Thursday, December 24, 2009

Scenes From A Bounteous Christmas Tree

This afternoon of Christmas Eve, as ever more presents appeared under the boughs, Michael took to counting his gifts. Again.

As he began to fret about how many (or few, in his estimation) presents he would get to unwrap tomorrow, Kelly pointed out that Jesus only received three gifts.

Michael shot back,

"Yeah, but he got gold."

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Baghdad Bob Has Found More Work

Thankfully, nobody was killed when an American Airlines jet skidded off the runway while landing in Jamaica in a rainstorm. The airline has an interesting way of assessing the condition of its aircraft, though:

Tim Smith, an American Airlines spokesman, denied reports that the Boeing 737 broke into pieces but did say that there was damage to the fuselage, some cracks and the landing gear on one side of the plane collapsed.


"Some cracks"? Yeah, those are some cracks, all right.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Now Boarding, Flight 53 From Dock 10 ...

The California Emergency Management Agency has released maps detailing the effect on the California coastline of tsunamis generated by most conceivable earthquakes off the western shore of North America. Some communities could suffer substantial damage. Much of San Francisco's Marina district could be under water, as would be most of low-lying Alameda and the eastern approach to the Bay Bridge, several marinas in San Diego, and parts of Marina Del Rey. UCSB's lagoon could be swamped, and we could lose one of our favorite eateries, the Beachside Cafe on Goleta Beach, which would be well within the projected tsunami zone.

Faring particularly poorly are some airports, which often lie on low ground near water. San Francisco International could lose some taxiways, which would impact its capacity (considering a single low cloud will cause 45 minute delays on a daily basis, any limit on the airport's ability to handle traffic would inevitably have an immediate and significant effect). Santa Barbara's airport, situated alongside a slough, would be wiped out. Oakland's airport would not be able to pick up San Francisco's excess traffic, because it, too, would be under water.

These maps are only estimates of one worst-case scenario. In this state, it is only a matter of time until someone latches onto these projections to justify some obnoxious building code or restriction on land use. (The San Francisco Chronicle article describing the maps makes no notice of the fact that the maps describe a possible outcome of all tsunami events at once.) Still, the information is potentially sobering. Especially if you left your car in long term parking at the Oakland Airport.

Saturday Sports Highlights

After missing a week due to illness, Michael was back with his "Ohio State" teammates on the basketball court. They are an energetic bunch with several very good players, so they annihilated their opponent. More importantly, they showed signs of beginning to understand their coaches' instructions about how to play their positions on defense. One of the stated goals of the league for this age group is to get the kids to begin to understand how to play the game properly. To their credit, the coaches would immediately send to the bench any player to wandered around the court instead of playing his assigned defensive position. Everybody got plenty of playing time and opportunities to contribute.

Michael did not score, but he played his position well, had some steals, and made some good passes. As usual, it seems, he is not the star, but a good teammate.

Eying the bucket (he passed the ball a moment later):

Working hard in traffic:

Protecting the ball while looking to pass:

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Recent events, which included me accompanying Kelly to the hospital for 45 hours, opened my eyes to certain truths about health care. Questions of coverage and access can wait for another day (and, perhaps, another blog). What struck me was the usefulness of a patient advocate.

In the typical hospital setting, a patient will be seen by doctors on a periodic basis throughout the day and night, with more frequent visits from nurses and nursing assistants. The cast of characters can become astonishingly large in a very short amount of time. In the time we spent at the Children's Hospital of Oakland, we were seen by at least six nurses, three lab personnel, four volunteers, three interns/residents and four doctors. As the patient, Kelly did whatever she was told, but much of what she was told had to do with treatments to come or outcomes to be assessed. I found myself to be the central repository of information received from these many sources. Many times in our relatively short stay I guided both the doctors and the nurses in the course of treatment, advising one or the other group of what someone else had said, or done, or neglected to do. I stopped one nurse from administering a medication that had made Kelly sick when the intern had told us half an hour earlier that they would no longer give it to her. I made sure treatments happened on time, results of tests were tracked down and nursing assistance was procured when needed. Kelly's recovery would have occurred had I not been there, but I am convinced that she would have spent another 12 hours in the hospital if I had not prodded the hospital staff to do all the things they said they intended to do.

I imagine a significant distinction between conventional hospitals and children's hospitals (or wards) is that unlike ordinary patients, most child patients come with a built-in, full-time advocate -- a parent or guardian. They keep the hospital staff on its toes in a way that an adult patient, confined to a bed and often addled on medication, cannot. Our little adventure showed how crucial an alert patient advocate can be to ensuring that the care the hospital intends to provide is actually doled out.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Saturday Sports Update

The grippe has come to our household, knocking Michael out of school nearly all week, and taking Cheryl down today. Because he is still recovering, Michael missed out on week two of this season's sport: basketball. He and his fellow Buckeyes had their first practice and game last week:

Friday, December 11, 2009

Something Novel: A Project Completed

A few weeks ago (nanoseconds in the slow-moving calendar that governs home improvement projects), I completed the rough carpentry needed to frame a step in our living room that has been awaiting construction since before we moved in more than a year ago. While the raw lumber molded into the pleasing shape of a step was nice, the project begged to be finished. The carpet remnants were ready, just waiting for me to work up the courage to do the hardest part: the finish carpentry that everyone can see. Years of building plastic model kits as a kid taught me, repeatedly, the heartbreak of marring an otherwise brilliant project with one misplaced brushstroke in the last step that everyone can see. The chances of ruining my solid carpentry work with poorly installed carpet were, I figured, uncomfortably high.

In contemplating the final product, I decided to use the wood floor planks left over from the kitchen and breakfast room that leads to the doorway where the step is located, and only carpet the rise of the step. This required some sort of transition from floor planks to the edge, which I solved with a lightly beveled oak strip located at our friendly neighborhood Orchard Supply Hardware. I still had the issue of the double 45 degree angles, ensuring that several planks would require custom cutting on my indispensable miter saw. The first row of planks also had to be trimmed longitudinally by about half an inch to allow room for the beveled edging.

Amazingly, it all came together very nicely, using up every last piece of the leftover flooring, as if it had been specially ordered for the job. The vertical carpet went in well:

The floorboards fit nicely, leaving room for the border:

With the beveled edge, the project is complete:

Almost complete, that is. Far too much time spent on the miter saw yielded complex but satisfying baseboards to wrap the whole thing up:

Some putty and a little extra paint will tidy up those seams. I should get to that in, say, March.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Video: Kelly's Cooking

The latest school project that Kelly despised came from her video production class. So far this year, that class has kept her busy producing the morning news announcements for the school which are broadcast over the campus TV network. She typically edits the stories, runs the teleprompter, and appears as an anchor. They have some decent audio and video equipment, and use a green screen for much of their work, just like the real broadcasters do.

Until last week, the class did not have a homework load. Just before the Thanksgiving vacation week, however, the students were given the task of producing a short video, to be shown on the morning news to inspire other students to produce their own creative videos for a schoolwide contest. Griping, as usual, about receiving another long-term project, Kelly conceived an idea for a cooking show based on a dessert dish Cheryl made recently. With constant just a little prodding from us, she put together a basic speaking and shooting script. Kelly filmed on last Monday, edited on the computer on Tuesday and Wednesday (including adding all graphics), and turned the project in on Thursday. Cutting aggressively, she wound up with these two minutes and four seconds:

She became an instant celebrity. Friends and strangers (even eighth graders!) approached her about the video. Her teachers asked for the recipe; her friends' teachers asked for the recipe. She was compelled to type up the recipe for the teachers' bulletin this week.

As it turns out, this is one project that Kelly enjoyed.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Holiday Goodies

Halloween candy has a shelf life. That is equal to the time from October 31 to the moment the first batch of Christmas fudge is done.

As of today, the leftover Halloween candy is headed to storage. Yum.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

R.I.P. Saab (1937-2009)

GM bungles another deal. After failing to sell off its Saturn line to Penske, GM's proposed deal to sell Saab to Swedish carmaker Koenigsegg has now fallen apart as well. Now Saab, like Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Saturn, will likely be consigned to the dustbin of automotive history. Of those four, Saab had the smallest market penetration but, for a time, had perhaps the strongest brand character. The company was an early pioneer of front wheel drive and turbocharging small engines, practices that are now industry standards.

Except for a very few exceptions, Pontiac and Oldsmobile products were differentiated from their Chevrolet and Buick brethren only by styling and marketing. Saturn started with great promise with an innovative (albeit crude) product and a way of building and selling its cars that was unique in the American automotive industry, but lost its way and became another "badge-engineered" GM line. Saab, in its day, particularly before GM took it over, did things differently. Nothing in the world was quite like a Saab, which was usually a good thing for the motoring public.

As a Saab fan, the demise of this venerable company saddens me, while I am indifferent to the elimination of other GM nameplates. GM has been far too big for its own good for decades. It is a shame that its comeuppance is delivered at the cost of one of the few lines that retained some real design quality.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Final Soccer Saturday, All-Star Game Edition

Kelly's first appearance in an all-star game was a good one. She started the game and had some good touches, including a clever change of direction and pass that shook off a defender and drew oohs from the onlookers. The game was played evenly in the first half, with each team scoring a pretty goal. Lafayette dominated possession in the second half, but they could not put a ball in the net. The game came down to penalty kicks. Moraga's first three penalties were unstoppable corner shots. Moraga's goalkeeper, on the other hand, utterly stoned Lafayette, stopping all three of their shots and ending the game (because the penalties are on a best-of-five shots basis). The girls now get to share the trophy for a few weeks each, just like the Stanley Cup.

So we close the book on soccer for another year. Just one more to come for Kelly.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The All Star!

Last Saturday's games were the last regular season games. There is one more game for 16 kids in each of the three oldest divisions: the Commissioner's Cup. Unusually for this participation-emphasis league, the league debuted an All-Star tournament last year, pitting six teams (boys' and girls' teams in three age divisions) from Moraga against their counterparts from the neighboring town of Lafayette. We went to the game last year so that Kelly could watch some of her friends (who had only been her friends for about two months at that time) play in this game. The games are intense and fun, and there is always something exciting about representing a place rather than just your own arbitrarily constructed team.

Kelly was honored by her teammates this year, who voted onto the All Star team. Her regular season coaches are also the coaches for the All Star team, so the two practices this week were familiar. All the girls know each other to some degree, so they have had a lot of fun playing together. They also carry themselves with a little extra confidence that comes from simply being on the team.

The game will be played on Saturday afternoon at the local high school's football field, a beautiful artificial turf facility (Kelly has had tremendous luck with the fields she has played on this year).

Regardless of the outcome of the game, or how many minutes Kelly plays, being selected for the All Star team has been a thrill for her.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


In a mild upset, San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum has won his second consecutive Cy Young award, in one of the closest votes ever. In his first two years of pitching in the majors, Lincecum has won two Cy Young awards -- nice start to a career. And an even better value: his first contract pays him $650,000 per year, without any award bonuses, perhaps a third of what his value would be on the open market.

It is not overstating the case to say that Lincecum has saved Giants baseball. The organization had no idea how to emerge from the roiling shadow cast by Barry Bonds. After a short call-up at the end of the 2007 season, Lincecum turned every one of his starts through the summer of 2008 into must-see viewing. (That coincided with my return to the Bay Area after 20 years away; my TV was tuned to the Giants broadcast every time Timmy was on the mound.) Everything he did was exciting: his crazy motion, the tons of strikeouts, the push for his first complete game and shutout, and lots of wins on a lousy team stuck in an otherwise moribund season. He was the focal point of the 2009 team, which did much better than expected, giving Giants fans something to cheer about until deep into September. We managed to see one of his best games of the year in person late in that first summer, and we saw him pitch another gem (against the mighty Phillies) this season. Giants radio announcer Mike Krukow calls Lincecum starts "win days" that fire up both the fans and the team itself. Absolutely true.

Sports fans outside the area probably do not appreciate how much we love this guy. There is no sports figure more beloved in the Bay Area right now than Tim Lincecum, and there has not been someone followed with as much fervor since the glory days of the 49ers. His recent pot bust is hardly a blip on the radar. There will now be intense pressure on the organization to sign Lincecum to a long-term deal before he becomes eligible for free agency, or even before he goes through arbitration prior to next season. Either way, Lincecum is looking at a big, big raise. Giants fans won't begrudge him what he has earned as the most exciting young pitcher in a generation. We just hope we get to watch The Freak do his thing in a Giants uniform for long, long time.

The Best Movie I've Seen This Year

"The King of Kong."

Yes, it is a documentary. Not only that, it is a documentary about an old video game and the people who play it obsessively. Despite those apparent shortcomings, it is also proof that truth often is stranger than fiction, and every bit as captivating.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Another Rite of Passage

Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed something new in the close-up portrait of Kelly in the last post. Indeed, adolescence has arrived:

Metal and plastic have been applied to teeth, at last. Apparently orthodontists don't wire up the whole mouth at once anymore. Kelly adjusted to the braces on her front teeth relatively quickly. Obviously, there are some other teeth that will be in line for braces in the future, but it has all started now.

If nothing else, she now looks like 85% of her friends.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Final Soccer Saturday ... Almost

The kids had their last soccer games this weekend, with parties and trophies following close behind. Michael's team played a tight game, scoring the only goal of the game very late, giving them their second win of the season. Michael had another good game, playing all over the field as needed, whether to shore up the defense, take free kicks (he nearly scored on two) or helping out on offense.

Kelly's team played a grudge match against a team full of their friends. Kelly's team was in first, with the opponent just behind, with a loss in the last matchup between the two teams. Both sets of girls let the others hear about it all week in school. This was the most anticipated matchup of the season for the players. It, too, was a closely matched game. Kelly provided a clever assist on what was nearly the first goal of the game, and had several scoring opportunities of her own in the second half. Against an excellent goalkeeper (who was Kelly's teammate last year), none of them got into the net, unfortunately. The opposing team scored just before the end of the game to close out the season.

Team Italy got the last laugh, though. We won the league!

All the girls wore these shirts on Monday to remind their classmates that although others may win the battle, they won the war. Kelly is now two-for-two in championships in her last two sports seasons. That will be a tough act to follow.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Future Of Home Entertainment

My stereo receiver is more than 15 years old. My TV does not have an HDMA input. I have no surround sound speakers. Despite these technological-fitment shortcomings, I declare myself an early adopter in the home theater arena, for I have begun … streaming movies.

Netflix is beginning to live up to its name. We dumped the movie service less than a year ago when we finally decided that we could not justify the $18 per month it cost us to store three of their DVDs unwatched on our shelves. Two weeks ago, though, Netflix rolled out its new streaming movie service for the PlayStation 3 platform. Within a day of availability of the new service, we returned to the Netflix world. Now paying only $9 per month, we only get one DVD at a time, but unlimited streaming video.

It’s awesome.

The title availability is limited for now. However, there are still plenty of movies to see, and it is inevitable that selection will increase over time until the entire catalog is available for download.

Practically speaking, the streaming process is very easy and effective. The PS3 must run a special Netflix disk, but once in, it does not require anything in particular of the user. It simply drops the viewer into a dedicated Netflix “library.” The interface is not as easy to use as the website; you are resigned to scroll sequentially (alphabetically) through all of the available movies for each category. There is as of yet no search feature. I imagine greater capabilities will come to the movie selection interface in the future. Other than that slight annoyance, the rest of the experience is seamless. The movie boots up within a few seconds, and the picture quality is acceptable (not HD, but certainly on a par with conventional DVDs).

So far, I have made the most use of the Documentary category. It is like having a really good on-demand library of the most interesting PBS and Discovery features available whenever you want to see them.

In short, on-demand movie viewing through streaming video through the internet is, without question, the future of home entertainment. The convenience is unparalleled. There are two potential drawbacks: lack of high definition products, which will likely be rectified in the future; and the threat of internet usage limits by service providers. I have no idea what kind of load streaming a movie from Netflix puts on our DSL service, but if AT&T wants to follow some of its fellow internet providers, I may receive a notice someday that I will have to pay a premium for data transfer over a designated limit. Such surcharges have been used to rein in heavy-duty gamers; I don’t know if mere movie watching places similar demands on the internet service infrastructure. I hope not. Eventually, this is the way home entertainment will be done. The information plumbers will just have to get used to installing bigger pipes.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pride Goeth Before A Motion For Change Of Venue

Grand, eloquent words from Attorney General Eric Holder:

I am confident in the ability of our courts to provide these defendants a fair trial, just as they have for over 200 years. The alleged 9/11 conspirators will stand trial in our justice system before an impartial jury under long-established rules and procedures.
Unfortunately, those words were immediately preceded by these:

After eight years of delay, those allegedly responsible for the attacks of September the 11th will finally face justice. They will be brought to New York to answer for their alleged crimes in a courthouse just blocks from where the twin towers once stood.
Thanks to that expression of hubris, here will be the first words of the first scrap of paper filed by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's attorney within nanoseconds of the case being filed in the Federal District Court in New York:
Rule 21. Transfer for Trial

(a) For Prejudice.

Upon the defendant's motion, the court must transfer the proceeding against that defendant to another district if the court is satisfied that so great a prejudice against the defendant exists in the transferring district that the defendant cannot obtain a fair and impartial trial there.
The Attorney General of the United States has already expressly declared that the close proximity of the festering wound on the landscape left by the defendants is a factor in the selection of the venue, handing the defense the basis for a change of venue motion on a silver platter. This trial will not happen in your back yard, Manhattan. Enjoy the pretrial lawyering, everyone.

It Would Be Beautiful If It Weren't So Terrifying

Computer technology allows very smart accident reconstruction specialists to do all kinds of amazing things. Here is a compelling reconstruction of the US Airways flight that went down in the Hudson earlier this year. The video is based on a mountain of information. The specialist even opines on the speed, pitch and roll of the typical Canada goose. The boys of Monty Python were nearer to reality than they could have suspected.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Weekend Project Inevitability

There is no Soccer Saturday update this week because we had a slightly unusual weekend. Michael had an early game in which the team was so outplayed and outcoached that we just wanted to get on to Kelly's game to see some good soccer again. By the time we got home, though, there was a message from the coach letting us know that there would be no game because the other team could only field four players and had to forfeit (absenteeism is a sign of the times around here). We all surprised ourselves at how disappointed we were to miss an opportunity to see Kelly's team play. Yes, we are still talking about more than an hour of youth soccer, but the games are reasonably well played, and the setting on the pristine St. Mary's field is beautiful.

What to do with all that time? I had no choice: long-deferred projects around the house lurched to the front of my brain and would not leave me alone. One of the longest-standing jobs that has remained incomplete is to install new baseboards in the living room. We put in a door between the dining area and our breakfast room before we moved in, and at the time I asked the contractor to build a small step between the rooms. There is a small angled wall there, and I asked him to work off of the angle. He didn't, and put in a resolutely rectangular step instead. I have refused to carpet the step he built, clinging to my vision of what the step should be.

I have the tools to build what I want, but no access to them because of the mountain of boxes in the garage. At about the same pace that mighty glaciers carved El Capitan at Yosemite Park, we have worked through our boxes. After a few moments of contemplation, I managed to clear a few more Saturday morning, which finally gave me decent access to my workbench -- and the miter saw. I assembled the saw, made a couple of test cuts, and reveled in the capabilities of a brand new saw blade.

After an afternoon of prying and pounding, I had removed the old step. I spent the rest of the afternoon dredging up principles of geometry that I thought I had forgotten to figure out the lengths of 2x4s I needed to build the step. Mr. Stocking would be proud. A few applications of the Pythagorean theorem later, I had myself the plans for the step I had always wanted. It took until Sunday night to finally finish construction and re-lay the carpet in the living room, but it is all done now to my satisfaction, with just the carpeting of the step itself remaining.

Once the carpet is totally done, the baseboards can go in. We had the foresight to ask for an extra bit of the carpet that was installed in the house before we moved in, with this project in mind. Now, where did we put it?

Friday, November 06, 2009

To The Guy Standing Next To Me At The ATM

... reeking of the herb:

You're not fooling anybody.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Soccer Saturday

Another beautiful Saturday morning for soccer games. Kelly's team was back on the big field at St. Mary's, dominating the game but unable to finish, winning 1-0 on a penalty kick.

Michael's team played well again. Michael scored a great breakaway goal that had a couple of dads from the other team marveling at his speed and skill in the game. I'll admit to being pleased hearing that, especially since it was not entirely clear that Michael was going to enjoy playing soccer this year. Leading his team in goals has changed his attitude considerably.

This is what it looks like when the whistle has blown to end Spain's first winning game:

Sure, they're not supposed to keep score or tabulate wins and losses. But the boys know. This joy proves that there is value in honest, natural competition.

Post-Halloween Bazaar

This is a game called "Haggle":

The kids created this game on their own. They play it every year after Halloween. Even though it involves taking inventory of their respective candy hauls and trading candy back and forth, it almost never results in arguments. All told, they spent about two hours today doing this.

Halloween 2009

We have reached that point in life when Halloween no longer means leading the kids around the neighborhood for an hour in the evening. We now have competing Halloween parties (three this year) and gatherings of kids' friends demanding their participation. Kelly went off to prowl another neighborhood a couple of miles away with ten of her friends, while I followed Michael and fifteen of his friends (and many of their parents) around our neighborhood, while Cheryl handled the traffic at our house. Forming into roving hordes of trick-or-treaters seems to be the preferred method of candy acquisition around here. It is great fun, and wonderful to see both kids bonding so well with their peers. Even the parents marvel at it.

Kelly was, well, this:

She went to a school dance Friday night in this costume (a momentous event unto itself) to great acclaim. The parents, who presumably remember rainy day rec-rooms in the days before video games, were even more excited about her costume than the kids. The reputation of her costume preceded her; parents of friends she trick-or-treated with Saturday night had heard of it and were tickled to see it.

Michael was a Star Wars Clone Wars character:

This may be the last year for Star Wars characters, at least until Star Wars costumes make an intentionally ironic return in the teen years.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Soccer Saturday

Kelly played another game at St. Mary's today.

In one of her team's best games of the season, she set up a teammate for the first goal, and scored the deciding goal herself on a breakaway.

Michael's team is still winless, but he has scored a bunch of goals this season and shows signs of really understanding what he's doing out there.

Photography Fun

I have enjoyed working with the new camera, although most of the pictures I have taken have been at soccer games. Every once in a while, though, other opportunities present themselves.

A simple family dinner, or a Sunset magazine article about gracious autumn feasting?

Not bad for a 12 year old car and a cameraphone:

Both images are untouched. I'm still trying to figure out the basics of composition; Photoshop adds dimensions of complexity that I will not be prepared to approach for a while.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

So I Had An MRI Yesterday...

I'm not the first to observe that aging is, in many respects, no fun. While The Professor was preparing to compete in his first triathlon, I spent a month battling intense neck and shoulder pain. Oddly enough, the pain was at its most severe when I was seated with my arms extended, as if, I don't know, reaching for a computer keyboard and mouse or something. Now, maybe if I had spent every working day for the past 15 years in that position, I could see how this could happen ... oh.

I have had the typical slept-wrong neck pain many times before, the kind that makes it difficult to look over your shoulder to back up the car for a couple of days. This was something new. I could not sit anywhere without substantial discomfort. It was clearly some kind of neck-related pain, but the pain included sharp, knitting-needle jabs in the front and back of my shoulder joint, with pain radiating down my upper arm to my elbow. The pain was accompanied, in an amusing little bonus, with a slight loss of strength in my left hand. No numbness, though, so I had that going for me.

After more than three weeks of assuming it would get better without anything to show for my patience, I finally gave in and went to a doctor. I went in expecting to hear "pinched nerve," and that's basically what I got ("nerve impingement," in doctor-speak). Instead of a prescription for therapeutic massage or something equally fun, though, I was sent across the hall for x-rays and instructed to set up an appointment with an orthopedist. What, you mean there's something actually wrong with me?

The x-rays revealed some narrowing between the vertebrae in my neck, which, according to the orthopedist, could mean herniation of the discs, which then presumably caused problems with the nerves. It wasn't so much a diagnosis that bothered me, but that everyone who saw the x-rays immediately came to exactly the same conclusion. It was that obvious. In other words, something is in fact wrong with me. I'm not happy about that.

In order to determine the scope of the soft tissue damage, if any, the orthopedist set me up with an MRI examination. The MRI machine is a marvelous piece of equipment that does amazing things. It is a very Star Trek way of doing medicine, though. There's something fundamentally odd about being jammed into a smooth white tube that glows futuristically, buzzes and clacks in almost sentient rhythms and never touches the patient, and we which we still call practicing medicine. Where are all the strange hammers and sharp pointy things that mean "doctor's work"?

The only real discomfort of the MRI was that the narrow bed supported my spine but left my shoulder to dangle, which caused additional pain right where I didn’t want it. During the procedure, I closed my eyes and counted seconds, imagining a secondhand sweeping around the clock face. I passed the time reasonably easy; it helped that the entire procedure lasted only about 20 minutes. Thankfully, I'm not claustrophobic (apparently). I am, however, reasonably musical. The machine is also incredibly loud, even through ear plugs, but very rhythmic. Each set of films yielded a different set of rhythms. A couple of times I almost stifled laughter as one rhythm would be added to another, to which a third of them would be added, creating very interesting polyrhythmic patterns. Groovy, almost.

Having never been through this before, I'll be very interested to see the films. On the other hand, I don't do well with medical issues. Having the orthopedist even mention surgery as a potential outcome while he looked at x-rays of my neck nearly had me in a swoon. Examining images of some squishy bits inside me may yet put me on the floor.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Saturday in Fall = Soccer

Both kids are well into their soccer seasons now. Michael's Team Spain is a spirited bunch, although they have yet to win a game. They played to a 1-1 draw last week, and were down 4-0 at halftime this week. With just a little coaching on proper positioning, though (ahem), Michael scored a hat trick in the third quarter. It wasn't enough to pull out a victory, but it brightened up the day for everybody.

Kelly's team is very well coached and undefeated so far this year. They went up against an extremely disciplined Orinda squad today at St. Mary's College. It looked like Team Italy was going to fall to their first loss until Kelly broke the tie midway through the first half with a textbook breakaway goal. A penalty shot off an Orinda handball in the penalty box completed the scoring for Italy's 2-0 victory.

Through it all, I get to play with my new toy.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Good Ol' (Chinese) Home Cookin'

Relying again on an iPhone app for guidance, I took on the task of preparing sweet and sour pork a couple of weekends ago. I originally got the inspiration a when I found a recipe that used pre-made sweet and sour sauce. I figured it would be a relatively quick and easy way to make a dish that I like. When I finally committed to make it, I left the family playing at the pool while I went to the store with the list of ingredients in my pocket. I thought.

Once at the store, I whipped out the iPhone. Unfortunately, none of the recipies I could find used pre-made sauce. The family was counting on me for dinner, so I found myself committed to doing it the hard way.

Cooking from scratch demands a lot of the kitchen's measuring cups, mixing bowls and stove space, but it is also remarkably liberating. Having control over every ingredient from its raw form to final plating is very satisfying, especially when it goes together well. That doesn't always happen. I've made casseroles that didn't quite gel, cakes that didn't quite stand straight, and entrees that just didn't taste as good (or look as appetizing) as the cookbook made them seem. Frustratingly, I would have nobody to blame but myself. When it all comes together correctly, though, it is a beautiful thing.

The sweet and sour pork was a beautiful thing.

The most unusual part was deep frying the pork. Finally, a legitimate use for the dutch oven, a dish I love for its solid appearance of utility that I have never actually used much at all. That is the part of the process that I need more practice with to keep the meat more tender and the coating more tasty, but it wasn't bad for a first effort. The sauce was interesting, because it was a vague watery mix of vegetables, pineapple syrup and vinegar (who thought up that combination?) until the very end when a small amount of corn starch is introduced. In a magical instant - poof! - sweet and sour sauce is conjured up. And it was every bit as tasty as any I have had in a restaurant (and far superior to Panda Express).

It took a lot of dishes and a bunch of time, but it was a complete success. Even the kids liked it, which is quite an achievement. I'm now two-for-two with recipes from the iPhone.

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Justification For War

A trade war, anyway. The Chinese government is in a huff about the U.S. government's institution of 25% import duties on Chinese-made automobile tires. China complains that the imposition of substantial tariffs amounts to protectionism, and has launched its own review of U.S. exports to China.

The Administration apparently imposed a lesser tariff than was recommended by U.S. International Trade Commission. Setting aside the political ramifications and posturing, both internationally and domestic, here is one reason to support the move: Chinese tires are garbage. In this recent tire test, the Chinese tires fared far worse than their competitors. Some revealing analytical notes from the article:

Consistently finishing last in all of the performance categories, the Ling Longs’ dry autocross performance was so far behind the other tires’ that we had to round its score up to zero to keep it from being negative.

Things got worse in the wet, where slip-and-slide behavior required a conservative effort to stay between the cones. The Ling Longs were a full five seconds off the autocross pace and needed 22 more feet—1.5 3-series car-lengths—to stop from 50 mph than did the best Hankooks.

On the street loop, we were irritated by a low-speed drone ...

... even though they cost half the price of many competing tires, they scored less than half the points of even the eighth-place tire. To us, that doesn’t qualify as a value ...

(I have read tire reviews like this one for years. Even though magazines like Car and Driver are generally thought to be under the considerable influence of the automakers they cover (and advertise), I trust the integrity of the blind testing methodology of tire tests like this one. It is not a perfect system, and may not be sufficiently rigorous to measure up to academic standards for true blind testing, but for the limited purpose for which these sorts of tests are offered - a direct, largely objective comparison between similar consumer goods - I think the tests provide useful information.)

There is something to be said for allowing the marketplace to discover this on its own and make the appropriate and inevitable corrections to the market share of the Chinese producers. However, China's ability and intention to manufacture products at a substantially lower sales price that its competitors, coupled with dramatically worse performance, gives plausible justification for imposing punitive tariffs. The decades-old jokes about substandard quality of products made in China (jokes that even my seven-year-old son makes, without parroting his parents) are amusing when referring to household knicknacks. The situation becomes a whole lot less amunsing when your family's safety depends on the products in question. As China climbs the ladder of the global consumer products market, producing tires and entire cars for sale outside of its own borders, China will have to learn, one way or another, to bring its products up to basic standards of quality that, frankly, they don't reach yet. (Go here for a review of a new Chinese-made car's utter failure during a European crash test.)

Once, lawsuits were an effective tool to force manufacturers to improve the quality of their products. Like them or not, consumer-interest legislation had an undeniable effect on the design of consumer goods, most of it positive in the area of safety. I would not want to be the next person to attempt to sue a Chinese company for negligent design or manufacturing, however. As a practical matter, the tort system simply will not be effective against Chinese interests for the relatively near future. A trade war may be the best, first method to force Chinese manufacturers to understand how products must be made for Western consumption.

Returning Safely To Earth

Maybe it's a little geeky, but I absolutely love this footage of the space shuttle Discovery's landing last week. I like any footage of shuttle landings. Chunky though it is, I find something deeply aesthetically satisfying about the form of the shuttle, particularly as it returns its considerable bulk delicately to the earth.

I think the whole scene is beautiful, but would be terrifying if airplanes landed this way. The video, while nicely focused on the orbiter, fails to convey how quickly the ship falls out of the sky. I wonder how the average mission specialist, who is not a combat or test pilot experienced with odd angles of attack in an aircraft, copes with the steep descent. The aggressive dive is intimidating enough, especially since much of the crew has no view out of the shuttle, but they are also feeling gravity again for the first time in a couple of weeks. That must be a gut-churning white knuckle ride for a few minutes.

Unless something changes, we will only be treated to six more of these landings before the whole fleet is mothballed (and we place our manned space flight cababilities in Russian hands until the Orion program is ready in 2015 or later). The shuttle can't fly forever; I just wish it were to be succeeded by another sleek flying craft rather than a tin can that will freefall into the ocean.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Higher Fidelity

I first bought a 35 mm SLR camera around the dawn of the digital photography age. At the time, digital cameras were large, clunky devices that were capable of taking photographs of only marginal quality. The march of time saw digital cameras shrink in size and increase dramatically in capability. We are now to the point that the camera on my phone takes excellent photographs under ordinary conditions.

I knew that the digital revolution would make its way to the SLR format (although I'm not sure I believed it would take over the film world so comprehensively). I expected that someday I would get a digital SLR once the technology became inexpensive enough to bring the products down in price to the level of ordinary consumers. That happened faster than I expected as well. After conferring with a colleague who is an accomplished photographer/hobbyist, I made the move to a Canon DSLR:

Costco was our friend here, enabling us to get the camera (with a throw-in small zoom lens) cheaper than even Amazon. We got the camera just in time for first-day-of-school photos and, most importantly, soccer season.

With the instant and costless response of the digital image, a budding photographer can experiment and learn how to take better pictures without the cost and delay of film development. After the first day of soccer games, I've already ordered a quality (on a budget) zoom lens:

I'm looking forward to playing with this very nice machine.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

More Numerology

The universe can be a quirky place sometimes. It is not entirely surprising that yesterday, on 09/09/09, someone had a baby at 9:09. What is a little spooky is that child weighed in at ... yes, 9 pounds, 9 ounces.

Even though he was born in Wisconsin, maybe he will grow up to be a Niners fan.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Number 9

If it seems like the Beatles are in the news lately all out of proportion to the attention that would normally be paid to a band that broke up almost 40 years ago, there are some reasons. The Beatles' original tapes have been remastered and will be released today. Early reviews are very positive. I'm not a fan of the way music and movie companies release old products with marginal updates to cynically rake in a few more dollars for the same old recording. The Beatles and their record labels pioneered the practice, but the word is that the new Beatles releases may be worth the money. Given the relatively primitive technology at their disposal at the time of the recordings, and the band's efforts to push the boundaries of that technology, the newly remastered recordings are reputed to bring out details in the performances that have not been heard before.

Also released today is the Rock Band Beatles game. This is a must-have for anyone who enjoys the fake-instrument game. (Let me repeat: "must-have." I happen to enjoy the fake-instrument game. Christmas is coming ... who's paying attention?)

Why release on September 9? "Revolution No. 9," one of the Beatles' most famously drug-addled compositions, ends with a loop of a man saying "number nine." Add that to the calendar quirk of 09/09/09 (one of the rare calendar quirks that Europeans and Americans share), and there is no other day that these Beatles releases could have happened.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Wildfire, From The Inside

The webcam at Mt. Wilson, embedded with the dense farm of communications equipment that overlooks Los Angeles, gives the world a front row seat for the wildfire that has been threatening the area's northern suburbs since last week.

When we visited the observatories at Mt. Wilson in 1995 when Cheryl was working under a JPL grant for math teachers, the guide showed us a small cabin that had been used for decades by the caretakers of the observatory properties. The cabin had metal shutters, which we were told were necessary in the old days to survive the occasional fires that swept up the mountain. The personnel would barricade themselves inside the fireproof building and wait for the fire to blow itself out. Modern firefighting techniques had prevented fires in that area for a half-century, though. The guide told us that tire prevention is a mixed blessing in wilderness areas. Without the fires, certain plants do not germinate, unhealthy old growth is not cleared out, and new growth becomes overgrown ... leading to extreme fire danger. Nature will get its way eventually.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Summer Like None Before

The swim team season wrapped up a couple of weeks ago. It was everything that people told us it would be. It was a fun social opportunity for both kids (even though Kelly did not swim with the team, her best friends did, so she saw them often over the summer). It was a great social opportunity for us. Both kids learned how to swim. And with all the focus on swimming in this area, team spirit is a very big component of the whole experience. We decorated our car with decals and paint like everybody else.

We had a good time at the massive league championships, which involved more than 1800 swimmers from the nine clubs competing over three days.

We yelled ourselves hoarse, saw records fall, and chuckled at how two thirteen year olds in adjacent lanes can differ in height by a foot or more.

Michael consistently improved his times over the course of the summer. He even received a Coaches Award at the team awards presentation last week, essentially a good sportsmanship/spirit award.

All in all, it was a really fun summer. We already can't wait for next year.