USS Potomac

On November 4, 2023, Penny and I visited the USS Potomac and sailed around San Francisco Bay on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s yacht. Known as the floating White House, it is an historic landmark docked in Oakland, California. The ship has a colorful history that includes being owned by Elvis Presley, being involved in drug running and being partly sunk.

The USS Potomac docked in Oakland at Jack London Square.

The captain at the helm. There are two ways to pilot the ship. One can use the older wheel on the left or the more modern joystick controls on the right.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s private stateroom adjacent to the aft seating area.

Penny in the very noisy engine room. Note that she is wearing hearing protection! It was very noisy down there as we were sailing along.

The ship’s radio room. FDR delivered one of his famous fireside chats from this room.

Sleeping area for the crew. There was not any personal space for these guys.

Officers’ quarters had a bit more room, and privacy.

The pleasure skiff on top deck is named Fala. Fala was FDR’s beloved Scottish Terrier dog, sometimes called the most famous dog in the world at the time.

Penny lounges in the aft sitting area much like a President would.

Alcatraz Island. Angel Island lies in the background almost completely covered in thick fog.

A close glide by Alcatraz Island. I still need to visit this place!

Passing close by San Francisco and here at the Embarcadero. This ferry port was once the second busiest such facility in the world.

Penny with San Francisco and the Bay Bridge in the distance.

Our three hour tour did not suffer the same fate as Gilligan’s ship. Overall, the weather was perfect. Only heavy fog coming through the Golden Gate obscured our views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Angel Island.

The USS Potomac Association maintains the ship. They offer a number of ways to experience the Floating White House. You can tour the docked ship or schedule a cruise around San Francisco Bay. Several cruises cover specific themes such as lighthouses, World War II history, parks, bridges and more.

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The Littles

We got more cats. Penny saw these two at the local pet food supply store and took a liking to them. Though not siblings, they were a bonded pair and thus far no one had committed to taking both. After a couple of visits to the store and still seeing them there Penny decided something needed to be done about it.

Meet (l-r) Oliver (Ollie) and Sylvester (Sly). Their shortened names make them sound like little gangsters. Very apt.

They are a bonded pair, so they are best buds. Often sleeping together and more often play fighting with each other.

A feline version of yin yang. Ollie really likes those yarn puffs. He especially likes to swat them under furniture and then try, only sometimes successfully, to pull them back out.

Ollie in mid yawn. He’s not screaming, though it looks like it. Each has picked their favorite human on their own. Sly is a Momma’s boy and Ollie is my guy.

This looks like a Frankenstein cat creation. Since our middle cat Curry has long been called The Kitten, we call our new members The Littles to differentiate them from The Bigs.

Wouldn’t we all like to be able to sleep like a kitten?

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Best Christmas Shows

Penny and I have a set of Christmas shows we watch frequently around the holidays. Some of these titles are watched on a yearly basis. It’s become something of a tradition.

Following the example of my best Christmas songs post, here is the list of the “best” Christmas shows. The best shows, those most likely to be watched yearly, are shown first.

It's A Wonderful Life1947
Miracle on 34th Street1947
A Christmas Story1983
The Santa Clause1994
Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer1964
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town1970
Frosty The Snowman1969
The Little Drummer Boy1968

Just a couple of days ago, Penny and I watched the Christmas Story sequel, “A Christmas Story Christmas”. And I have to admit, it’s pretty good. Much better than the Christmas Story 2 sequel that was put out years ago.

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The Best Christmas Songs

There are countless Christmas songs available today, and more are being made every year. Many of the popular songs have been re-recorded numerous times. With such a large number to chose from it might seem tough to pick out the best of the best.

There can only be one best rendition of any given song.  Here is my list of some popular Christmas tunes that I think have been done as well as or better than any other effort in history.

You’ll find multiple versions of these songs done by dozens of different performers.  I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority are wasting their time.  Do us all a favor. Come up with a new jingle.  Move on.  You won’t improve on any of these here.

Baby, It’s Cold OutsideDean Martin
Blue ChristmasElvis Presley
The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas To You)Nat King Cole
Deck The HallNat King Cole
Hark! The Herald Angels SingNat King Cole
A Holly Jolly ChristmasBurl Ives
Have Yourself a Merry Little ChristmasFrank Sinatra
I’ll Be Home For ChristmasBing Crosby
It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like ChristmasDean Martin
It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the YearAndy Williams
Jingle Bell RockBobby Helms
O Come All Ye FaithfulNat King Cole
O Holy NightNat King Cole
Rockin’ Around The Christmas TreeBrenda Lee
Santa Claus Is Coming To TownFrank Sinatra
Silent NightBing Crosby
Sleigh RideJohnny Mathis
Silver And GoldBurl Ives
White ChristmasBing Crosby

I know there are a few that are missing here but there’s a solid play list for your Christmas parties this year.

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Robert Barron, The Original

February 4, 2022 is the fourth anniversary of my father’s death. Although I’ve written about other Robert Barrons before, he was the “original” Robert Barron to me since I was a mere “Junior”. I once tried to affix “Senior” to his name but he was quick to point out his driver’s license had no such mark.

I chose to delivery the eulogy at his funeral. Public speaking is far from my forte but I was able to struggle over the following presentation. I recently reread it after some time and it brought back a cascade of memories for me.

“Life is full of surprises” is an overused phrase.  But I want to use and adapt it a bit as it relates to my father, Robert Barron, in this form – a life is full of surprises.

School Days 1948-49

My father’s final surprise was his sudden departure from our world.  But he had presented many, I think, during his life as well.  So what was so surprising about my father?  At a cursory glance, one could say he lived a very ordinary life.  He worked hard.  He married.  He saved prodigiously.  He raised a son. He retired.  He lived.

High school, Rugby Academy

Along the way he had little victories shared by many.  He lived comfortably in retirement.  His years of loyal support were finally rewarded by being able to experience the Saints winning a Superbowl.  We were really hoping for a repeat performance this year, the timing of which would have been epic, but it didn’t happen.

Mom and Dad

A good life?  Sure.  But surprising?

Some time ago I was searching through old emails and came across some from my father.  I was struck by the tone and clarity of his thoughts in stark contrast to what I was experiencing from him at that time.  It became apparent to me that I had been guilty of seeing him only as he was at that present.  A mere still frame in the full length movie that was his life.

And I think that most people create images to fill in the gaps of other people’s life stories that they don’t know or can’t remember.  So what was I filling in for my father?  What did other people assume?  Some of these characterizations may not be wrong, but I think they might be incomplete.

Mr. Cool

Some might consider my father cautious, but he was a licensed pilot and flew planes solo.  His desire to become a commercial pilot was thwarted by a retina condition that would rob him of his night vision earlier in life and take his vision completely later.  But he looked to the clouds unafraid.  In the last couple of days I learned more about his aviation exploits.  He flew over his friend Michael’s house at one point for a photo op.  I hadn’t asked how low he flew over, but I like to think of him buzzing the house at low altitude with a smile on his face.  I was also told he took my grandmother up for a short flight and I have no earthly idea how he convinced her to go along with that.  Maybe he should have been a salesman.

Here comes trouble.

Some might say he was careful, but before I was born, he drove his red convertible Alfa Romeo sports car probably faster than I’ve travelled in anything other than in an airplane.  He admitted to me recently that the fact he did not completely wreck the car is probably as much attributed to luck as driving skills.  He may have had a lingering thing for red vehicles.  His trusty 1968 red Ford pickup truck, long since sold, was still on his mind.  Just recently, he told one of the nurses at his retirement home they needed to go find his truck so they could go for a ride.  She was relieved, I think, when he admitted that she should probably drive instead of him.

In later years many might say he was a bit of a homebody, but he served in the Air Force.  He sunned himself on Pacific beaches in Guam and visited Hawaii.  He apparently drank lots of cervesas in Mexico and took in some R&R in Tokyo when it was still quite a bit more foreign and exotic than the modern capital it is today.

Many would say he lived frugally, but he was generous with his time and money to assist others.  My own college degree, I owe to him.  As a child participating in various sports, my father would not merely sit idle in the stands cheering the team on.  He often took up duties managing the equipment or providing water for the team.  A team pool party held after one season resulted in kids pushing coaches fully clothed into the water.  For whatever reason, I took offense when they worked down the list and started moving my Dad toward the edge of the pool.  I mustered up a weak, and ultimately futile effort to prevent it from occurring.  My father took his hazing along with the other coaches with humor and better spirits than did I.  

On his boat

Most of you now know he was born in 1939, but he had a never ending interest in the latest technology.  As a child I loved looking through his issues of Popular Mechanics.  We watched television shows together that covered the latest new thing just coming out, personal computers, fostering an interest that led me to my current profession.  Despite his failing vision he loved to mess with his own computer and even took a stab at learning programming.  He was predicting and asking for features now offered by Amazon’s Alexa device years before it became available.

Bob Barron?  World Travel.  Sailboats.  Foreign sports cars.  Airplanes.  Surprised?  It doesn’t sound so ordinary in total.

I knew my father my entire life, obviously.  But he could surprise me even after many decades of close familiarity.  In the 2000’s Penny and I lived in Austin, TX in a house at the end of a cul-de-sac.  The neighborhood was well organized with events like happy hours held in front of the homes of that week’s host.  My father was visiting when we had a large gathering at our place.  With his eyesight failing at that point I wanted to make sure I guided him around as needed to help him meet the neighbors but we also had a few responsibilities that required us to leave him to himself for brief periods of time.

Like me, my father could be reserved.  So, imagine my surprise when I spotted him proverbially “working the room”, wandering around on his own, going from group to group, chair to chair, introducing himself to any and all he encountered – the social gadfly.  Penny and I stared in amazement at this man I thought I had known so well for so long.  We were hosting the event, but my father owned it.

And so, as we commemorate his life I hope you can imagine his presence here today with us in spirit as he wanders around the room, coming to each of you recalling a past experience or memory if you had known him or offering an introduction if not.  Don’t be shocked by what comes to mind.  Like his spirit, his surprises live on.

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Other Robert Barrons

When stumbling upon this website you might be disappointed to find I’m not the Robert Barron you’re looking for. When growing up I thought it quite possible I was the only person on the planet with my name but I eventually discovered this was not the case.

Not the Robert Barron you're looking for.
This is not the Robert Barron you’re looking for.

Well, obviously I was not the only Robert Barron in the world. My full name is Robert James Barron, Jr. So my father was also a Robert Barron. I once referred to him as Robert Barron, Sr. He made it known there was no “Senior” on his birth certificate. Indeed there was not.

Many years ago I received a phone call from the probation officer. Apparently, I needed to pay him a visit. The only problem is, I’ve never been charged with a crime, much less convicted. I’m not sure what my doppelganger did to warrant such attention. It certainly was not my father!

After moving to California we started to receive emails about a mortgage application for another Robert Barron moving to California. The bank insisted there was no way we could be receiving the emails incorrectly until we read them some of the details which no one would want us to have. They quickly fixed the glitch after that. The really strange part of all of this? That Robert Barron was married to a woman name Penny. What. Are. The. Odds?

Mind Blown
Mind Blown
Robert Barron Peak
Robert Barron Peak

While on vacation in Alaska, Penny and I toured the visitor’s center at Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau. By chance, a glance at the large relief map (I love maps) of the area caught my eye. It included a mountain peak name that looked strangely familiar, Robert Barron Peak. Turns out Robert Barron was the name of a fish canning company executive’s son in Alaska in the early 1900’s. The son’s middle name was also James, which makes the match all the more unlikely. Unfortunately, this Robert died at a young age while training to be a pilot during World War I.

At a company I worked for in the past they hired another programmer named Robert Barron. How unlikely is that? Thankfully we tended to work in different areas of the organization and building, so there was little confusion.

Bishop Robert Barron
Holier than me

All of these other Robert Barrons and myself fail to crack Google’s top 10 search results. That honor goes to Bishop Robert Barron of the Catholic Church in southern Minnesota. He’s fluent in English, French, German, Spanish and Latin. I took both French and Latin in school years ago, so we have that in common. But Bishop Barron runs his own Catholic ministry, hosted a TV show, has a YouTube channel and has over a million followers on Facebook to say nothing of having risen in rank just a few steps below the Pope. Truthfully, the parallels between us kind of stopped after our birth certificates were filled out.

So, I hope this clears up any confusion for those of you looking for some other Robert Barron. It’s not me you’re looking for, particularly if you’re a probation officer.

P.S. Not a Robert Barron confusion, but in case anyone saw this on TV when watching a Texas Longhorns football game recently, no this was not me. Jahdae Barron is a DB on the Longhorn team.

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Calling All COBOL Programmers

My first paying job out of college in the early 1990’s was working for a company that made COBOL compilers and runtimes. Even then the language was something of a relic and there were frequent predictions about its eventual demise.

Thirty years have gone by and yet COBOL refuses to die. A recent CNN article notes that several states are actively seeking COBOL programmers to build and maintain antiquated systems used to handle unemployment claims. One alarmist headline elsewhere even reads “An old programming language is threatening global stability“.

Part of the reason why it is still around is that there was so much code written with it. I recall some stats in the 1990’s that indicated that over half of all written source code lines in the world was in COBOL. That was an established base that was not going to go away overnight.

COBOL Syntax
COBOL Syntax

So much code was written for it because it was fairly advanced when first introduced. Fortran and Assembly were probably the only other viable options at the time in the 1950’s and 1960’s and COBOL was ideal for business apps compared to them. There was little other choice.

A second reason has to do with who continues to use it. It is state and federal governments looking for help to maintain ancient systems. There’s a reluctance to take on a risky task of moving to a new system. And even if there was the stomach for it, it’s likely there is no money available to take on the task.

Mainframe computer
No, I am not in this picture!

The company I worked for, Ryan McFarland, was purchased years ago by a rival. RM/COBOL still shows up as a product online on its website.

Am I feeling an urge to return to my work “roots”? In a word, no. I wrote very little COBOL code while working on the product. Mostly I wrote C and Assembly code and the COBOL came into play for generating test cases.

When will the last line of COBOL code be executed on a production system? At this rate I think it will be around even after I’m long gone.

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Basic Azure SQL Performance

In order to consolidate some websites onto one platform I had plans to move my outdoor sites to Azure. None of my sites are particularly large in terms of load so I figured a B1 app instance and a Basic Azure SQL database would more than suffice. I spent quite some time getting my database on another provider all spruced up to make migrating to Azure easier and I moved everything over for testing not long ago. It did not go well.

I was hopeful for a slight improvement in performance by moving to Azure. My other hosting provider has some older machines and they haven’t always kept up with the latest versions of ASP.Net. With Azure I was going to keep up with the latest stuff and improve performance. Instead, performance got much worse. A main page which took 2.7 seconds to load was taking about 5 seconds on Azure.

Using the very handy WebPageTest site I came across something very interesting. When comparing the new and old sites all of the significant variance was in “first byte” time. This represents the time it takes for an HTTP request to end up with resulting output starting to appear at the client. A lot of the work to do this is database access so I tried tweaking things to see how much the database might be playing a role here.

First Byte
This Azure run was better than others, but still far slower for first byte than the old web provider (361 ms). Overall load time was 4.404 seconds. Way too much.

The first wild comparison test was one in which I pointed the Azure website back to my old hosted SQL Server instance. Realize that this database is not in the same data center as the app server. All database access would be spanning Texas. Despite this, the Azure website hitting the remote database loaded in just about 2.7 seconds. This is the same time recorded when all components were operating in their own data center. Azure Apps were not the problem. It was the database!

How Much For Performance?

One of the great things with Azure is the ability to scale objects as needed. This includes the throughput of a database. The Basic Azure SQL database is rated at 5 DTUs, a rather vague all encompassing label that doesn’t scream out performance. I’d be willing to bump up the scale of my database a bit if the results would be worth it. But how much would be required to mimic the performance I now had?

Azure SQL Performance

Leaving everything else the same I proceeded to bump up the scale of the Azure SQL database to see how many DTUs would be required to improve performance. Here are the results:

TestFirst Byte In Seconds
Current Provider.361
Azure App with Remote DB.366
B 5 DTUs2.7
S0 10 DTUs1.7
S1 20 DTUs.998
S2 50 DTUs.347

Finally, I found performance that beat using the old remote database! The problem with this “solution” is the fact that the S2 database providing 50 DTUs of performance costs $75 a month. With the price of the app plan that will add up to about $120, quite a bit more than the $20 or so of the other host.

I’m willing to pay more for Azure but I’m not sure if I’m willing to pay 6 times more. Some might argue that the Azure SQL offering is more consistent with its capacity. The SQL Server on the other hosting provider may provide highly variable performance that might sometimes fall below the worst case scenario of Basic Azure SQL. I can’t deny that, but I also cannot accept pages that take twice as long to load and costs 6 times as much.

Does this mean the dream is over? Maybe not. Perhaps there’s some setting I’m overlooking. If anyone has a hint to offer I’m all ears! Until then, I’ll keep the majority of my sites where they currently reside and consider scaling back what I do have on Azure.

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Emergency Lessons – Don’t Wait

This article is one of a series of posts that emerged due to the 2017 wildfires that ravaged California wine country near our home.

Emergencies don’t wait for you to be prepared before they spring up. They have their own schedule. So it’s important to start your preparation process early. Right now happens to be a good time.

What time is it?

I’ll offer myself up as an example of not following my own advice. Today is October 8, 2019 and our utility (PG&E) has informed most of Sonoma County and much of the North Bay that they will cut electricity to upwards of 800,000 people just on the chance that high winds will trigger another fire storm like we experienced in 2017.

Yes, we have an emergency bag. Yes, we have some emergency water. Do we have enough working flashlights? Ummm…. no as it turns out. What I thought was my go to flashlight simply doesn’t work even with 4 good AA batteries in it. We have 1 flashlight that takes D batteries and two that take C batteries. How many of those batteries do we have? Not enough. I was able to scrounge a couple of lights together, so we’ll be OK, but this was done with the electricity still on and lots of warning. Technically, this is not an emergency. It’s merely an annoyance.

In a real emergency the lights would be out before you knew what hit you. In the dark, can you find your emergency flashlights and be sure they will work? If the answer is no, then you are not prepared. Don’t forget all of the other stuff that should be in your emergency go bag.

Just a few moments ago I ordered a couple of new flashlights from Amazon that just so happen to use the many batteries we do have around the house. These won’t help with tonight’s blackout, should it come. But at least I’m starting to take my own advice; there’s no time like the present to prepare for the next emergency.

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Goodbye Google+

Well, it’s been on its way out for some time, but I finally got around to removing the share on Google+ button from my outdoor sites (Texas Hiking, Austin Explorer and Hiking Trailhead).

Red lined for removal

It seems like it was only yesterday when the Google juggernaut set its sights on Facebook and prognosticators on both sides of the debate offered up their opinions on what the eventual outcome would be. Many thought Google would eat Facebook’s lunch. Spoiler alert… it didn’t happen.

Now that Google has thrown in the towel, the share button above just went nowhere for months now. I should have removed it some time back but it was just never a high priority.

There are some red flags for Facebook’s future even now, but they’re not coming from Google, but rather from some other competitors and/or changing behaviors of people online. Things are in constant flux.

Some might look at the list of share buttons above and see that I’m behind the times. Maybe some things never change after all!

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