How to check your mail before you check your mail

Recently I discovered a new service offered by the Post Office called Informed Delivery. Once you sign up, the Post Office sends you a daily email around 8 a.m. that contains a PICTURE of each piece of mail that they plan to deliver to you later that day. It’s like getting to peek inside your mailbox from afar… no, it’s like peeking into the FUTURE of your mailbox, from afar!

My understanding is that this service came about because the Post Office already scans each piece of item for routing, so why not share the pictures with the recipients.

Why not indeed? I immediately had to wonder who would request this service. Maybe it’s for folks who suspect that mail is being stolen out of their mailboxes? Or just for those of us with an impatient streak?

Well, having signed up myself, I can now report on my experience. First there’s the signup process. Wow, that was onerous! In theory, you can verify your identity online. In practice, I apparently failed at least one security question (these are like the ones you have to answer to get a credit report, not questions you selected yourself) and then had to wait 72 hours (that’s three days) to try again.

On my next try, I failed again.

For those of us unable to authenticate online, you can do it in person at a participating post office. It’s not enough to show up with id; you also need a QR code that they email to you but mysteriously won’t display in my iPhone mail reader. (The message helpfully suggests that if the code won’t display, print it out instead.) Fortunately, doing a “save all images” from the message meant that the QR code plus 6 other doodads ended up in my Photos and I was able to get properly scanned and verified.

Now I get a mailbox email every morning! It’s great fun. And yet… it also takes a bit of the fun out of the evening ritual of opening the mailbox, not knowing what you’ll find. It remains to be seen whether I’ll continue the service or revert back to surprise mode. :)

Preparing for alternates pays off!

In June, I flew up the coast with my friend Sarah Elizabeth to visit the tiny Oceano (L52) airport, which is close to the ocean and also has good lunch options nearby. At that time, we were getting a lot of morning marine layer clouds over the coast, and after assessing the weather, I decided to fly an inland route to avoid the clouds (KEMT -> KIMMO -> GMN -> FLW -> L52). Conditions were looking good after 11 a.m. for San Luis Obispo (KSBP) and Santa Maria (KSMX), which are directly to the north and south of L52 (which doesn’t have its own weather station). We took our time getting the plane ready to allow more time for the clouds to burn off and departed around 11:30 a.m.


[Picture by Sarah Elizabeth]

The inland route went very well. The airplane’s climb was lethargic because I was trying to keep cylinder head temperatures below 400F. It took 20 minutes to reach cruise altitude (8500′). However, it was smooth sunny sailing after that. In fact, it was clear the whole way until the very end.

As we got close to L52 at about 1 p.m., I could see a layer of clouds. That was vexing, since neighboring SBP and SMX were still reporting clear skies! A little bit of cloud was hanging RIGHT OVER the runway I wanted. Still, there was some hope. If the clouds were at least 2000′ above the ground, I could come in and land safely under them. So I kept descending in the clear area to the north of the cloud. Lower and lower… I got down to 1500′ and the clouds were STILL well below (and to the south of) us, so no go. I couldn’t believe it! We were just over a mile north of the runway, with clear skies, but the runway couldn’t be reached!


Clear to the right and beneath us, clouds to the left (where the runway is).
[Picture by Sarah Elizabeth]

I powered up and climbed over the ocean to about 2000′, circling. I was very glad that I had alternate plans all ready to go. I had the runway diagrams for both SBP and SMX at hand. I decided to divert to SBP (San Luis Obispo), and Sarah Elizabeth and I smoothly and calmly handled the diversion (she was handling comms the whole flight). Diversions can be stressful because you quickly have to change your plans, navigation, radio frequencies, etc., all while maintaining good control of the airplane, watching for traffic, etc. But this one felt like a piece of cake because we had everything we needed ready to go. Having a co-pilot is a huge help, too!


Beautiful coastline!
[Picture by Sarah Elizabeth]

After we landed at SBP, we found a very friendly FBO (Nice bathroom! Free ice cream! No landing fees!) and had a very tasty lunch at the Spirit of San Luis (ha!) restaurant. This flight also tipped me over 200 hours of flying experience! :)

Here is my path, starting at EMT in the southeast and heading up to SBP in the northwest. You can see the kink where we tried to land at L52 but then had to divert to SBP.

But look how close we got! L52 is the little white line just south of our track:

After lunch, we headed back with Sarah Elizabeth piloting and me handling comms. She did a nice loop around the KSBP pattern, and then we headed south. By this time, the clouds had cleared away from L52, so she got to land there! It’s a tiny little runway (2325′ long) and quite narrow (see picture at right).

As we taxied back to take off again, a huge heron flapped its way across in front of us. Wow! We flew south along the coast (since the clouds were more favorable) and got to see Santa Barbara, and then as we approached L.A., we saw a lot of cloud over the ocean that almost duplicated the coastline, which was cool. Then clear skies all the way inland to our home base at KEMT.

Time flies when you’re not learning

This short Scientific American article tackles something that’s been on my mind of late:

Why does time seem to speed up with age?

I regularly look back and feel that another year has zoomed by, yet at the same time I can remember stretches of time as a teenager that seemed to go on much much longer. Why is that?

This article posits that

“… our retrospective judgment of time is based on how many new memories we create over a certain period.”

I doubt that it’s something like a numerical counter (“5 new memories over the last hour… check.”). But I could believe that it’s a function of the compressibility of experience. I imagine that repetitive experiences are highly compressible, which is why I can’t individually remember brushing my teeth every day for the last month. But new memories would by construction not be compressible: they represent new information that your brain has opted to preserve at higher fidelity (maybe because they are useful, or surprising, or trauma-inducing).

New memories also capture moments of learning. So those long stretches that bunch up into a sense of time that’s been skipped over… do they also represent periods of non-learning? The horror! Or even worse – learning that has since been forgotten? Well, maybe not; memories aren’t always well anchored in time, so you might retain the information but have forgotten when you learned it. Whew!

How to make chocolate

While in Guatemala, I took a class called the Bean to Bar workshop at the ChocoMuseo in Antigua. This two-hour delight really did go from how cacao grows – to how beans are extracted from the pods, dried, and roasted – to how the cacao nibs are removed, crushed, ground, mixed with other things, and aerated – to make what we call chocolate.

We learned that the ground cacao paste does not become “chocolate” until it is mixed with some sugar. So 100% dark chocolate doesn’t exist; it is 100% cacao :) (and nearly inedible, even for chocolate lovers!)

Quite possibly the most challenging step was when we each took a turn stirring and roasting the beans, which was when our friendly host asked each of us to tell us something about ourselves (in Spanish!). He got really excited about my job at JPL and wanted to know if we’d found life beyond the Earth :)


We roasted cacao beans, then split them open to get the nibs out.

Grinding was a frenzy accompanied by a group chant: “Choco, choco, la-la! Choco, choco, te-te! Choco-la, choco-te, choco-la-te!” Aerating the mixed chocolate by pouring it back and forth between two pottery carafes was also tricky to do without spilling!

We made two kinds of hot chocolate (drink): Mayan (cacao, water, chili, honey, and BLOOD) and European (cacao, milk, sugar, no blood). We used spices instead of blood :) and most agreed that the Mayan was more tasty than the European.

Next, we poured chocolate (I chose 70% dark) into individual molds and added flavorings as desired – I went for cinnamon, mint, cashews, ginger, orange slices; others chose cayenne, salt, gummy bears (?!), and other options I’ve forgotten. Mine turned out tasty, but SUPER intense, and sort of crumbly, possibly due to its dark level and lack of wax/gum/binders/whatever they put in store-bought chocolate.

We also made chocolate tea. It turns out that you can steep the cacao bean shells (from which the nibs were removed) in hot water and make a tea that tastes like a cross between coffee and tea :) I brought home some of this “tea” with a cinnamon flavor. Yum!

Volcanoes in Guatemala

I recently visited Guatemala as a volunteer with Librarians Without Borders. We first visited the city of Xela (also known as Quetzaltenango), which is colorful and vibrant. We toured the central market, the municipal building/palace (fascinating history), the lone public library, and other sights. One thing we did not get to visit up close is the massive volcano that looms over the town.

Santa María is a breathtaking sight whenever it deigns to be seen. (Much of the time it is shrouded in cloud.) It has been active for the past 30,000 years and last erupted in 2009. It had a dramatic eruption + earthquake in 1902 that was the third largest eruption of the 20th century that dropped volcanic ash as far away as San Francisco (!).

Xela is at 7600′ above sea level, and Santa María rises another 5000′ up!

Here’s what it looks like from Xela:

And here’s what the south (active) side can be like (per Wikipedia):

We then traveled on to Panajachel (a cute touristy town on the shore of Lake Atitlán), where there are three more huge volcanoes – Toliman, Atitlán, and San Pedro. And then on to Antigua, with its own collection (Volcán de Agua, Volcán de Fuego, and Acatenango). In all, Guatemala has 33 volcanoes. Ring of Fire indeed!

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