December 2011

WordPress sent me this in an email. Last year they let me post the whole summary (here) but this year it’s just an excerpt with a link to the rest of the information. Their summary this year is more interesting than last (including a map showing that, for example, 24.5% of my hits from Asia were from India), but it’s annoying that they are using this teaser to advertise some of their new features.

Anyway, happy new year everybody!

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Syndey Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 24,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 9 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.



I’ve been visiting Vancouver for a few weeks and most days we end up commuting at least once from the west side of the city to the east side and back, mostly by car, sometimes by bus. (I’ve done it by bike, too, but not on this trip.)

It’s about six or seven miles each way and takes about 30 minutes. Google maps says 20 minutes by car, and I’ve heard rumors of 15-minute trips, but I’ve yet to experience one less than 30. Yesterday, our commute was 10 miles and it took 50 minutes (extra Christmas shopping traffic, I’m told). That’s five miles per hour in the middle of the day. It was worse on the way home, at 3:30 rush hour.

I found myself quite impatient with this situation. Five miles an hour does not seem a reasonable speed to travel. I think of Los Angeles as congested, but in non-rush-hour traffic I expect to be able to get to another city in 20 minutes–from the train station in Los Angeles to my brother’s house in Glendale, for example.

The thing is, I’d be on the I-5 most of that trip. There are freeways all over the place in LA. This is strikingly not the case in Vancouver. We are on surface streets wherever we go, hitting stoplight after stoplight, very often with no left-turn lanes so traffic piles up behind each turner. Suddenly I miss all of those ugly, loud LA freeways.

Reanna and her family argue that the fact that it sucks to drive in Vancouver is an accomplishment. The more it sucks to drive, the better, because more people will use public transportation or bicycle. We fought to keep freeways out of here, they say. I was reminded of how upset my grandfather gets when he talks about the freeways in LA. The house he built was one of the houses they demolished to put in a freeway (it might have even been the I-5 that went through his house). Freeways went through the middle of neighborhoods, loud and ugly, splitting them in two. It’s very hard to imagine that happening in Vancouver, if only because the real estate is too expensive.

I am pro-public transportation, so when I’m not stuck in Vancouver traffic I think it’s a shame that LA was designed for cars. Maybe it is the relative ease of car-travel that has kept LA’s public transportation from moving to the next level — though LA, at least according to this article, is quite low in miles of freeway per person compared to other major US cities.

This situation does not strike me as a straightforward win for Vancouver, though. People still drive a lot, and in cars constantly in their least efficient mode, stopping and starting all the time. The busses use the same congested, no-left-turn-lanes roads as the cars, so they lose efficiency and speed along with them. Maybe the answer is to have the government quadruple gas prices or insurance prices to make driving a rich-person-only thing, and leave the roads for public transit. I’d much rather see public transportation that wins because of how great it is, rather than because of how crappy driving has become, but I guess I would take what I could get. Not that I could get quadrupling the price of anything related to driving even here in the most progressive part of Canada. That might be less popular than putting in freeways.

In thinking about all this, I wanted to be able to compare the transportation systems in different cities and found it quite difficult to do. We need a single-number transportation index that takes into account the average speed of travel, average energy-expenditure per mile, and how far people travel on average to live their lives in their area. People-miles per gallon-minutes, maybe, or maybe people-kilometers per joule-minute. Any economics or urban planning students out there looking for a project?

John Gottman is a rock star of the science of marriage relationships. He studies them in great detail, minute interactions, facial expressions, heart rate, stress hormones. Using that data he can predict with a high degree of accuracy which relationships are heading for happiness or unhappiness, stability or divorce. I should say that this is prediction in a technical, statistical sense, not in the sense of prophecy. He can’t tell you if your relationship will fail, only whether your relationship behaves in similar ways to those that have failed in the past. Still, that’s a lot better than nothing, and it’s been enough for him to build an exciting theory of relationships.

In his theory, the most important, without-which-all-is-lost part of your relationship is the friendship. By friendship, he means several very specific things. Here is a summary of his summary from his newest book, The Science of Trust:

  1. Track your partner’s inner experience by asking lots of questions and remembering the answers.
  2. Make a habit of finding things to appreciate your partner for and letting them know each time you do.
  3. Notice the things your partner does and says that could be responded to, and respond positively to them. Pretty much all of them—you can miss or fail to respond to at most 3 out of 20.

If you are not doing this work, he says, you are not behaving like couples who manage to sustain satisfying, meaningful, passionate relationships, who manage conflict well enough, and who stay together longer than 6 years. Maintaining friendship in this manner is the bare minimum.

Reanna and I explored  LA’s fashion district last week. I think her favorite part was looking at the (to me) bewildering assortment of fabric. My favorite part was this sign, in a frozen yogurt joint near Santee Alley:

We read this sign while eating the store’s product, the most intensely sugary frozen yogurt ever created. This snack was pure entertainment, not food, so the fact that the store was plastered with signs like these was… hilarious?

Another odd thing is the indefinite reference of the sign: is is about the health benefit of blueberries or yogurt? (They offered a few fruits as toppings. We had strawberries on our pina-colada/cheesecake frozen yogurt and they were the only really enjoyable element of the snack.)

Then there’s the singular “benefit” mentioned in the sign, followed by four bullet-points.

Then there are the points themselves. Firstly, the yogurt–or the giant blueberry, or some other thing–“fights and lowers cholesterol.” This may only be funny to me because of all the research I’ve done lately on cholesterol. (I discovered I may have familial hyperchoesterolemia, so I looked into it.) Cholesterol is a kind of fat molecule that our bodies make to use as structural elements in our cell walls, sex hormones, and other stuff. It’s not a poison or virus. Fighting cholesterol makes about as much sense as fighting protein or fighting B vitamins. “Lowers cholesterol” is somewhat less nonsensical, but it turns out that what seems to matter is not so much the high- or low-ness of cholesterol in your blood, but how your body is packaging that cholesterol. If your body is packaging cholesterol in big protein sacks (called LDL) more than in small protein sacks (HDL), then you may be in trouble. And even then, your health risk depends a lot on the size of the big protein sacks that you make–if your big protein sacks of cholesterol are properly big, you are probably OK. If they are relatively small, that is bad news. My point is, this sign’s emphasis on “lowering” serves advertising purposes only.

Next point: “Improves the digestibility of food constituents.” I love the wording. I wonder if they are referring to eating in general, here, as putting food constituents into a digestive tract definitely improves their digestibility.

Next point: “Strengthens the immune system.” Compared to what, I wonder? And what are the units of immune system strength?

And my favorite: “Enhances one’s nutritional status.” I imagine nutritional status is a kind of social status, conferred by eating a big tub of frozen yogurt in public. That would explain why our relatively small portion cost over $7.

Left: About to put chains on my B2200, just north of Mt. Shasta. Right: Mazda & Reanna, Indian Cove, CA.

My Mazda B2200 pickup was first sold the year I started driving, 1988. I bought the truck from my girlfriend’s dad in 1992 for $3,800, with about 80,000 miles on it. It was my second vehicle, after a 1979 Honda Civic that went through two engines in three years. It wasn’t a great deal but I thought it was a good vehicle after driving it off and on for six months. Nineteen years later I can say that it was a good buy.

Now it has 254,566 miles on it, total, and is 83,857 miles into its second engine. It just pulled a load that weighed over 4,235 pounds for 1,112 miles – from Eugene to Joshua Tree – including the highest pass on the I-5 and several other passes. I never even had to go into first gear to get up those grades. In fact, it made the entire trip with no problem at all. (I don’t recommend pulling 4,000 pounds with your B2200, by the way. It’s only rated for 1,000 pounds of cargo, passengers included. It’s basically a station wagon in the shape of a pickup. But we did make it!) It was a slow trip, though. We were surprised to pass a tractor-trailer on a hill just south of Eugene, so we started a tally of vehicles passed:

Tally of Moving Vehicles Passed Between October 30 and December 4, 2011. (That driver passed us back as soon as we started downhill.)

My B2200 gets between 15 (around town) and 27 (on the highway, no stops, downhill, with a tail wind) miles per gallon. That’s 350 miles to the tank. I average about 22 mpg over a year of driving – pretty bad, I know. Gas mileage is my main complaint about the truck. It may run pretty clean, though. At its last smog check – in 2001 because Oregon does not require them – it blew 17 parts per million hydrocarbons (of 120 allowable and 30 average), and something less than .01% carbon monoxide (of 1% allowable and .1% average) at an idle, 792 RPM. At 2,453 RMP it blew 35 ppm HCs and still less than .01% CO. We’ll see how it does ten years later, now that I’m back in California.

The truck costs me about $1,500 to own and operate each year. I spent exactly $9,253.21 from the beginning of 2004 to the end of 2010 on everything truck-related, including fuel, registration, parts, labor, insurance etc etc. That was while I was living in Eugene, though, where I didn’t have to drive much. We’ll see how much it costs now that I’m living in driving country again. I should also say that I do most of my own auto repair – anything easy. I’ve done pretty much all of the routine maintenance, things like spark plugs, caps, rotors, fuel, air & oil filters, and tire rotations, plus other parts as they broke or wore out: the power steering pump, alternator, generator, shocks, various hoses and belts. I took it to real mechanics for the harder stuff, like the new engine, a couple mufflers, a vacuum leak, a new bumper and fender.

Whenever I hit a major repair, I have to decide if it’s worth it to keep going with this truck. Each one costs more than I could sell the truck for. So far I’ve always gone with my truck. It always seems like the it’s worth it. The transmission will probably be my next big expense – I’m still on the original transmission. That will cost $1,500 or so.

It definitely looks like a beater. Plenty of primer. I bumped into a few things over the years and always had more pressing things to spend my money on. During the big move, Reanna and I talked about a new paint job to reward the truck for hauling all my worldly possessions over those passes so admirably. We’re thinking yellow, or maybe red. My dad used to be a car painter, so he can show us how.

Moments With My Truck: A reunion, a roadtrip, the recent move. (Collages by Reanna)

Reanna and I moved from Eugene to Joshua Tree in early November. We were there about a month before leaving to visit her family, and our primary project was starting to set up a new living space: an early-1960s Kenskill travel trailer. We will see how this arrangement suits our needs in real life, but the idea of living in a trailer suits the idea of our needs quite well for the time being. I have lived in trailers off and on throughout my life, and while I found nothing glamorous about it, I really appreciate how cheap and mobile they are. Cheap is very appealing now, with large student loans to pay off. Reanna has been interested in the tiny home movement and travel-trailer renovation for years (check out Tumbleweed Tiny Homes, Tiny House Blog, and a couple of trailers), so her vision is the engine for this project.

The first phase was creating a space for the trailer and a little yard for us. We did this in the “north 40” of my parent’s property. Here are some before, during and after shots (all photography and editing by Reanna):

Before, Looking Northwest: From left to right you see the sauna/bath house, our trailer in its old spot, Uncle Bill's shed (to be moved), Grandpa Bob's workshop (to be made into sewing palace), and the old goat pen.

Before, Looking Northeast: In between the fence and the structures, you can see a pile of 2,500 pounds of plywood and other stuff, the remains of an 8' vert ramp. Then left to right, an 8' trailer, Uncle Bill's shed, our 24' trailer, and the sauna/bath house.

During, Looking Southwest: Behind me you can see the 8' travel trailer that served as my bedroom in high school. We gave it away to a local a few days later. It actually made me quite sad to watch it limp away.

During, Looking North: The pile of plywood on the right was the last third or so of the landfill.

After, Looking Northwest: The plywood is gone, 24' trailer in its new place. You can see we'll have a nice little yard in between the trailer and the bath house, once we move Uncle Bill's shed.

After, Looking Northeast

After, Looking West

After, Looking North: Here's the best shot of the trailer. My friend John lived in it while he did his undergrad. It had been his grandparents' and parents'. He gave it to me in the late 90s, when I lived in it for two years. It's got an unusually nice layout, with big windows on the kitchen/dining room side (the right), bedroom in the middle, and bathroom in the back.

Weatherizing in a Wind Storm

Every Heavy Thing in the Yard on Top to Hold it Down

Still to do: seal it up to prevent further water damage, prep for paint, paint, put in new flooring, fix plumbing, furnish, move in.

As I wrote recently, part of my posture-reprogramming regime is that I have a watch alarm that goes off every 20 minutes, reminding me to check and, if necessary, fix my posture. (I’ve written about my protocol for fixing it here.) My amazing physical therapist, Shannon, predicts that in the long run, this will be the most helpful part of all the work I’m doing. I’ve been doing it every day for over three months, now, and it does seem to be helping. It is no longer unusual that the alarm goes off and I don’t need to fix my posture, which never happened during the first month.

One entertaining side effect of this practice is that my friends have begun correcting their posture, too, when my alarm goes off. At Not Back to School Camp, this summer, campers and staff figured out pretty quickly what the alarm meant. Here is some footage I took secretly from the back of a camp meeting while my alarm went off: