Phil Rambles

Phil Rambles, Phil Price blog.

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    Sun, 01 Jan 2006

    Book purge, end of 2005
    Another year, another cleanout of the bookshelves. (Actually, I posted something earlier in 2005, so this isn't a full year's list). Here's a partial list of what I'm getting rid of this time. Some of these, I read a long time ago and am only now getting around to eliminating; others, I just read this year. Once again, the whole experience makes me think I should use the library more...but then, I've gotta do my part to support the publishing industry, don't I?

    These are the books I'm discarding, not the ones I'm keeping, so this isn't a list of the best stuff I've read recently, or anything like that.

    Let's start with nonfiction:

    Mr. Personality, by Mark Singer. Essays and profiles from The New Yorker. Good.
    Powering Civilization, by James Ridgeway. An old book about the future of U.S. power consumption and production. Fair.
    The Big Con, by David Maurer. A history of cons, a la "The Sting." Very interesting.
    Shadow Box, by George Plimpton. Ali and all that. Good.
    Lies my Teacher Told Me, by James Lowen. The American History that you didn't learn in school. Interesting and perhaps important.
    Inside Iraq (assorted authors). Informative.
    Portrait in Motion, by Arthur Ashe and Frank DeFord. Sort of "Ball Four" for tennis. Good.
    The Long Ball, by Tom Adelman. 1975, "The Greatest World Series Ever Played". OK.
    Neither Here Nor There, by Bill Bryson. Bryson is uncharacteristically ill-tempered. Fair.
    The Informant, by Eric Eichenwald. Corporate malfeasance revealed, sorta like A Civil Action. Good.
    Blue Latitudes, by Tony Horwitz. Following the journey of Captain Cook. Good.
    Full House, by Stephen J. Gould. Interesting thoughts about evolution and "excellence."
    Various books on the history of the Middle East, not worth discussing separately.

    And fiction:

    Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem. I really like this author. Good book.
    Lies, Inc., by Philip K. Dick. Also titled "The Un-Teleported Man." Starts well, but not good.
    Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. One of the books my book club read. We all liked it.
    The Periodic Table, by Primo Levy. I can't believe Levy killed himself. Pretty good book.
    Underworld, by Don DeLillo. Everybody loves DeLillo. Except me.
    Players, by Don DeLillo. See Underworld.
    Independence Day, by Richard Ford. Sequel to The Sportswriter, and I liked it more.
    Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri. Short stories, some good, some fair.
    The Continental Op, by Dashiel Hammett. I like Hammett.
    Harry Potter, and other light fiction books too numerous to mention.

    [/Books] permanent link

    Fri, 25 Nov 2005

    This is already old news, but: in October I spent seven days in Norway. I took some photos if you are interested; I suggest clicking on "start slideshow" and viewing them that way.

    It takes a long time to get to Norway from California. After an 11-hour flight from San Francisco to London, I had a three-hour layover in London before the short (1.5-hour) flight to Oslo. I took a shower at the airport hotel, then hopped on a train to central Oslo and immediately climbed aboard the train to Bergen....which took another 7 hours or something like that. (If I had planned a little better at the start, I probably could have flown directly from London to Bergen). It all made for a verrrry looooong travel day, more than 24 hours from leaving San Francisco before I was able to check into my hotel.

    Bergen is a lovely city, or at least the downtown area is. It includes what must be one of the smallest U.N. World Heritage Sites: a one-square-block area of 800-year-old wooden shops. I spent a couple of hours in the morning (it was a Sunday) wandering around, but must things were closed --- Sunday morning, off-season. Around noon I took the funicular up a steep hill at the edge of town, and found myself on an attractive overlook along with dozens of other people. Apparently (according to my friend who lives there) Sunday is hiking day for families all around the country. The miles and miles of paths above Bergen were swarming with day hikers like me, all out enjoying the fall colors and the fresh air.

    I took a look at a map, chose a route, and set off, but I eventually started branching off in whatever direction looked the most interesting. The paths went to dramatic overlooks, through peaceful forests, and along wind-swept rocky ridges. At one juncture, there was a warming hut doing a brisk business selling soup and coffee. A chilly rain started up suddenly and lasted for half an hour or so, but no one was deterred; they just zipped up their rain jackets and pressed on.

    After a few enjoyable hours of hiking, I wound my way down the hill and into town for an early dinner. (My body clock was so out of kilter, the time didn't really matter).

    The next day I continued the "Norway in a Nutshell" tour by taking the train to a bus to a boat that took us -- me and a dozen passengers (on a boat that could carry hundreds) -- on a two-hour ride through the narrowest of Norway's southern fjords. We stopped in briefly at a few tiny towns, and passed several others that showed little sign of people about...although all of the buildings were in good repair. The concessionaire on the boat said that these little towns are shrinking, since there's not much employment and not much that is of interest to young people. These towns of 20-40 hourses jammed onto a little bulge of land next to a steep cliff were very picturesque, but I can definitely see why it would be hard to retain people; to me, it's amazing that some of these towns have been there for over 500 years, at more or less the size they are now.

    The boat dropped us all off at the small town of Flam, at the end of a tongue of the fjord. Most of the other passengers continued on by railway, either to Bergen or to Oslo, but I was staying the night in Flam. Unfortunately I was too tired and jet-lagged to do a big hike in the hills as I had planned, so instead I rented a bike and rode to a town a few kilometers away, poked around a little, and then rode back. I was one of only about 20 tourists in town for the night, and was disappointed that there wasn't anything to do in the evening. If a pub were open, maybe with some live music, at least 20 of us would have been in there, I guarantee.

    The next day I took the Flam Railway, a steep and scenic route, up to its connection with the main line to Oslo. It had been dark for most of my trip from Oslo to Bergen a couple of days earlier, but this time it was afternoon and I got to see the scenery. Lots of areas with forest (all in lovely fall colors), and lots of rather barren-looking rocky ground, sometimes with lakes or streams. Certainly a lovely country.

    I spent Wednesday wandering around Oslo, by foot and by tram. I went to the Viking ship museum, which includes a couple of incredibly well-preserved Viking ships and is a must-see (although the exhibits were unimaginative), and the museum for the polar ship "Fram" (meaning "Onward"); this was the ship Nansen took on his trip across the arctic, and was later used by Amundsen for his Antarctic expedition. The whole ship is there and you can wander around in it; there are also some nice exhibits, although the English-language descriptions were rather short.

    Thursday I met for a few hours with researchers at the Norwegian Building Research Institute. I described the work that my group does, related to building ventilation, and heard about the Institute's work in that area, and in others. I also got a tour of their impressive facilities. Afterwards I went to the University of Oslo to meet with the other members of the dissertation review committee, to discuss the dissertation defense (or "disputation", as they charmingly call it)...oh, I guess I forgot to mention, the reason I was in Norway in the first place was to serve on the dissertation review committee of Astrid Kristofferson, a doctoral candidate who had spent a year working in my group (though I didn't work with her myself). Astrid's advisor, Jan, kindly took me out to an excellent dinner on the waterfront that night

    Friday was the day for the "disputation." First the candidate gave a one-hour lecture (pretty good) about the current state of affairs in designing and building low-energy-consumption houses in Norway. Then, after lunch, I gave a brief talk about the work in the dissertation, and posed some questions for the candidate to wrestle with. She partially answered my questions and then dodged the tricky bits, in a thoroughly appropriate and professional manner (they were hard questions). The other "opponent" then grilled her on a few more points. And that's it! Congratulations, Dr. Kristofferson! We all --- family, friends, committee --- repaired to a restaurant for a celebratory dinner.

    Saturday, at the recommendation of one of Astrid's friends I spent the morning walking several miles along a river that runs through Oslo to the harbor. Sometimes it runs through little neighborhoods, sometimes through parkland...a very pleasant stroll. I got to central Oslo just in time (well, a little late) to meet Astrid and her friend at the "Frognerpark", which is sort of Oslo's Central Park. Very popular spot, and it holds the life work of a somewhat eccentric sculptor/designer. Astrid and I spent a while walking around, then drove out to her house for dinner with her, her husband, and their two kids. And then the next day, I flew back home.

    All in all, it was a very pleasant trip. Norway is a lovely country, although stunningly expensive; Bergen and Oslo are both attractive cities that relate very well to their waterfronts, sort of like Vancouver or Seattle.

    [/Travel] permanent link

    Mon, 22 Aug 2005

    Is Yellowstone awesome, or what?
    A couple of weeks ago we went to Yellowstone and environs for a 10-day trip: 2 days in Bozeman with a friend, three days in the Yellowstone backcountry with said friend and another friend, and 3+ days in the Lamar Valley at the northern edge of the park. First trip for both me and Juliet; neither of us had had overwhelming interest before, since we both pictured Yellowstone (especially in August) to be a scenic wonderland but packed with tourists causing traffic jams as they stopped their RVs to look at herds of semi-tame bison by the side of the road.

    Well, parts of that are right and parts of it are wrong, but the basic fact is that the trip was one of the best nature- and wildlife-viewing expeditions we've ever been on, right up their with our trip to Botswana.

    True enough, the central part of the park was packed with people. In fact, the giant parking lot complex and store area for Old Faithful was so packed that we bought some lunch and then high-tailed it outta there without a glimpse of the geyser, and had no regrets about it.

    The good stuff started the first day, after staking out one of the last "walk-in" campsites in the southern part of the park. "Walk-in" is a ridiculous misnomer, since all it means is that you pitch your tent 40 feet from your car rather than 10 feet from it (no lie), but it was a great call 'cause: no RVs and no kids in the area. Some dumb-ass couple did leave food in their tent, which got confiscated by the rangers, who checked --- no matter how many signs and warnings you put up about bears, some people are just not going to believe them. (I have a friend whose food got eaten and car got broken into by bears at Yosemite, when he ignored all of the posted precautions. Served him right.)

    Anyway, after staking out the campsite we went on a short hike to Lewis Lake. As expected, any hike of more than a few hundred yards isn't going to have other people on it, no matter how crowded the park, and sure enough we saw only two other groups on our two-hour hike. We saw beautiful wildflowers, some very interesting birds, and a bull elk with an enormous set of antlers. He completely ignored us, wandering closer and closer, grazing under fallen logs, while we just stood and watched from the path. Technically we were supposed to move away when he got within 25 yards, but we just stood and took photos, and he got much closer than that (!)

    Our friends Sarah and Sarah arrived later that evening, and the next day we backpacked in to Heart Lake; about 9 miles to our first-night campsite, although Juliet and I took an unintended long-cut that cost us an extra mile. A decent workout, what with the full packs and the elevation (over 6000 feet) but not really hard. We spent the next couple of days around the lake, at two different campsites. Again, very few people back in there, and lots of undisturbed country and wildlife. We got good looks at mule deer, white-tailed deer, muskrat, blue grouse, and a bunch o' other stuff. The animals are definitely not tame, but since hunting isn't allowed they're also not especially afraid of humans other than normal wariness. It was a really pleasant trip.

    Finally, we moved on to the Yellowstone Association Institute, located in a former bison ranch in the Lamar Valley, at the northern edge of the park. Most of the thousands of bison in the park are descendants of the 40+ bison that were "nurtured" at the ranch in the 20s and 30s, in the successful bid to keep bison from being wiped out altogether. The former camp, a set of small log cabins plus a barn, a bath-house, and a kitchen/classroom, is now used for educational programs like the one that we took: a few talks per day, plus 3-hour excursions led by wildlife researchers (and sometimes geologists and others). It was fantastic. The valley is alive with wildlife --- mostly bison and some pronghorn close to the road, but we also saw a grizzly off in the distance, and we joined a bunch of wolf enthusiasts (self-styled as "wolfers") in watching two groups of wolves off in the distance --- I say 'groups' rather than packs because they were actually two parts of the same pack. We could see and hear them howling to each other across the valley, each group taking a turn at howling while the other listened intently. We also saw sandhill cranes and white pelicans, and a flock of bighorn sheep feeding right near a fire trail that we were hiking on, and osprey and eagles and elk...and we didn't see these animals in contrived situations, but out in the wild interacting with each other and acting like they're supposed to act.

    The talks and researcher-led hikes were great, too: really informative but never dry or boring. It was terrific, and I highly recommend the Yellowstone Association Institute and the Lamar Valley.

    [/Travel] permanent link

    Sat, 30 Apr 2005

    Some discards in 2005

    OK, so, this isn't much of a blog. Months go by without anything new, and then the new stuff isn't that interesting. Mostly this just serves as my personal repository of stuff I might want to be able to remember someday, that would otherwise get lost. And here's another post like that. So sue me.

    We hired some house-cleaners to come today to do a spring cleaning, which we needed anyway, but even more so because our recently completed renovation project generated a lot of dust. The impending arrival of the cleaners meant that I needed to do a few things in preparation, one of which was to clear out some space on my bookshelves so that I could get some stacks of books off the floor. Clearing out space means identifying books to get rid of, so I hurriedly scanned my shelves and grabbed the following. This isn't a representative cross-section of books that I read, or books that I read but don't like, or anything else in particular, it's just a semi-random sample of books that added up to a space about the right physical size to make room for the ones that I needed to fit in place.

    Five-Finger Discount, by Helene Stapinski
    Curious World, by Philip Hamburger
    The Choking Doberman, by Jan Brunvand
    The Vanishing Hitchhiker, by Jan Brunvand
    The Road Ahead, by Bill Gates
    Return of the Straight Dope, by Cecil Adams
    Notable American Women, by Ben Marcus
    The History of the Siege of Lisbon, by Jose Saramago
    Dr. Broth and Ollie's Brain-Boggling Search for the Lost Luggage, by Michael Abrams and Jeffrey Winters.

    [/Books] permanent link

    Tue, 01 Mar 2005

    Some more books
    Well, I've been very lax about updating this page...especially considering it takes very little effort! And it takes especially little effort to just mention some more books that I've read, so that's what I'll do here.

    Five-Finger Discount, by Helene Stapinski This is a memoir by a 40-year-old woman who grew up in Jersey City, in a family of small-time crooks. She's just about my age, and it's interesting to think about the differences in our vs suburbs, poor vs relatively affluent, parents uneducated vs educated. So the book wasn't bad. But it wasn't great, either. It's not really _about_ anything, and its writing style gets the job done but doesn't elevate the book. The book was OK, but I can't think of who I would recommend it to.

    Conned Again, Watson, by Colin Bruce This is an excellent book that explains a slew of logic and statistical puzzles and problems using the format of Sherlock Holmes stories. The stories are just vehicles for the puzzles and problems, but most of them do a decent job at that, providing a sort of conversational way to explain problems that would otherwise by very dry (and in truth, some of them remain dry). The good thing about the book is that it manages to make a lot of non-trivial problems understandable without introducing any mathematical formalism whatsoever. There's even a simple introduction to game theory.

    [/Books/Nonfiction] permanent link

    Fri, 31 Dec 2004

    Miscellaneous Non-Fiction, 2004
    I see I haven't been posting much on here about what I've been reading. Here's what I can see on my shelf, from where I'm sitting, that I read this year but haven't posted about:

    Hiding the Elephant, by Jim Steinmeyer. A nicely written book about the golden age of magic (about 1880-1930), and the inventions---"it's all done with mirrors"---that baffled audiences for two generations. The book spills the secrets of a few tricks, which is interesting, but also discusses the businesses and personalities. I liked it.

    Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser. If you don't know about this book already, welcome back from your round-the-world submarine voyage. Like everyone else, I think this is a very good, informative, thought-provoking, sometimes horrifying book. I recommend it.

    Krakatoa, by Simon Winchester. The author of "The Professor and the Madman" (about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary and one of the odd people who contributed to it) brings us another easy read about a historical event. This time, it's the eruption of the volcanic island of Krakatoa, off Sumatra, in the late 1800s... the first catastrophe (Winchester says) whose news rapidly spread around the world, thanks to the international telegraph. The explosion and subsequent tsunami killed about 36,000 people. This is a good book, and unfortunately is rather timely since it is relevant to the tragic Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004.

    Blue Latitudes, by Tony Horwitz. The author visits (by plane, mostly) most of the Pacific Ocean islands that were visited by Captain Cook, writing about equally about Cook's experiences and his own a couple hundred years later. Sometimes amusing, sometimes depressing, usually interesting. This isn't a great book, but it's a good book, and if you're going to be traveling in the Pacific or have an interest in Cook, it's definitely worth reading.

    [/Books/Nonfiction] permanent link

    Fri, 03 Dec 2004

    Nonfiction: The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson
    This is another "microhistory" book by the author of "Isaac's Storm", which was about an enormously deadly and destructive hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas, in 1900. In "The Devil in the White City", Larson has chosen another macabre subject from around the same time, as one of the two true contemporaneous stories in the book, both of which take place in Chicago in 1893: the story of a man named Mudgett (a.k.a. "H.H. Holmes") who was one of the worst known serial killers in U.S. history, who owned his own hotel outfitted with gas valves so he could knock out his victims in their beds before dragging them to his soundproofed dissection chamber. The other story is of the conception, building, and execution of the World Columbian Exhibition --- basically a World's Fair --- whose attendees provided some of Mudgett's victims.

    Although Mudgett's story is certainly the more sensational, I found the story of the Columbian Exhibition more interesting. On a nearly barren patch of sandy lakeshore, the country's foremost architects and landscape architects built an entire city -- known as the White City for the uniformly white color of its romanesque buildings -- in just two years. The buildings were some of the largest built up to that time, and the city was so beautiful, and in such contrast to the "black", garbage-strewn, smelly, crowded, unsanitary cities of the day (including the host city of Chicago) that some visitors were literally moved to tears just by the sight.

    It's a good, interesting book, and I recommend it.

    [/Books/Nonfiction] permanent link

    Wed, 03 Nov 2004

    Movie/Performance: The Rocky Horror Picture Show
    The last time I saw the Rocky Horror Picture Show was in about 1990. Let's call it fifteen years ago, well over half my adult life. Well, last weekend (Halloween weekend) I went again, along with Juliet's sister (Beth) and two friends from work, one of them a Rocky "virgin". For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about: The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a cult movie by design, that was enormously popular throughout the country in the late 70s and early 80s and still maintains a healthy fan base after all these years.

    Not wanting to look totally out of place, I stopped in at a local costume store earlier in the day, and said "I'm going to Rocky Horror, what do you have?" They had---get this---an off-the-shelf Rocky Horror "kit", just like this one only more expensive. Even ignoring the fact that buying a ready-made costume seems somehow antithetical to the Rocky Horror spirit, I just didn't think this was for me: as I told the sales clerk, "I'm not sure I'm man enough to wear that." But she and her co-worker were very encouraging, so I thought What the hell, why not?

    I tried on the costume that evening at home, just to make sure it would be OK; as I told Juliet, "I want to make sure it doesn't make me look ridiculous." Later that night, I even added red lipstick, then went to the movie with Beth (dressed more or less like the Janet Weiss character in the film) and Rengie (dressed as Minnie Mouse, for no particular reason). Emily Wood came along too, dressed extremely tamely as a generic Irish lass.

    Here are a few photos of me, Rengie, and Beth.

    As for the show itself, well, there have been a few changes and a lot of things are still the same. The crowd is the same age as before (roughly 19-29, meaning Beth and I were old enough to be the parents of many of the people there), the movie is the same as ever of course, and the tradition of yelling comments at the screen is of course still very prominent. Indeed, the "yelling at the screen" tradition has gotten entirely out of hand (he said grumpily..."it was better back in MY day"). As I remember it from back in the good old days, there used to be something yelled at the screen every few minutes..."The man you are about to see has got no fucking neck", that sort of thing; some of them clever, some of them not. But there were long sections of movie---well, at least a few minutes long---in which the movie was allowed to just be the movie.

    No longer. Now, the audience commentary is pretty much nonstop. Some of the stuff is clever, some isn't. If only the clever bits were retained, and the rest were discarded, I think it would be an improvement.

    The other big change---and perhaps this is just because it was Halloween weekend---is that instead of coming dressed as Rocky Horror characters, audience members simply came in any ol' costume. A pity, I was looking forward to running into some other Frank N Furters. (There were plenty of other scantily clad audience members of both sexes, but I believe I was the only Frank N Furter).

    Anyway, it was great fun, and perhaps I'll only wait five years rather than fifteen before going that. Of course, then I'll be hopelessly old and out of place, even more than now. Tough.

    [/Arts] permanent link

    Sun, 19 Sep 2004

    Travel: Portugal
    In early September, I spent a week in Portugal. Three days were for a conference in a small city called Coimbra (near the coast, north of Lisbon, slightly south of Porto), two days in Lisbon (one on the way out, one on the way back), and two days in the small medieval town of Sintra, just half an hour from Lisbon by commuter train.

    I put up some photos (I suggest clicking on the "view slide show" button, to see them full-size). My impressions in a nutshell:

    • Lisbon. Didn't like it. I was only out and about in Lisbon for a total of twelve hours over two days, but my impression was not very favorable. Both times, I went to dinner in the "Bairro Alto" neighborhood, which my guidebook says is the happenin' place for lively but somewhat raffish nightlife. I was picturing something like San Francisco's Mission District, or Washington D.C.'s Adams-Morgan area. In fact, though, the area was considerably less lively and more seedy. The seediness wasn't so bad---adds character, after all---but it frankly just wasn't that great a place to spend an evening. (So why did I go back the second time? Because I was convinced that I must have missed the good stuff the first time! Nope.) I did have a pretty good dinner at a Moroccan restaurant, a pretty good dessert at a neighborhood cafe, and an enjoyable half hour watching the end of a World Cup Qualifier soccer match in an English-themed bar (full of actual English people), so it's not like it was a total loss; it's just that the area didn't have any particular charm, and didn't seem to offer an experience different from what you can get in any other city.
    • Coimbra. Liked it a lot better than Lisbon. The conference was OK, at an oddly designed new conference center on the outskirts of town. The town has a heavily touristed old quarter that is so typical as to almost be a cliche: narrow cobblestone streets winding up a hill, a shopping district with stalls selling trinkets, loads of tourists (lots of Germans, some Spanish, some English..not many Americans). One of Europe's oldest universities sits on top of the hill. I didn't really do much sight-seeing---didn't have time, what with the conference and its associated events. I did have an enjoyable time talking to other conference attendees.
    • Sintra. Loved it. I had told some Portugese at the conference that with my last couple of days in the country, I wanted to go someplace that was interesting and that had stuff to do outside. They suggested Sintra, which is a small town very close to Lisbon. I took the commuter train from Lisbon to Sintra, and stopped at the train station tourist office when I arrived. Within a few minutes I had booked a room at "Lawrence's Hotel", which claims to be the oldest continuously operated hotel on the Iberian Peninsula, and which gave me a very nice room overlooking a wooded valley for 80 Euros (about $95) per night. There are three main must-see tourist attractions in the Sintra area: the town itself, which is a small (4-block by 4-block) medieval village with the usual restaurants and trinket shops as well as several museums and galleries; a 9th-century Moorish castle on a steep hill above the town, which was re-built in somewhat romantic fashion (as opposed to historically correctly) in the early 1800s; and a former royal castle/palace on another hill. Here's the thing: almost everyone "does" Sintra as a day trip, taking either a tourbus or the local bus around to hit the sights. But the whole area is embedded in parkland, so it's very pleasant to take a little more time and walk instead. Overall, the area was so nice that I strongly recommend staying in Sintra and doing day trips to Lisbon rather than the other way around.
    I guess one other thing I'd say about Portugal is that unlike, say, France or Italy, it doesn't seem to be a country with a foodie tradition. My best meals in Portugal were Italian and Moroccan, and I don't think it's from lack of trying the Portugese cuisine. I do like their apparently traditional duck-and-rice dish.

    Overall, my brief trip to Portugal didn't give me time to see that much. By far my favorite part of the trip was my two days in Sintra, which I really enjoyed.

    [/Travel] permanent link

    Wed, 11 Aug 2004

    Looong vacation!
    It's been several months since I updated this website, but that's not because of laziness (well, not _just_ because of laziness). It's also because I was away on a SIX WEEK vacation, my longest break from work since junior high school. Juliet and I spent a couple of weeks driving up the Pacific coast to Salt Spring Island, British Columbia; we spent a week on the island; we flew from Seattle out to the east coast and spent two weeks there; then we returned to Seattle and spent a week driving back to Berkeley.

    We loved the Elk Prairie/Prairie Creek part of the Northern California redwoods. We did a fun mountain bike trip there, about 11 miles through old-growth forest and down to the coastal plain, where we saw a herd of elk that came grazing past at close range. We also had an excellent campsite in Prairie Creek State Park.

    The Oregon coast was beautiful, nice to drive through and we also did some nice hikes there.

    We stayed for a week at the "Spindrift Resort at Welbury Point" on Salt Spring Island (a.k.a. Saltspring Island), just inside Vancouver Island. The resort is a collection of small, simple cottages built and run by two nature- and animal-loving women over the past twenty or thirty years. There's a small herd of tame deer that spends all of their time roaming the grounds (and happily accepting food handouts), and a covey of quail, and several tame's quite charming. Once, while we were sitting out on the point looking over the bay, an otter came along just offshore, dove down and caught a fish, and then swam right in to the rocks in front of us, climbed out, and ate the fish! Pretty great.

    We spent two weeks on the island of North Haven, Maine, where we easily filled our days by taking walks, kayaking, playing games with Juliet's cousins, biking around, etc. Several friends came up for brief periods, too, and that was much fun. We also went to the wedding of a good friend, Holly, who married a very nice guy, Rob, who we like a lot.

    And now we're back, and getting back into the flow of regular life, which has _schedules_ and _things to do_ and so on. I'll try to get back to updating this web site more often, too.

    [/Travel] permanent link

    Mon, 03 May 2004

    Why did I not appreciate the Potomac more?
    When I lived in the D.C. area, I literally never thought about the Potomac River as a destination or as a nice place to spend a day. I remember going to Great Falls a few times with my parents when I was young, but other than that, I was completely oblivious to the river and its attractions.

    Last week, though, Juliet and I were in D.C. for a few days, and we spent some time on the Potomac. Actually the river started out just as a place to give her her birthday present (really a "baseball bat" present, since I get to use it too), which is a folding kayak. This is a 17-foot-long two-person kayak that folds up into two (rather large) canvas bags; you can store them in your closet or even check them as baggage when you fly! My brother and his wife arranged to meet me and Juliet at a restaurant/bar overlooking the river; I arrived early, assembled the kayak (which I had bought on eBay and had shipped to my brother's house in D.C.), and shoved off. When Juliet arrived, my brother and sister-in-law pointed her my way, and there I was, paddling towards her with a bunch of orchids in the bow . Very romantic. Juliet hopped in for a brief paddle back to the put-in spot, then we all headed out to dinner.

    Juliet and I intended to go out to the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge the next day and spend a few hours paddling around, but that plan was aborted when, after a half hour of driving, we still hadn't managed to get halfway to the city line! (The traffic was incredible, far worse than San Francisco, or, for that matter, Manhattan the last time we were there). Instead, we drove back to the Potomac, assembled the kayak again, and went out for a quick jaunt, just about an hour total. That was nice, and we also noticed a lot of people jogging and biking along the towpath for the C&O Canal, alongside the river. So the next day we rented bikes and went for a bike ride along the canal and the river. We rode up to Great Falls, an impressive set of rapids about 14 miles upriver. The ride was very pretty, on a nice spring day. It's really amazing that this relatively unspoiled and almost completely undeveloped stretch of river exists in the middle of such a densely populated area. We owe a big thanks to the people who fought to keep the river corridor undeveloped in the 1920's, when there were plans to fill in the canal and build a highway in its place.

    Anyway, if you're ever in D.C. and looking for a brief escape from the hubbub of the city, try a walk, jog, or bike along the C&O canal towpath.

    [/Travel] permanent link

    Mon, 12 Apr 2004

    Lacto- ovo- pesci?
    What's the word for someone who doesn't eat red meat or chicken, but does eat eggs, milk/cheese, and fish? Well, whatever the word is, that's what Juliet and I are, at least for the past several months. We finally read one too many stories about the mistreatment of animals in factory farms, and decided to try a nearly-meat-free existence for a while. So far it's been easier than we expected...especially since we're still eating fish. We're eating even more fish than we used to, and more pasta. Trouble is, there are big issues with fish, too (see the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch for example. Plus, we haven't quite managed to match the variety of food that we used to enjoy. We're gradually adapting, we eat meat or fowl in some circumstances, like when we're at a dinner party where it's served, or, um, when it's on a menu and it looks really really good. Ahem.

    We may end up backsliding a bit by eating some meat from sources that are supposedly better (in the sense of just killing the cows and birds, not torturing them for months first). We'll see.

    [/Food] permanent link

    Wed, 24 Mar 2004

    Fifteen (more!) minutes of fame for us!
    The San Francisco Chronicle just published a nice article about Berkeley creeks (available online from, right here ) that has photos of us and our yard, and a quote from me. (In spite of the fact that Juliet is the creek expert, I'm the one who got the quote and the credit for restoring the creek in our backyard. You need to click on the thumbnail photos to get usable-size versions.

    [/Nature] permanent link

    If you like horses...
    We recently saw a show called "Cavalia" in San Francisco. It's been described before as "Cirque du Soleil with horses," and that's a very good description. It's in a big tent, sort of big-top-sized although with a theater feel rather than a circus feel. There are people doing acrobatics, people running around, horses doing acrobatics, horses running around, people doing acrobatics on horses that are running around, and so on. All with interesting sets and good, unusual music. We liked it. Perhaps coming soon to a theater near you.

    [/Arts] permanent link

    Sun, 08 Feb 2004

    House: More catwalk stuff!
    If you've been paying attention -- see June 2003 or September 2003 -- you know that one of my projects has been to build an elevated walkway for cats, that connects our house to the house next door (where Juliet's sister lives with her cats). Photos of the walkway (in partially completed state) are available here and here, although I've made some improvements since then.

    Now, I've released a video that shows a "Chester's-eye view" of an entire traverse of the catwalk. Go to and go to the Public Folder, then the Cats, folder, and then download (You might be able to skip the folder navigation by clicking here). It's a rather large video (15.3 MB) in Quicktime format...probably only worth doing if you have a broadband connection. Oh, and it has sound which greatly enhances it, so make sure you have your speakers turned up!

    The catwalk is now open for business for all four of the cats. Our cats enjoy going next door to visit Beth's house and cats, but her cats are so far a bit too shy to have play dates at our house. There's been a little minor tension on the catwalk (it has a "passing area" for cats to get past each other, but, predictably, the cats actually enjoy blocking the other cats and tend to choose spots where they obstruct things as much as possible).

    [/House] permanent link

    Sat, 31 Jan 2004

    Nonfiction: The Next Hundred Years: The Unfinished Business of Science, by C.C. Furnas.
    This book was written in 1936 by a Yale professor of chemical engineering. I picked it up at a yard sale, and thought it might prove entertaining. We're 70 percent of the way through the hundred years Furnas was writing about, so we should be able to check some of his predictions. I thought a lot of them might be laughable---weekend trips to the moon, that sort of thing. And indeed, starting the book with a chapter on eugenics seemed like a good indication that the book might be pretty wacky. Instead, it's remarkable how well he did (even in the eugenics discussion). Would I do as well at predicting the course of the next hundred (or seventy) years?

    Here are a few selected quotes from the book, arranged by chapter title.


    Infectious Diseases

    The proper way to choose a remedy for a cold is to write down all known methods, each on a separate slip, mix well and while heavily blindfolded, withdraw one from a hat. One has the satisfaction of knowing that the remedy thus prescribed will be just as good as any other.


    ...The childhood diseases will have disappeared, the common cold will have gone the way of the dodo, smallpox will only be a matter of record of the past generations. But these curses will still be lingering in some forgotten spot and there will be an old-time epidemic of smallpox around the corner just waiting for us to cease vaccinating for a few years.



    The expert practicing dietitian cannot recommend a perfect diet but she can suggest a very good one. The general plan seems to be to call on the old shotgun recipe and thus include a little of everything partly to please your taste and partly to be certain that you get all the essentials. Everyone must have all the vitamins and he must have minerals. ... The perfect diet is not yet and will not be for a long time to come, but until it gets here it will be best to rely on the experimental information already gathered than the harangue of the food faddist.


    What of Death?

    ...Inherited life-span might be defined as the length of life of the average person if everyone died of old age instead of dying by accident or from some specific disease...We do not know what this theoretical life-span is, for so very few people die of true old age that we cannot strike an average; but if we could, the figure would probably creep up towards the century and would surely be more than 70 years. [Note: at the time that the book was written, life expectancy in the U.S. was a bit less than 60 years.--Phil].


    Poor Plants and Ailing Animals

    Twenty-five years ago the New England hills were covered with a growth of chestnut trees that made a magnificent showing. Today there is probably not a full-fledged native chestnut in the entire area. Someone unwittingly introduced the chestnut blight from Europe or perhaps indirectly from Japan and that was the last of the chestnut. This devastation was due to a fungus that is parasitic on the chestnut but one that was so unwise as to kill its host. (The spreading chestnut under which the Village smithy stood did not share this fate. It had previously fallen in the march of progress, being cut down in 1879 to widen Brattle St. in Cambridge).



    There is a real need for vest-pocket receiving sets weighing not more than half a pound, which a man can carry conveniently anywhere he may go and pick up the ether waves at will....Vest-pocket transmitters might be very desirable but they offer far greater difficulties than a small size receiver....Housewives should not anticipate their wholesale use for calling up the husband in his car and telling him to bring home a loaf of bread. The ether is already so cluttered up with a little bit of everything that a few million additional messages along towards dinner time would prove fatal. [Failing to anticipate the invention of cellular technology, this is one that Furnas got wrong.--Phil]


    Leisure Without Lethargy

    We may look forward to the day when the average struggle for existence will be relegated to a minor problem. Only those who have endowed lives are in that fortunate position now, and they are not certain how long it will last. Every man is not a king nor is everyone in the future going to be rich nor is he going to be able to lead a workless life, but the working obligation for an average scale of living will decrease to the dimensions of a chore, leaving ample time for leisure. The balance of power in American life will then shift from the job to the hobby...(snip)...There will be more golf courses, if the game survives, more tennis courts and bathing pools, almost anything might turn up. Archery might become as important as in the days of Robin Hood. Unheard of games might arise [Like Ultimate Frisbee--Phil]. It does not make much difference what they are. It is only necessary that they shall be enjoyable.

    There shall be more fishing, be assured of that. It will be a national problem to shorten the time between bites....

    ...The average man will have the means to travel considerably in modest style and he will have the time. Why shouldn't he go?

    [/Books/Nonfiction] permanent link

    Mon, 19 Jan 2004

    Fiction: Notable American Women, by Ben Marcus
    This is the worst book I ever read. Previously, if I started to read any book remotely close to this bad, I would toss it aside without a second thought. Unfortunately, this was the selection of my book discussion group, so I felt obligated to read it...especially since I recently chided people for being too picky about the book selection, saying "I'll read anything. I'm going to read several thousand more books in my life, I don't really care if this one is in the top 10." So, I read the whole thing, every pretentious, ridiculous, irritating word.

    The plot, such as it is, concerns a boy raised by a sort of cult that believes that silence is blessed, that depriving the kid of emotional sustenance will make him stronger, and a bunch of other claptrap. The kid grows up completely screwed up, of course, but since he doesn't know what "normal" is, he doesn't know this. To the extent that the book has "characters", they're all hateful and unsympathetic. The book's language is at times nonsensical, at times pretentious, at times opaque, but is always irritating. Here's a sample:

    "It would be foolish to simplify the role of the skin in reading, thinking, and eating. Nearly everything that can be said about the skin can be disproved or at least convincingly denied. For the purposes of this book, once the fast is completed, the arm should be wrapped in the cloth you had stashed in your mouth."

    If you would like to read 240 pages of stuff like that, this is the book for you!

    It is only fair to acknowledge, I suppose, that lots of people absolutely love this book, and the web is strewn with reviews that claim that this book is insightful, life-changing, yada yada. This is, of course, utter nonsense.

    [/Books/Fiction] permanent link

    Mon, 05 Jan 2004

    Recipe: Carrot-Ginger-Orange soup
    Juliet and I are very proud of our carrot-ginger-orange soup. We often make it for dinner parties, and sometimes we cook up a batch just for ourselves. It's pretty easy, and we think it's among the best soups we've ever had! Here, for the first time, is the recipe (which is loosely based on "Cream-of-almost-any-vegetable soup" from James McNair's soups cookbook).

    We do all of this in a pressure cooker---it's a single-pot meal. Ingredients are olive oil, 3 c. leeks, 2 T. fresh ginger, 3 lbs. carrots, 1.5 c. vegetable broth, 2 c. orange juice, 1/2 c. milk, and salt and pepper.

    • (1) Heat 1/8 cup olive oil
    • (2) Add 2 to 3 cups chopped leeks (2 large leeks, or 3 regular leeks)
    • (3) Add 2 Tbs. fresh chopped ginger
    • (4) Saute leeks and ginger until leeks are very soft (about 15 minutes)
    • (5) Add 3 pounds carrots, either sliced or "baby carrots"
    • (6) Add 1 to 2 cups concentrated vegetable broth (we use a frozen, concentrated broth)
    • (7) Put the lid on the pressure cooker and cook for about 20 minutes
    • (8) In batches, use a blender to puree until smooth
    • (9) Add 2 to 3 cups orange juice
    • (10) Add 1/2 cup nonfat milk
    • (11) Add salt and pepper to taste (we recommend lots of pepper).
    That's all there is to it. Takes about an hour, but half of that is cooking time. Serve with bread.

    A few tips. (1) use as much of the dark green part of the leeks as you want, but make sure it's well washed: mud has a way of working its way down between the leafy bits. By the way, you can just slice the leeks, you don't need to chop them: while they're sauteing, they'll fall apart. (2) You can do this without a pressure cooker---just add 1 c. of water, and cook in a big pot. (3) Our ideal is to have the carrot taste, ginger taste, and orange taste all about equally prominent, but we've done the soup without the ginger, without the orange juice, and without either, and those options all work too; indeed, the McNair recipe has neither OJ nor ginger (and it also has a lot of butter instead of a little olive oil, and cream instead of milk).

    Bon appetit!

    [/Food] permanent link

    Sun, 21 Dec 2003

    Hey, did I mention...?
    I was just selected to be a Fellow of the American Physical Society (that's "physical" in the sense of "being about physics", not in the sense of "being a super-stud." It's quite an honor. Objectively speaking, it's very hard to see how I deserve it---in any single year, only 0.5% of APS members can become Fellows. But at least I had enough going for me that it wasn't a laughable suggestion, so I'm pleased about that. The fellowship citation mentions (1) my work on quantitatively describing the spatial and statistical distribution of radon in the USA, (2) developing new tomography techniques for mapping air pollution, and (3) compiling and publicizing advice for responding to chemical or biological attacks in buildings. As you can see, none of it is "physics" in the traditional sense, although item (2) at least has a strong analytical connection. Anyway, it's big news for me, even though it's a bit baffling.

    [/Diary] permanent link

    Mon, 08 Dec 2003

    Fiction: The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt
    A teenage girl thinks she's figured out who killed her brother years ago, and decides to take her own revenge. In the mean time, she has to deal with a non-functioning mom who never recovered from her son's death, and the departure of a valued (but mistreated) nanny/maid. The protagonist is clever and self-assured, and the book is always interesting, and sometimes touching or funny. It's a bit lightweight: like "The Rotters Club," "The Little Friend" is pleasant to read but isn't great literature.

    [/Books/Fiction] permanent link