadfastly refused to do so.

Will our President convince Israel’s Prime Minister that conceding land is the answer?  Will Netanyahu continue his steadfast refusal to bend to pressure?  Will Jerusalem be divided?

I’m pretty sure we’ll eventually know, and it will probably involve guns, rockets, fighting, bloodshed, and death.

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It’s a gloomy morning here…well, not so gloomy when the lightning serves to brighten things up a bit.  I have a day off, and we’re heading to South Dakota to visit my grandma, who turned 97 in March (the day the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan).  We plan to visit with her for an hour or two this afternoon, then rinse and repeat tomorrow morning before heading back…just a quick there-and-back-again.

Today we make for the body of water between the islands of Java and Sumatra in the Philippines.  We have visited this area before during times of war and we’ll be back again.  But if you had in the Sunda Strait on May 20, 1883, things wouldn’t have looked as they do now.  At that time Krakatoa, Indonesia was comprised of 3 small islands – Krakatoa, Verlaten, and Lang – with Krakatoa being, by far, the largest of the three.  If you visit the area today, the three islands are still there, but two-thirds of Krakatoa is gone.  And that’s because in August of 1883, the island blew itself apart in one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history.  But that’s old news to you all as we’ve discussed it in this forum.

On this day in 1883, the sleeping giant woke up when Perbuatan, the northermost volcanic cone – and one of three cones on the island – began venting steam.  To be sure, there had been hints and portents that this day would arrive.  Earthquakes and rumblings had been giving warning to locals for years that the volcano was stirring.  But this was was the first real volcanic activity.  And as we know, it would not be the last until those cataclysmic days in August.

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It’s a brief one tonight, and since I enjoy hiking, let’s keep it in that genre.

Every year that we go to Estes Park, I try to do at least one hike.  Last year it was the Estes Cone, which wasn’t terribly tough until the last .7 mile, when we climbed almost 1,000′.  The year before it was Deer Mountain.  The next time we go (whenever that is) I plan to attempt Chasm Lake, which I did with my older brother about 15 years ago.

Now, to be sure, these are tough hikes for the uninitiated and for the out-of-shape, but for others, they’re not much of a challenge.  I fall in the middle…a decent hiker, but not very hard-core at all.  And I look at Colorado’s “Fourteeners” as the pinnacle of my hiking endeavors, realizing that 14,000′ is just halfway to the top of Mount Everest.

On May 16,1975, Junko Tabei scrambled her way to the top of the world’s most inaccessible place, scaling Mount Everest and becoming the first woman to do so.  She was one of a 15-member all-woman team that set out to conquer this most famous of the Himalayan mountains, following the same path taken by Hillary and Norgay in the 1950s.

As fun as climbing is for me, I know how difficult it can be.  My climbs (well, let’s be honest, they’re just “hikes”) don’t much go over 12,000′, are always done in fair weather, and are always done in a day.  But even then, I struggle some with the altitude and less oxygen.  So it’s really hard for me to comprehend the ordeal that Tabei (and men and women like her) must face when challenging Everest, much less write anything that sounds all that good.

So I think I’ll just tip my walking cap to Junko and shake my head in wonder.

I would love to stand atop Mount Everest…but I could never even begin to make the ascent.

Recommended Reading:  Into Thin Air

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This evening our state legislature spent a good portion of their debate time talking about Iowa’s energy needs.  Included in the discussion was a proposal to build another nuclear power plant somewhere within our borders.  I say “another” because, yes, Iowa already has one nuclear facility in Palo (west and a bit north of Cedar Rapids).

I lived in CR for more than six years during the last millenium (ok, it was the 1990s, but still…).  One of the first things I remember about moving there was opening the phone book and seeing the escape routes should there be problems at Palo.  Not surprisingly, I was (along with all other Cedar Rapidians) in the “drive away really fast” region.

Nuclear power has become an important topic of discussion in the last 50 days or so, and that shouldn’t surprise anyone, either.  The massive earthquake and resultant tsunami in the Sendai region of Japan also served to set in motion the worst nuclear disaster since the worst nuclear disaster…which is the brief subject of Today’s History Lesson.

Of course, I’m referring to the explosion and nuclear meltdown at the Chernobyl power plant.  Located near Pripyat in what used to be the Ukranian SSR, the plant blew up on April 26, 1986, spewing molten graphite chunks, pieces of control rods, and radiation all over the region.

It’s somewhat ironic that the disaster, which occurred in the wee morning hours, was actually the result of a disaster prevention test.  A scheduled shutdown test somehow went haywire, and the plant’s output, normally around 3.2GW (gigawatts) of power, spiked to 33GW, and Chernobyl blew its top.

In the immediate aftermath, 30 people were killed, mostly plant workers and fireman called in to put out the fires.  They were exposed to massive doses of radiation and died within weeks.  But there were far greater consequences looming.  Eventually, a bunch of concrete was poured over the reactor to entomb it and prevent the release of more radiation.  But even that required massive manpower (250,000 or more men) because, as I understand it, the workers could only stand over the reactor area for a minute or so before they were replaced…that’s how long it took for a person to receive a lifetime’s dosage of radiation.

Of course, Pripyat, a city of 50,000 people, became a complete ghost town.  And the radiation fallout was carried all over the place.  There are now estimates of deaths associated with Chernobyl that approach seven figures.

Is the disaster at the Fukushima plants in Japan equivalent to Chernobyl?  It doesn’t appear so, even though there’s this nuclear event scale and both disasters are rated at 7.

Will Iowa build a second nuclear facility?  I’m sure there’s a ton of debate yet to be had concerning the subject.  There’s no doubt to the benefits that nuclear power offers.  But one need look no further than the western Ukraine to see an example of how bad things can go.

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I’m a fan of Robert Ludlum’s writing.  But that’s not a huge surprise, as I’ve mentioned it before.  I’m also confident that the Jason Bourne trilogy he penned sits pretty highly on my list of favorite Ludlum readings.  Now if you’ve seen the movies starring Matt Damon but haven’t read the books, don’t worry.  The theater renditions on the subject of Bourne (Identity, Supremacy, and Ultimatum), while pretty exciting to watch, have about as little to do with the books as ironing boards do with motherboards.  So picking up the books and giving them a go will not be in the least bit repetitious…except for the main character’s name, a girlfriend, and a few place-names.

I read the trilogy (for the first time) back in 1992.  I had graduated from college in December of the previous year and was living and working over in eastern Iowa…Cedar Rapids to be specific.  I was just starting out, didn’t have much money, and knew just three people outside my circle of co-workers.  But I could afford to spend $6 on a paperback book…and so I did.  And I spent many an evening reading away the hours.  A co-worker introduced me to Ludlum, and I was hooked.

In Ludlum’s trilogy, Bourne is pitted against Carlos the Jackal, an international terrorist wanted for numerous crimes, assassinations, and other unsavory activity.  Bourne’s job is to mimic this “public enemy #1” and draw him out for capture.

But I had no idea that Carlos the Jackal was a real guy…at least initially.

His real name is Illich Ramirez Sanchez, and while Ludlum’s history of the character might have been altered some for the sake of his writings, his portrayal is closer to real life by far than the movies were to the books.  He really was an international terrorist, and he claimed responsibility for dozens of terrorist acts over a 20-year span beginning in the early 1970s.

After numerous failed attempts to capture Sanchez, French agents finally succeeded in arresting him, which is where my fictional Jackal met with reality.

I was a software developer and, in 1994, I spent a lot of time on the road, visiting clients around the state and upgrading their software from an old version to the new.  Part of that upgrade process was running a data conversion that made existing data run on the new program.  I had written the conversion, so it was best that I handle the upgrades.

One particular job took me to clients in the small town of Denison, IA.  As I sat and watched the data conversion run (not much more exciting than watching paint dry), I grabbed the local newspaper and looked through it – not that it took too long, being just a couple of pages.  But inside was a little blurb, maybe five or six lines of text, concerning Carlos the Jackal.  I sat straight up in my chair.  This criminal mastermind, the snippet read, had been captured on August 14, 1994 in Sudan.  This bad guy was real!

Apparently, French authorities had discovered his hideout in Sudan and flown there, kidnapped and sedated the criminal mastermind, and carted him back to France.  And I believe he’s currently in prison, serving a life sentence.

Recommended Reading:  The Bourne Identity, Supremacy, and Ultimatum – Some of Ludlum’s finest work.

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Revolutions always seem to have a “Ground Zero”.  I use that term with some caution because of the obvious connotations that it has here in the States.  But it’s true nonetheless.  The revolution of atomic power might be said to be Alamogordo, New Mexico.  The revolution of flight could be Kitty Hawk.  For delicious Crispy Meat Burritos, it’s Taco Time…ok, that’s pushing it, but you’re catching on.

Other revolutions are no exception to the rule.  The American Revolution?…possibly Lexington and Concord.  The Berlin Wall in 1989.  Tiananmen Square, also in 1989 (though with a much more sobering outcome).  All of these place-names, for many of us, bring images instantly to mind, whether it’s a strange looking heavier-than-air device lifting off the ground for a few feet or that brave young man that keeps side-stepping to keep himself in front of the tanks.

There’s the Bastille as well.  It’s not a city…well, it might be a city somewhere, but that wouldn’t be the focus of Today’s History Lesson.  The Bastille is a prison…a medieval prison.  But here I am talking in the present tense, as though it’s still standing…it’s not.  The Bastille was a medieval fortress-prison.

It was a real structure, but in 1789 it was symbolic as well.  For the citizens of Paris (and for many in the rest of France as well), the fortress had some to symbolize everything they hated about the monarchy in general, and King Louis XVI in particular.  Though it only held a handful of prisoners, it was an icon of repression, in which a single ruling class (led by a single ruler) held absolute sway over the entire populace.

As the spring of 1789 warmed to the summer, the situation continued to deteriorate.  Hard economic times and oppressive taxes were pushing the citizenry to the boiling point.  King Louis, sensing trouble, had made a few concessions, such as allowing the French legislature to rename itself the National Assembly.  He even seemed somewhat amenable to a constitutional monarchy.

But on July 11th, the same day Lafayette stood up in the Assembly and proclaimed the Declaration of Rights, the King banished Jacques Necker, his finance minister.  Not a big deal, you might say…kings did this type of thing all the time.  But Necker was a sympathizer of the reformers, and this move gave a strong indication that the King wasn’t nearly as interested in compromise as he may have let on.  It didn’t help that Louis XVI had also dispersed troops throughout the cities before firing Necker.

On July 14, 1789, the pent-up fury spilled over, and hundreds of Parisians (along with some soldiers that decided to side with the people) attacked the symbol of their hatred.  It’s known as the Storming of the Bastille, and it was more bloody for the attackers (who suffered nearly 100 killed) than it was for the defenders (who lost but a man).

But with the prospects of a bloodbath looming, the governor of the Bastille ordered a cease-fire.  Had the governor possessed foreknowledge, he may have acted differently.  First, the governor was the first casualty of the cease-fire, as the angry mob pounced on him and killed him.  And second, the bloodbath he wanted to avoid was exactly what he didn’t live to witness, as an era of terror, reprisal, and thousands of executions (including the King himself) would be the order of the day.

The French Revolution had begun.

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If you’ve done much reading here, you know I like airplanes.  So it might surprise you to learn that, as much as I like them, I don’t like to ride in them.  Flying an F-16 or maybe a P-51?…awesome!!…sign me up.  But a passenger in a jet?…no thank you please.  I’m guessing it has something to do with control.  If I’m the one doing the flying, that’s fine.  To just sit in a plane while someone else flies is an entirely different deal.

As I come to Today’s History Lesson, I’m reminded of the joke where Robert and William were flying in a small twin-engine plane when it stumbled a bit in flight.  The pilot came over the intercom and said, “I have to report that the plane has suffered an engine failure.  But don’t be concerned.  The plane was designed to fly on just one engine.  We’ll be fine, but it will take us a bit longer to reach our destination.  Relax and enjoy the rest of the flight.”  Robert turned to William and said, “That’s a relief.”  To which William replied with a roll of the eyes, “Just what I need…a longer flight.  I suppose if the other engine goes out, we’ll be up here all day!!”

Of course, that’s not exactly how it works, as the members of British Airways Flight 9 discovered in most unpleasant fashion on June 24, 1982.  Flying from London to Auckland, the Boeing 747 was carrying 263 passengers and crew over Indonesia when it flew into a volcanic ash cloud laid out by Mount Galunggung.  A long time ago, we discussed how volcanic ash wreaks havoc on engines.  Well, the 747 had four of them, and none were spared.  One by one they surged and flamed out.

Since aircraft are reasonably good unpowered gliders, the stunned pilots began doing quick glide calculations to see how far they could travel.  It became apparent that, with mountains in the area, they could only descend to 12,000′ before they’d have to turn away from potential airports and ditch in the Indian Ocean.  Captain Eric Moody’s announcement to the passengers was, in retrospect, pretty humorous.  But at the time, I doubt anyone laughed.  Over the intercom he announced (and I apologize in advance for the naughty word), “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them under control. I trust you are not in too much distress.”

Uh…sure…I’m not in distress.  Not the words I’d ever want to hear.  But unlike so many passenger jet stories, this one has a happy ending.  As the plane neared the 12,000′ threshold (and nearly 15 minutes after the last engine shut down), the crew were able to start one of the engines, which slowed the descent.  Then another restarted, which allowed a very slow climb.  And then the final two fired off.

It’s impossible to imagine the relief in the cabin.  Passengers, many of whom were scribbling out farewell notes to families and loved ones, well…again, I can’t begin to know what they were thinking.  Taken to the precipice and pulled back at final moment.  I bet there was a lot of cheering when the plane finally touched down.

And maybe more than a few said, “Never again.  I’ll ride a boat, I’ll ride a bike, I’ll walk.  But never a plane ride.” That would be me.

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