Archive for August, 2008

Keep your gas tanks full, it’s hyperbole season

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

I’m not sure what happened, but somehow I got to be very sensitive to gross exaggeration and hyperbole along the way, especially when it comes to the use of history and statistics. Or at least I hope that it is really just me.  Today’s example comes from Ray Nagin, Mayor of New Orleans, as brought to us by the Chronicle:

“You need to be scared and you need to be concerned and you need to get your butts moving out of New Orleans right now — this is the storm of the century.”

Depending upon whether you are a traditionalist or not, the current century is either in its seventh or eighth year, and already we have had many strong hurricanes, Gustav merely being the latest. While I commend Mayor Nagin’s desire to convince people to evacuate, over-sensationalizing the danger isn’t necessary, but it just seems irresistible. For example, this should be warning enough for people who survived Katrina:

“For everyone out there that thinks they can ride this storm out, I have news for you, that will be one of the biggest mistakes you can make in your life.”

Mortal and imminent peril? You’ve got my attention. Mandatory evacuation? I’m packing. Free bus ride if I can’t afford it? I’m out the door. Person who is telling me all of this is blowing stuff out of proportion? Well, maybe I’ll stay. Exaggeration tends to blunt the message as it starts calling into question the messenger’s credibility, and this isn’t something where you need to overplay the danger. I don’t need it to be the biggest great white shark in the ocean for it to be a Bad Idea for me to go swimming right now.

Pop Quiz: Which was the “crime of the century” in the 20th century?
a) Lindbergh kidnapping b) Rosenberg conspiracy c) Tate/La Bianca murders d) Nicole Brown Simpson’s murder

That being said, these are some the less damaging examples. More pernicious, perhaps, is when a bureaucrat’s best intentions cause collateral damage. I have a love-hate relationship with government bureaucracy. On the one hand, as a consumer, I hate having to wait in lines and wish that things would be faster and more efficient so I could go about my day. On the other hand, I respect the wisdom of Frank Herbert’s Bureau of Sabotage. Bureaucrats’ most sublime purpose in life ought to be to blunt the ill-thought out, ill-defined, ill-targeted and ill-funded policies that come from the under-informed and over-zealous politicians who happen to make the mistake of getting enough other under-informed and over-zealous politicians to agree with him or her to make their will law.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, flood plain maps. After all, it is hurricane season. In case folks haven’t looked at the flood contours near where they live, I highly recommend wandering over to FEMA’s website, and taking a look at the relevant flood map for your area. The Harris County Watershed Maps from the Tropical Storm Allison Recovery Project (TSARP) are also fun.

What’s interesting about these maps is not so much what they are, but it is what they are not. What they purport to be is a topographical contour map that shows flood probabilities. The biggest problem is that they use a short-hand notation for probability (e.g., “100 year” and “500 year” flood plain) that is incredibly misleading. If I remember my Texas History from back in finger-painting school, Texas was inhabited by people like the Comanche, Apache and Karankawa tribes who, I believe, deleted all of their climatological databases from their hard drives when the neighborhood got so bad from “those people” moving in that they decided to move out. Or something like that.

Since climatology is, inherently, highly dependent upon empiricism and inductive methods, it seems odd to me that we would express probabilities (0.2% chance in a given year) in ways that were overly-reassuring given the nascent nature of the underlying science. In the back-half of the 1990s, I seem to recall half-a-dozen or so “100 year floods”. Not to open up a discussion on a Gambler’s Fallacy, or anything, but it seems like either God hates us or the models are bad.

This is before we understand that, necessarily, these models are done ex post facto, and don’t necessarily account for the continual re-shaping of the watersheds and the climate. The more of the Katy Prairie that gets paved over, the more downtown Houston is going to flood, no matter what the maps say. The more it rains in a given year, the more likely you are to get flooding (both from an independent and dependent probability perspective – ground saturates, after all). Analytical conveniences are convenient for the lay person who will struggle to grasp the basic concept, but they also often hide important information.

The big finish: we’re in the 500-year flood plain, but we’ve lost a car in the past to sheet flooding, so we carry flood insurance. I’m not saying you should, too, but just remember, if the water looks like it may be troubling, pay attention to it. And that’s not hyperbole, it’s just common sense, no matter how improbable you think it might be.

Adventias: Thanks and farewell to Suzanne

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

Almost exactly one year since she joined us, Suzanne, my Gran’s most-valuable caregiver, is leaving our team so she can spend more time with her own elderly mother. It’s daunting to imagine moving forward without her.

As a gesture of thanks, my mom, Sarah, and I took Suzanne to lunch. We also gave her a thoughtful greeting card and two sizable gift cards. Afterwards, she thanked us for our generosity, but I actually feel we left her with a pittance relative to the value she has generously brought us.

Sarah and Suzanne

As long as I can remember, my Gran’mom kept a tidy and elegant home. She attributed her diligence to living ~30 years with my grandfather, whom she referred to as “Mr. Neatly”. Sarah was also a fastidious bookkeeper. But a few years ago, her desk began to get away from her. Processing mail in a timely manner had become an overwhelming challenge. Twice in 2007 her phone was disconnected after the bill languished on her desk, lost under more recent arrivals. It became clear even to Sarah that she needed help. She contacted the Galveston office of an agency called Right At Home, who introduced her to Suzanne.

Suzanne is no average caregiver; she’s also the sharp alternate administrator of the care agency. She’s smart, caring, and diligent, and she spent the last year going above and beyond:

  • She not only brought in the mail and paid bills, but also weeded through all the accumulated junk mail, and continued Sarah’s practice of supporting charitable endeavors; and
  • She not only drove Sarah to appointments, but also took over managing Sarah’s calendar and scheduling, ensuring that follow-up visits always occurred as needed; and
  • She not only shopped for groceries Sarah requested, but learned her way around all of the cupboards to be able to discern items which were genuinely needed from items which Sarah simply no longer knew where to look for.

During the year, Sarah’s health and cognitive function varied significantly, including an adverse drug reaction during December, and a small stroke in early April. Suzanne navigated through it all:

  • She assisted Sarah gracefully, even when Sarah was confused, repetitive, grumpy, or caustic;
  • She helped us think through worrisome and thorny situations, strategizing the best ways to balance Sarah’s autonomy and safety; and
  • She invested 100+ additional hours on email and phone calls to ensure that my mom, me, and eventually additional caregivers all stayed on the same page.

Through her dedication and attention to detail, Suzanne made it possible for Sarah to continue to live in her own home, when it was no longer safe for her to do so alone, while my mom works full time, and I live 50 miles away.

My mom said it best:

By her patience and professionalism, Suzanne won Sarah’s trust, respect and increasing reliance, and gave the rest of us peace of mind by averting assorted crises of canceled service, insurance, etc. Suzanne’s good sense about when to contact the family about an issue, and when to simply deal with it herself, was very reassuring and made it easy for us to come to rely on her, as well.

To say we will miss Suzanne in the weeks and years ahead is an understatement.

Sarah does have two other regular caregivers, who facilitate meals and meds each morning, and we have started a third caregiver who we intend to grow into Suzanne’s more managerial role. The challenge is managing Sarah’s expectations during the transition.

Sarah spends each day in a particular and orderly routine, and she understandably expects all activity in her home to occur the way she expects it to occur. That means it’s essential for us all to help teach each caregiver what Sarah needs, when, and how. It also means Sarah should be flexible and understanding as new caregivers they learn her ways.

But the trouble is that she no longer remembers the weeks long ago when she introduced Suzanne to her home. On Wednesday she told me solemnly, “I didn’t have to teach Suzanne anything!” As a result, her caregivers are being measured against an impossible standard and Sarah is impatient with them. Suzanne has only been gone four days and Sarah is already talking about needing a new agency, not understanding that brand new caregivers must inevitably seem worse. When we talk with Sarah about the importance of patience and teaching, she says she understands. But the next day she is dissatisfied with her new caregivers again.

One way or another, we need to transition to a new stable schedule that Sarah accepts. Please wish us luck!

Quinoa is cool!

Saturday, August 30th, 2008

As part of our focus on healthy eating, Bill and I are consuming more of a growing variety of macrobiotic foods. One such food that I first encountered on the Whole Foods salad bar is quinoa.

In case you haven’t encountered it, quinoa (pronounced kee-nwah’) is a South American seed that functions culinarily like a grain. It’s reasonably high in protein, and unlike barley or rice, quinoa cooks in just 15 minutes, which is a huge advantage!

My friend Heather recently dazzled our Wellness group with a yummy quinoa salad, and convinced me that I should try making my own. So today, after simmering up a pot of quinoa, I pulled together:

Bob's quinoa salad

Bob’s prototype quinoa salad

2 cups cooked quinoa
1 sweet bell pepper, grilled and cut into 1/2″ pieces
1 Tbsp yellow onion, diced very fine
zest and juice of half a lemon
1 tsp olive oil
salt to taste

At first, the warm plain quinoa tasted pretty nutty. But as I added the olive oil, lemon, onion, and peppers, I was surprised how quickly it began to taste like the stuff I’ve been paying $7 a pound for at Whole Foods. Bill wanted more lemon juice flavor to go with the lemony smell, but he pronounced it “tasty”. Sweet!

Quinoa is obviously versatile and there are assuredly other good ways to prepare it. If you have a favorite quinoa receipe, would you please share it in the comments?

Zip-a-dee-do-dah! Car sharing hits Houston!

Friday, August 29th, 2008

A few months ago, my musing whether to retire my old car prompted a serious discussion of how to get by as a one-car family. In the comments, Amy, Eli, T, and Chris agreed that access to a car sharing service could make all the difference, but at the time, there were no car shares in Houston.

No more! Zip cardAs reported in the Houston Business Journal and the Chronicle this week, Zipcar just launched its first Texas car share at Rice! A $35 annual membership will allow Rice students to reserve either a Toyota Prius or a Volvo S40 for just $7/hour, up to $60/day. And the sharing charge includes registration, insurance, maintenance, and unlimited gas.

That’s a lot cheaper than owning a car! And for Rice students, it’s MUCH cheaper than paying to park a car on campus. I was curious how much parking costs these days, so I just called the parking office to find out: $440 in the stadium, $658 in a college lot, or $926 under the Jones School. Holy price escalation, batman!

Zipcar will add vehicles at Rice as demand increases, which it no doubt will. I can only hope that they’ll add service for non-student Houstonians soon, too!

p.s. Thanks, Amy, for the heads-up!

Still more recycling… bring on the plastic!

Friday, August 29th, 2008

As long as I can remember, my family has been thoughtful about discerning waste items from ones which can be reused or recycled. Living in Florida in the mid 1970s, cardboard computer or appliance packaging would live on as playspaces for weeks. Living in Connecticut in the early 1980s, we saved and returned glass bottles to retrieve the deposit. Living in Texas in the late 1980s, we focused more on reuse, since there was very little recycling. I remember saving aluminum cans in high school so I could sell them to a local scrap metal shop for cash, but that was about it.

Houston curbside recyclingBy the time I returned to Texas in the mid-1990s, both Galveston and Houston had municipal recycling operations. Since 1999, we have lived in a dense-enough neighborhood for the City of Houston to offer curbside recycling. They don’t accept glass, but they do accept paper, cardboard, and cans. And new this year, they accept more types of plastic than ever, including 1-PET, 2-HDPE, 3-PVC, 4-LDPE, 5-PP, and 7-polycarbonate/other. The only coded plastic items Houston doesn’t accept now are 6-PS. For more on what plastic various things are made from, check out this fantastic guide to recyclable plastics.

Part of me is excited to see it become economical to recycle more and more types of materials. Another part of me isn’t looking forward to rinsing all the little sauce containers that come with Chinese takeout. But saving the earth is important, right? So I’m sure we’ll manage!

I think it’s dead, Jim…

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

I liked that my new, bargain Timex watch would control my iPod. But far more useful to me was that it was ostensibly water-resistant to 50 meters, which meant I could not only wear it in the pool, but also wear it diving. In theory.

However, by the time I surfaced from our first dive to 75 feet last week, it was clear the watch wasn’t going to make it. Every possible display area was blinking through random numbers faster than you could follow, and none of the buttons had any effect. Over an hour or two, the screen became fainter and fainter until it turned off. Clearly it caved under (water) pressure.

Fortunately, the watch is under warranty so I can mail it back and get it either repaired or replaced within 2-4 weeks. The nice people at Timex even offered to waive the return shipping charge since I’ve had it such a short time. It occurred to me, cynically, that so very few of these watches get used for diving that they may not actually be designed to an adequate specification. But I’m hoping it was just a quality control defect, and that the watch they return will perform as claimed. I guess we’ll have to plan another dive vacation to find out!

Emily doesn’t like Image Metrics

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

Being the tech fiend that I am, I subscribe to several technology-related news push services. One of the best, and most entertaining, is put out by the San Jose Mercury News called “Good Morning Silicon Valley”. From there, I get this gem about a company called Image Metrics. While George Lucas tried to do away with those pesky actors in his prequel trilogy, Image Metrics seems to be doing a fair job of getting us to the point of it actually Not Sucking.

Take a look at what Emily has to say about it:


Vacated: Perfect weather for… blogging?

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

Cozumel 93 feels like 106This morning it occurred to me to wonder whether editing photos and blogging for 2-3 hours a day is really the best use of “vacation” time. But unless I want to nap, it’s really too hot in mid-afternoon to do much else. And this way we have a great journal to remember our trip!

Today was our third and final day of diving this trip, and apparently the magnet for all sorts of little things that go wrong. First, our boat was 25 minutes late because three of our dive companions boarded the boat without their masks (essential gear) and had to return to their villa to retrieve them. Oops.

Second, one of the women was much too keyed up, presumably because it was her first day diving in a long while. Not only did she drop her mask (again, in the water this time) on our first dive, but she burned through all her air super fast, on both dives. Since our whole party has to surface when the first guy gets low on air, that means our first dive was ~15 minutes short and our second was ~25 minutes short. Ergh.

And finally, neither Bill nor I thought to assess our camera batteries before we left the hotel, or bring the new batteries on the boat, so our camera was done before we were.

Despite all the little things, the diving was gorgeous. We started at a distant reef called Colombia (45 minutes away), which is a series of gorgeous medium-sized reef humps set in pristine white sand drifts. Bill drove the camera for both dives today and got some gorgeous shots:

hermit crab trail
Bill spotted tracks made by a hermit crab as it dragged a shell across the sand!

sand drifts
The wide open sand here drifted so as to appear to descend stepwise

small stingray
We saw three small stingrays today, one of which (not shown) had an even smaller fish drafting

spotfin butterfly fish
A tiny spotfin butterfly fish

female stoplight parrotfish
And another female stoplight parrotfish

In case you have never encountered one, parrotfish are pretty entertaining. They have big jaws with strong teeth which they use to break off bits of the reef and masticate to extract the coral creatures from the limestone. You can actually hear them grinding away under water.

Bill also tells me now that he watched a parrotfish “poo” over my head this morning, raining a haze of miniscule limestone detritis down in my hair. To prove his point, he just picked out two tiny fragments that resisted shampooing. Nice!

For our second dive, we drifted along the Santa Rosa “wall”. The camera finished long before we did, but Bill managed to capture my favorite turtle photo yet (click for larger version) before it did:

sea turtle
This sea turtle greeted us right as we entered the water!

This barracuda was lurking in the shadow of a reef ledge. Just over his right “shoulder” and out of view, a school of about 18 jacks were hovering just out of harm’s way.

In the Pixar film, Finding Nemo, there’s a scene where Nemo’s dad needs directions. A school of fish swimming by suddenly stops to assist him, and hover in place, wriggling ever so slightly. The scene always struck me as contrived.

But while we were on the reef today, we saw a huge school of yellow jack doing just that — hovering — essentially swimming relative to the current but remaining in a fixed position relative to the bottom. Pretty cool!

* * *
Now, it’s not only time to return to being land-based mammals, but also time to come home. We return to Houston tomorrow afternoon. Once again, we definitely intend to come back. However, we also said that after our honeymoon in 2001. This time, we’re determined to return sooner than later!

sunset seen from our balcony
Moments ago we watched from our balcony as the sun sunk into the clouds over the Yucatan.

Vacated: I love the fishes ’cause they’re so…

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

Bill and I had such a great time diving Tuesday… how could we not get up at 6:30 am and do it again? Our first dive Wednesday morning was about 30 minutes away, over/around/through a deep part of the Punta Sur reef called the Catedral, with Bob holding the camera:

A barracuda

More coral reef

female parrotfish
A female parrotfish

Bill waves
A free-range Bill

Bob and Bill
After we swam through one of the deepest coral channels, our divemaster, David, volunteered to take our photo together. Nice!

Since this reef is ~95 feet deep, our bottom time was less than 45 minutes (so as to avoid nitrogen toxicity). But the first half was so phenomenally beautiful that we didn’t mind the relative brevity. Have I mentioned that my husband is head-over-heels for diving?

Bill head over heels

Then the boat took us to shore to rinse off, snack, potty, and off-gas a bunch of nitrogen.

Aldora boat Falicity
Falicity, our Aldora boat two days running

While I was shopping for postcards, a funny thing happened. You know the sociological phenomenon that individuals are pretty good at distinguishing faces of individuals of their same ethnicity, but struggle to differentiate individuals of other ethnicities because to some extent “they all look alike”? Well, according to the mestizo-Mexican man running the shop, I “look like the very-famous actress, Andie McDowell.” (White girl? Check. Curly dark hair? Check.) I thanked him for the compliment but assured him that she makes a LOT more money than I do. Too funny.

During this “surface interval” we also confirmed that 12+ years later, “Macarena” remains a ubiquitous, perennial beach club tune.

After that, we were ready for more. The boat took us a very short distance to drop us off over San Francisco reef. Here we did another “drift” dive, with Bill holding the camera:

The biggest stingray we have ever seen, with a little black fish “drafting”

Coral that reminds Bob of El Paso

black grouper
A big (tasty) black grouper

Another sea turtle, who eyeballed Bill…

turtle en route to Bob
… and then went over to swim within an arm’s length of Bob

yellow fish
A fish who isn’t on my quick reference card

gray angel fish
A gray angel fish

sea anemone
A sea anemone

black fish
And another fish who isn’t on my quick reference card but is adorned like Bob’s Nike running shorts

With the shallower depth — 60 feet and up — there’s a lot more light and a greater variety of life. Once again, Bill got all the good stuff! I was struck by how many of the fish adornments reminded me of Olympic swim suits, which is assuredly backwards. Also, we ran into Michael Phelps while we were out today. It turns out that he is actually a dolphin, which explains his phenomenal swim times. I guess Morgan Freeman had it wrong. :-)

sand dollar

Near the end of our dive, David scooped up a tiny sand dollar and presented it to me, and I confess that it troubled me a little. I’m a big believer in the “leave only footprints, take only memories/photos” philosophy of preserving our natural places for everyone to enjoy. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to throw this one back. It is pretty, isn’t it?

Finally, it was time to return to our hotel to bathe, lunch, blog, read, rest, and get ready to do it all again. Definitely a good day!

Hotel Intercontinental Presidente

Vacated: Greetings from Cozumel!

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

Have I mentioned that we’re “working” at unwinding our lives and relaxing? My favorite meditation CD includes guided imagery. About the fifth time I was directed to “visualize yourself on an ocean beach, at sunset,” I realized that I wanted to stop visualizing an ocean beach and go to one. So here we are!

sunset over the Yucatan

Cozumel is an island east of the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico, in the Caribbean sea. First publicized by Jacques Cousteau in 1959, the many coral reefs off Cozumel’s coast offer some of the finest scuba diving in the world, and some of the most-convenient diving to Houston. (Bill observes that diving the ship channel would be more convenient, but hardly world-class. Bob observes that diving the ship channel is illegal since 2001, and unpleasant since they started refining oil there.)

Carribean ocean near Cozumel

We arrived a day late since I picked up an incapacitating gut bug the day before we were supposed to travel. But I’m MUCH better today, so we kept our appointment with Aldora to get diving. For our first dive, the boat took us out to the Palancar Horseshoe, with Bob holding the camera:

Palancar reef
Some of the Palancar coral reef

coral lit by flash
Some coral, lit by the flash

Bill diving
Bill diving

One of many parrotfish

reef with little fishes
More reef with many little fishes

sea turtle
And one of FOUR sea turtles we saw today!

After an hour underwater, at depths from 75-feet up, we needed time on shore to off-gas excess nitrogen. We spent an hour cooling our heels under a giant thatched palapa, sipping sodas and munching fresh guacamole, until it was time to dive again.

For our second dive, the boat took us to Passo del Cedral, which is a shallower area with a stronger current. This let us “drift dive,” admiring the coral and other wildlife as the current carried us along, with Bill holding the camera:

more fishes
More fishes!

Bob diving
Bob diving

another parrotfish
A ginormous blue parrotfish

stil more fishes
Still more fishes

another turtle
Another turtle

rock lobster
And (not necessarily) a rock lobster! *

After another hour underwater, at depths from 60-feet up, it was time to be done for the day. And with such a great feeling! When it comes to ways to relax, yoga is good, meditation is great, and accupuncture is awesome. But none of them come close to the whole-body sense of peace and calm I get from a good day diving.

wet, tired, happy, Bill and Bob

* The lobsters we saw today look an awful lot like spiny or “rock” lobsters, though they may technically be another species. But I enjoy that the name gets me thinking of that song by the B-52s.

p.s. Our profoundest gratitude goes to Sharon, who by her commitment to care twice-a-day for our diabetic kitty, makes it possible for us to travel. Thank you, Sharon. We appreciate you!