Rain Arrives to Quench the Fires

Penny Contemplates the Rain

Penny Contemplates the Rain

The photo above shows one of our cats, Penny, sitting in the window alcove of our bedroom yesterday afternoon, contemplating the rain that had just begun to fall.

The rain intensified yesterday evening, having been forecast the previous week. We’d been anxiously awaiting its arrival, because, despite the extraordinary efforts of firefighters from all over the US, the wildfires were still not fully contained. Even after a fire has been quelled, it can sometimes continue to smolder and can then flare up again later. Falling rain should extinguish any remaining embers and prevent further flare-ups.

The Rain Begins

The Rain Begins

Contrast the photo above, taken yesterday afternoon looking over the park from our balcony, with the same view in my earlier post. At least this time, the gray skies are due to rain and not to smoke!

Having grown up somewhere it rains year-round (Britain), and now living where it rarely rains during the summer (California), I sometimes find that, by the end of summer here, I’m missing the rain, and look forward to the first shower of the season. Nonetheless, I’ve never welcomed the first rain as much as I did this year, because it will hopefully put an end to the local wildfires!

Smoky Sunsets

Although the smoke has gradually cleared during the past week, we’ve still been having smoky sunsets, with unusually red skies, as shown below, looking west from in front of our house.

Smoky Sunset

Smoky Sunset

Oakmont Fire

Last weekend, a new wildfire erupted in the hills above Oakmont, which is a large retirement complex to the East of Santa Rosa. This led to further closure of Highway 12, and the evacuation of the Sky Hawk and Mountain Hawk neighborhoods.

I took the photo below last Saturday, looking East along Highway 12. In the distance, you can see smoke billowing from the Oakmont fire.

Smoke from the Oakmont Fire, from Highway 12

Smoke from the Oakmont Fire, from Highway 12

A little further along Highway 12, the road was closed. People were being let out of the evacuated zone, but not into it. The photo below shows a police roadblock across Highway 12, at the junction with Calistoga Road.

Highway 12 Closed at Calistoga Road

Highway 12 Closed at Calistoga Road

Fountaingrove Still Evacuated

At the time of writing, although most evacuation orders have been lifted, and people are being allowed back in to some fire-damaged areas, the Fountaingrove neighborhood remains evacuated.

The offices of my employer, Keysight, are in Fountaingrove, and are closed. Fortunately, the main buildings were not destroyed, but they were damaged by efforts to fight the surrounding fire. Details are shown in this fire damage map.

It’s also fortunate for me that I’m able to do my work from home (although I wasn’t doing that prior to the fire), and that’s what I’ve been doing since the area was evacuated. Keysight has been very supportive of us all, having made immense efforts to locate and ascertain the safety of all its employees, and to provide special assistance to those who need it. Many thanks are due to Keysight for looking after its staff.

I’m aware that many people have lost jobs or businesses as a result of the fires, and how lucky I’ve been to have avoided that.

The New Normal

The process of trying to get back to normal life is now just beginning. Even for those of us who were lucky enough to avoid any serious loss, things will never be quite the same again.

In one respect at least, I hope that things will be different, in that the lessons of the fire will be learned, leading to wiser land development and better protections in future.

It was Thirty Years Ago Today

Unusual view of Downtown San Francisco, from the Legion of Honor

Unusual view of Downtown San Francisco, from the Legion of Honor

It was almost exactly thirty years ago today—on Friday 9th October, 1987—that I first set foot in California.

On that occasion, I had come to the US only as a temporary visitor, to attend a job interview. It was a truly “temporary” visit, lasting only 4 days.

Until then, I had been anything but an experienced international traveler. I’d never been to any part of the USA before, and in fact I’d only been out of Britain three times during my life (and one of those trips was to Guernsey).

Broadening My Horizons

Ever since my undergraduate days, the idea of “working abroad” had been floating in the background as a vague possibility.

In 1986, I even went to Munich for a day, for a job interview with Siemens, but, even though they seemed keen to hire me, I did not pursue that possibility further.

Certainly, the idea that I might one day find myself living and working within sight of the Pacific Ocean never entered my head. It wasn’t until after I’d already moved here that I remembered that we had spent an entire term studying the state as part of our high school Geography course! I had basically ignored the course because it seemed to have no possible relevance to my life.

The Lure of the Dollar

As an Imperial College undergraduate, I began to hear stories of graduates who were obtaining what seemed like spectacular jobs in the USA, straight out of college. The starting salaries for these US jobs were apparently many times those that were offered to even the best British graduates. The figures seemed even more impressive because the dollar and pound were close to parity at that time. Nonetheless, the jobs I was told about were all on the US East Coast; in New York or Maryland.

My goal in getting an EE degree had been specifically to obtain a job with the BBC, which I did on graduating, so initially I felt that the die was cast and I’d already achieved my ambition.

However, my subsequent experience with the BBC and other British engineering employers was a huge disappointment. It seemed that not only were graduate salaries low, but conditions were poor and employers were either inefficient or unstable. I began to think once again of those tantalizing tales I’d been told about the wonderful jobs that were supposedly available in other countries!

The Window Opens

In 1987, I was working as a video systems hardware design engineer for a small company in Berkshire. One of my employer’s competitors was an American company, but had a European operation based in Reading. Word got around that I was looking for new employment, and the competitor contacted me to ask whether I’d be interested in working for them in Reading.

I declined to consider working for them in Reading, at which point they asked whether I might instead be interested in a job in California. Ah, now it’s getting interesting

Following several international phone calls, I managed to arrange an interview appointment at the company’s offices in Northern California. I had to obtain a B-1/B-2 visitor visa just to enter the USA, which meant that I also had to make a trip to the US Embassy in London before departing the UK.

San Francisco or Suffolk?

The plan was that I would arrive in San Francisco on a Friday evening, then have the weekend to do some sightseeing and recover from jet lag. My formal interview would be on Monday, then on Tuesday I’d fly back to Heathrow.

I would obviously have to take some vacation time from my job, but I felt that my current employer would not believe that I was going to California for a holiday just for the weekend! Therefore, I decided to tell them that I was going to visit the US air base at RAF Lakenheath, Suffolk. My mother had an American friend who was a teacher on the air base, and I’d visited her there previously, so it wouldn’t seem out-of-the-ordinary.

It was important to bear in mind that there was no guarantee that the company in California would actually offer me a job. I needed a plausible cover for my actions, so as not to jeopardize my existing position.

Offered the Job

To cut a long story short, I was offered the job in California within a few weeks following my interview. Somewhat to my surprise, my new employer was eager for me to start work there before Christmas, so I began the process of arranging to move myself and all my worldly possessions some 5500 miles.

Nonetheless, I would only be working in the US on a temporary, three-year E-2 visa, so there was always the possibility that I would choose to return to Britain (or might have to do so when the visa expired).

Way Out West. The Pacific Ocean from Pillar Point

Way Out West. Sunset over the Pacific Ocean from near Pillar Point

Return to a Hurricane!

I arrived back in the UK on Tuesday, 13th October, and went back to work the following morning as though nothing unusual had happened. Later that same week, however, the Great Storm of 1987 occurred.

On the night of October 15th, I didn’t hear the weather forecast, so the first I knew of the severity of the storm was when I set off on my 40-mile commute from Andover the following morning, and began noticing that tree branches were down everywhere, even blocking some roads.

[Update: On 15th October, the London Evening Standard published this article about the storm.]

Devastation in Brighton

In those days I was the Treasurer of the Southern Centre of the Royal Television Society, and, prior to my jaunt to California, I had volunteered to help out at the Society’s booth at that year’s International Broadcasting Convention (IBC), which was always held in Brighton. I traveled to Brighton the week after the storm, to see that many of the city’s trees had fallen, and a massive cleanup operation was underway.

It made me think that perhaps the country I’d been born in was itself becoming unrecognizable, so my life was going to change anyway, whether or not I emigrated.

National Techies’ Day

Broadcasting an SMPTE Meeting

Broadcasting an SMPTE Meeting

Today (October 3rd) is apparently National Techies’ Day, and, since I’ve contributed in various technical fields for a few decades, I’ll include myself as one of the techies, shown above doing something appropriately “techie”!

The photo was taken during the early 1990s at a meeting of the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers (SMPTE). It shows (from left to right): Adam Wilt, me, and my wife Mary.

As I recall, that particular monthly meeting featured a panel of video experts, and was being video broadcast from a studio via a local TV station. During part of the meeting, viewers were encouraged to phone in and ask questions of the panel. Adam and I had volunteered to help run the broadcast.

Adam had assumed the role of Floor Manager, and was responsible for organizing the broadcast crew. My role was to answer the phone and “screen” callers, to try to ensure that only bona fide calls were passed on to the panel. In the photo, I think that Adam is explaining to me how he was going to hold up a sign for the panel moderator to see, to let him know that a call was incoming.

I seem to recall that my screening efforts weren’t entirely successful; at least one “drunk” managed to get past me and talk to the panel! Nonetheless, we had great fun running these meetings, and we certainly got the opportunity to visit some locations that would otherwise have been off-limits to us.

One of our most fascinating meetings was held in Hangar One at NASA’s Moffett Field, and we were given a complete tour of the hangar. That hangar was built during the 1930s to house the huge US Navy airship USS Macon. Sadly, though, I have no photos of that occasion.

Living by the Sea

 

Ice Cream on Scarborough Beach, September 1963

Ice Cream on Scarborough Beach, September 1963

The photo above shows (from left to right) my mother, me and my brother enjoying ice cream cones on the beach in September 1963.

I generally don’t give much thought to the fact that I’ve spent most of my life living in coastal areas, in homes which, even if some did not have a direct view of the sea, were only a few miles from it.

This wasn’t entirely a deliberate policy on my part, and things just seem to have worked out that way. Nonetheless, I’m very glad that things did work out that way!

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my parents and my grandparents all came from Leeds, and they used to look forward to annual vacations in Scarborough and other coastal Yorkshire towns. (They usually seemed to choose Yorkshire destinations, although my grandparents did occasionally venture further afield, to such exotic locations as Grange-over-Sands!)

In those days, the air in coastal towns was much cleaner than in inland industrial cities, so there was a clear health benefit to living by the sea. The photo below of Scarborough Harbour, which was also taken by my father in 1963, shows smoke rising from buildings, a nuisance that was much worse in inland locations. The image also includes various other nostalgic features, such as a fleet of fishing boats and a commercial cargo ship in the Harbour!

Scarborough Harbour, September 1963

Scarborough Harbour, September 1963

In 1972, while still living in Scarborough, I bought my first copy of Railway Magazine. Given that the magazine has been published continuously since 1897, there was nothing momentous about that event, except for the cover of that edition, which didn’t mean much to me at the time.

Railway Magazine, September 1972

Railway Magazine, September 1972

As shown, the cover featured the famous locomotive Flying Scotsman, which I recognized, but I was completely oblivious as to the location. I knew that the locomotive was touring the USA, but that was all. In fact, it shows Flying Scotsman at a far-away seaside location, near Fisherman’s Wharf, in San Francisco. How prophetic for me!

(The astonishing subsequent story of how Flying Scotsman’s owner went bankrupt during its US tour, leaving the locomotive impounded at Fort Mason, can be read about here.)

The sea often featured in my childhood paintings, as in the image below, which I produced at school, at the age of 14. It purports to show a British flying boat over New York, although at that time I’d never seen New York except in pictures. (The cheap paint used in the picture has decomposed over the years. Originally, there was a calm moon shining over the sea, but now it seems to be exploding!)

Flying Boat over New York, as imagined when I was 14

Flying Boat over New York, as imagined when I was 14

A Very Significant Sea Change

In November 1987, I arrived for my new job in San Mateo, California, and found myself once again in a seaside location, albeit on the opposite coast of a different continent. I was initially quite confused, because I hadn’t been aware of the existence of San Francisco Bay, so, living on the Peninsula, I wasn’t sure whether I was looking west at the Pacific Ocean, or east at the Bay!

Nonetheless, I soon figured out the local geography, and settled down to live the remainder of my life by the sea! The 1996 photo below shows a view over San Francisco Bay from the kitchen of our house in San Mateo.

San Francisco Bay from San Mateo, 1996

San Francisco Bay from San Mateo, 1996

The Truth About US Visas (In My Experience)

 

H1 Visa Passport Stamp

H-1 Visa Passport Stamp

Today’s “flashback” relates to my early experiences in the USA. The image above shows my H-1 visa stamp, in my UK passport, which was obtained for me by Sony so I could start working for them in 1989.

I moved to the USA to work about 30 years ago, initially on an E-2 (Treaty Trader) visa (for a different employer). The H-1 visa shown above was my second and final US visa (because I became a legal permanent resident in 1991).

Ever since I first began working in the US, I’ve heard controversial claims about the working visa scheme. The H-1 visa type was replaced by the H-1B visa in 1999, but many of the controversies surrounding its use have remained.

  • On the negative side, there are complaints that employers use visas to hire foreigners and undercut American workers, or that some employers prefer workers who require visas because such people can be treated as “indentured servants”.
  • Conversely, defenders of the system claim that employers have no choice but to hire visa workers, because the USA simply doesn’t produce anyone with the required skills. Is that really true, and, if so, why?

Some Criticisms are Justified

As someone who has benefited from the availability of US work visas, you may be surprised when I say that I agree with some of the criticisms. I’ve seen personally that some employers do seem to abuse the visa scheme, do use it to undercut American workers, and do treat visa employees as “captive workers”.

On the other hand, not all employers abuse the system. In my case, I have a clear conscience, because I really was hired due to having skills that my employer could not find in any available American workers, as I explain below.

Sony did not treat me as a “captive”; in fact they treated me quite generously, and even agreed to help me obtain Permanent US Residency (which became moot about a year later, when I married Mary, who is a US citizen).

After I began working for Sony, my manager explained to me that they had gone to considerable lengths to hire me because I really did have experience that no other available candidate possessed. Ironically, that experience came from an earlier job that I had, until then, regarded as a “wasted year”!

When Life hands you Lemons…

In 1985, while still living in the UK, I obtained work with Link Electronics Ltd. Link was a manufacturer of television cameras for the BBC and many other worldwide broadcasting organizations. At the time, this seemed like a positive move, given my background in video production and training at the BBC, so I moved away from London to Andover, where Link was located.

Unfortunately, Link succumbed to a pattern that seemed all too common in British engineering companies. There was no doubt that Link’s products were technically brilliant, but it was not a well-managed company, and, unknown to me, was in fact already in severe trouble by the time that I started there. As a result, despite making recognized contributions to their hardware and software, I was laid off from Link after only one year, leaving me feeling that my move there had been a very bad decision. (To this day, it remains the only occasion on which I’ve been made redundant by an employer, as opposed to leaving voluntarily.)

It was, therefore, very gratifying when, about 4 years later and 5500 miles away, I discovered that my one year’s experience at Link had opened the door to a great job at Sony. By the end of the 1980s, there were no remaining television camera manufacturers in the US, so Sony really couldn’t find any available Americans with that experience.

(The reason why Sony were so eager to hire someone with experience of television camera design was because they wanted to develop a film scanner that could convert high-resolution film into HDTV video. The video could then be used instead of the film for editing and compositing cinematic movies, which made the process far more efficient.)

Visa from Tokyo

It may seem odd that my H-1 visa states that it was issued at “Tokyo”, rather than London or San Francisco. That is correct, and occurred because of the oddities of the visa issuing process. In order to get the visa stamped in my passport, I had to visit a US embassy outside the United States. My first opportunity to do that, after being hired by Sony, was when I visited their plant in Atsugi for a project meeting. We stayed at the Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo, and, one morning, I went along to US Embassy in Tokyo to get the visa stamped into my passport.

Finally, in 1991, Mary and I got married, as a result of which I no longer needed a visa to work in the US. Of course, there are also many stories of immigrants who marry US citizens simply to obtain residency, but the Immigration Service is well aware of that and conducts extensive checks to prevent that kind of fraud. Now that Mary and I have been married for over 26 years, I think we have adequate proof that there was nothing dishonest about the motivation for our marriage!

The few photos remaining from my 1990 Tokyo visit include a couple of portraits that Mary took of me in the hotel. One of these is shown below.

KeioPlazaDavid2Cright

David Hodgson at the Keio Plaza, Tokyo, 1990

Indiana Jones & the Treasure Island

Administration Building, Treasure Island

Administration Building, Treasure Island

There are many islands in San Francisco Bay, and most of them are natural. There is however one artificial island that has a short but intriguing history. It’s called Treasure Island, and it was built during the 1930s as the intended location of San Francisco Airport.

The Administration Building on Treasure Island enjoyed its “fifteen minutes of fame” (or less) in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when the airport terminal building was dressed up to portray “Berlin Airport”. The remainder of its existence has mostly been quiet, but its fascinating Art Deco architecture remains on public view to this day.

The first use of the new island was not as an airport, but to host the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. The island’s airport facilities were used by PanAm’s Clipper flying boats, which moored at Clipper Cove (aka the Lagoon of the Trade Winds), between Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island. This information is missing from the Wikipedia article, but I have a copy of a 1939 color movie titled Trans-Pacific, which shows PanAm passengers arriving at the terminal and boarding a Boeing 314 clipper, which then leaves from Clipper Cove.

After the start of World War II, the US Navy took over the island as a base, swapping the land for its existing base at Mills Field on the Peninsula. As a result, after the War the new San Francisco Airport was developed at Mills Field (which was just as well, because Treasure Island would have been impossibly small). The surviving Boeing 314s actually flew from the shoreline at Mills Field for a short time in 1945-46.

During the 1990s, I was a member of the Treasure Island Museum Association, and was involved with efforts to maintain the museum that was located in the Administration Building, so I visited the island quite frequently, and took the photographs shown in this post. Unfortunately, the museum closed in 1997, due to lack of financial support, but, now that the City of San Francisco owns the building, there are plans to reopen it.

View of Bay Bridge and San Francisco from Treasure Island

View of Bay Bridge and San Francisco from Treasure Island

The spectacular view from the Administration Building towards San Francisco and the Bay Bridge.

Treasure Island with Mustang

Treasure Island with Mustang

The Administration Building one summer evening, with my Mustang parked in front.

Sunset over the Golden Gate from Treasure Island

Sunset over the Golden Gate from Treasure Island

Goodnight from Treasure Island! Sunset over the Golden Gate, from the car park in front of the Administration Building.

Lunch in Tiburon

Angel Island - Tiburon Ferry with San Francisco in background

Angel Island – Tiburon Ferry with San Francisco in background

Yesterday, Mary and I enjoyed lunch at Sam’s Restaurant in Tiburon, with Japanese friends. Our friends live in Tokyo, but were staying in San Francisco for a few days.

They took the ferry from San Francisco to Tiburon to meet us, as shown above. The ferry stops on the way at Angel Island. The photo shows Angel Island and San Francisco behind the ferry, which is about to dock.

Below is the area of the Tiburon foreshore immediately east of the ferry dock. The building at the waterfront is the Railroad & Ferry Museum (unfortunately not open at this time of year). The entire visible foreshore area used to be a railroad yard and ferry transfer dock. The mountains beyond are on Angel Island.

tiburon_dock

Tiburon foreshore, with site of railroad ferry dock

The photo below shows the Christmas tree by the main highway. This area is now the route of State Highway 131, but was also originally part of the railroad yard.

tiburon_xmastree

Christmas tree in Tiburon

The link below takes you to a web site that contains some amazing color photos from the 1950s and 1960s, showing the railroad in operation in these locations. Tiburon looked very different in those days!

https://sites.google.com/site/pics19703/tiburon-nwp-pics