Friday, August 31, 2007

Stars, Salmon, and Fruit Pies

Got back from dinner tonight before the moon rose, and the stars were just stunning. That's another of those things we tend to forget about, living in the city. There are so many beautiful stars! The other night we sat out and watched the moon come up over the mountain range, then took a walk and admired our moon shadows. Tonight we marveled as the rising moon washed so many of the stars out of view.

And we heard a bat flutter by. Very cool.

This afternoon, on our last full day in town, we biked over to the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery. They had spawned the last of their adult salmon earlier in the week, so all we could see was juvenile salmon in the outdoor ponds.

It's quite a process, hatching and growing salmon. Rather daunting to see how much humans have impacted the fishes' world over the last century or two. Fish populations are way down (from an estimated 6 million salmon in 1800 and 1900 to only about 1 million in 2000), while human population has dramatically increased.

The hatchery has some really interesting and thought-provoking displays about the differences between hatched and wild salmon, and how fish raised at the hatchery are at a competitive disadvantage once they get out in the wild, and might possibly dilute the gene pool by breeding with wild salmon. On the flip side, if it weren't for hatched salmon, there might not be significant numbers of salmon in Washington at all. That's a daunting thought to those of us who love to eat salmon.

Dams, development, erosion. All bad for the fish. It's tough out there for a salmon.

They also had an excellent display commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Rachel Carson (who once worked for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries--now the Fish and Wildlife Service that manages the hatchery). Most people know her as the author of Silent Spring (which is still excellent, 45 years after its original publication). But she wrote about many other things, especially the relationship of humans to nature. I have one of her books on the ocean working its way to the top of my reading queue at the moment, and want to find one she wrote about the sense of wonder that we should be fostering in children (and adults).

And finally, on a lighter note, last night we finished off an excellent marionberry pie. We had gone into a local bakery looking for a berry pie, and found that. My wife always reminisces about childhood visits up here, and remembers picking berries and eating berry pies. Berry pies hold a special place in her heart.

Earlier in the day, while sharing a delicious local nectarine, we wondered as a group why we never see nectarine pies, when there are peach pies galore. Well, lo and behold, the bakery had a nectarine-blueberry pie, so we had to get that, too.

Turned out the nectarine pie wasn't so great. Didn't seem to have been cooked thoroughly, so it really wasn't all that appealing. The marionberry pie, on the other hand, was wonderful, and we thought seriously about going back for another, but there wasn't time. Alas; vacations are so fleeting. Although my wife pointed out that we can probably get tasty berry pies at home, too.

[Side note: Having lived in the District of Columbia in the 1980s, it is still a little hard for me to take seriously the fruit called the marionberry. Maybe that's just me. But the pie was really great.]

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Creek

[Details largely dictated by my daughter]

One of the nicest things about this house in the country is that it is near the end of a road, and the road ends at Icicle Creek (which flows into the Wenatchee River, which in turn flows into the Columbia River, which flows into the Pacific Ocean. Salmon use all those paths to get back here to the Leavenworth National Fish Hatchery, which is on Icicle Creek, up the river from here.

Nearly every day, some or all of us venture down to have adventures of one sort or another at the creek.

Before we got up here, Grandma and my daughter were spending a good portion of each day down at the creek. When we arrived, they had caught and brought home a good-sized bucket full of minnows, who seemed happy enough to be living in the living room, but the first evening we were here, we took them back to live in the creek.

At this point in the year, Icicle Creek is pretty small and quiet. You can pretty much walk across it, even if you're about 3-and-a-half feet tall, like my daughter (if you pick your route carefully). One of the joys of a low river filled with sand bars and things is the way you can poke around and dig and make channels and bays and all sorts of water works. We've had a great time digging with sticks and hands and things to make extensive works. And every day, we get to do some more.

And there are things living in the creek. On one of her trips down there this visit, my wife saw a log in the creek. Except the log started swimming. Apparently this log was actually a fish. We suppose a fish of that size in this creek must be a salmon, but we're not entirely sure. In any case, a chase ensued, with the salmon swimming into shallower and shallower parts of the creek, but the people kept digging channels for it to swim through into the deeper parts, and blocked behind it with a log and pushed with hands to make sure the salmon would make it farther along.

That evening, there was no sign of the salmon, so we hope it had continued up the creek to the hatchery via the deeper water where it could swim.

Grandma and my daughter have also fashioned pens for the minnows, using sand to create channels, walls, and pens. Water can flow in to nourish the minnows, but we hope the minnows have swum out into the creek by now.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Bees, Wasps and Hornets

Ever since we arrived here last weekend, we've seen a LOT of bees around. Actually, they are what I've always called Yellow Jackets, and it makes me curious about the distinctions among bees, wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets. But since I don't have reliable access to the Internet here, I will have to wait until we get to the library again.

Meanwhile, we've had the Pump Guy help out by shooting Magic Poison from a Can into a big nest in the back yard, and Grandma has taken care of some of the critters on the porch by spraying Wasp Stuff at their known nests after they go to bed for the night. I even located a small but growing nest under one of the chairs on the porch. Man, they're everywhere!

So of course, today, after we rode our inner tubes down the Wenatchee River for a couple of hours (a very pleasant float we've done before), we were relaxing and waiting for Grandma to pick us up after taking Sugar (the very old, very sweet Samoyed) to the vet for her checkup. Sipping cold drinks and munching popcorn is very pleasant when you're still soaked with cold river water, but sitting out on a warm afternoon.

So my wife kicked off her sandals and was swinging her feet in a relaxed, summer afternoon sort of way, when she suddenly winced in pain. Well, "wince" doesn't really cover it. I'm not sure there is a word that describes someone's entire body wincing, but that's what she did. Eventually we were able to get her to speak, and tell us she thought she had been stung, and please go inside the snack bar for some ice.

I ran (as best I could in the borrowed water shoes that don't quite fit) back into the shop, asked for a cup of ice for a sting. As the young man scooped some ice into a cup for me, he said he had something to help take the pain out of the sting, and returned quickly with a little glass capsule thing. Running back, I quickly read the directions on the sting-out thing, crushed the little capsule, and gave it to my wife to help with the sting. It seemed to relieve the pain a bit, as did the ice. We then noticed that another bee (I'll just call it a bee for now) seemed to be hanging around the sandal that was still off her foot. We theorize that there's something sweet smelling on the sandal, which attracted a bee, which happened to be in an inopportune spot when a foot came swinging by.

A helpful nurse sitting on a nearby bench offered some advice about hydrocortisone and such, after receiving reassurances that none of us are terribly allergic to stings. We elected to move back indoors, however; in spite of the cool air conditioning and general noise level, we deemed it preferable to sitting out with more bees.

As we're waiting for dinner (local pizza parlor delivers out here--yay!), my wife calls the local medical facility to discuss the intense pain that keeps coming in waves. She's taken ibuprofen and antihistamine and put some salve on the toe to draw out the poison, but wonders if there's more she could or should do. The guy helpfully says no, that she should just expect it to hurt like the dickens for another 2-3 days. How very reassuring. Pretty good pizza, though.

Now it's a number of hours later. Several doses of ibuprofen and some other medications have relieved some of the pain, and I'm hoping my wife is already asleep when I join her in a few minutes.

In the mean time, I'm still wondering about whether we're talking about bees, wasps, hornets, or yellow jackets. Or whether there is a meaningful distinction among all of those. Definite research topic for our next visit to the library.

Rube Goldberg Lives in Rural America

Living in the country for a bit brings home just what a complex web of services we take for granted in the city.

For example, late Saturday night I went to turn on a faucet, and found there was no water. OK, I know we're on a well, and sometimes the pump goes out or something. We suspect maybe a breaker has gone out on the pump. Find the breaker box. Find breaker(s) loosely labeled "Pump" (as in, there is a sticker that says "Pump" somewhere near a couple of the breakers). Feel brave, bite the bullet, and flip the breakers. Reward is the click of a relay back in the pump closet. Water flows from the tap. All is well.

Until the breaker blows again in the morning (now it's Sunday). And again. And again. And (you get the idea: it's pointless).... Helpful neighbor who actually understands pumps and such comes over to help. Concludes that it's really something wrong. Better call the Pump People on Monday morning.

In the mean time, we can hook up a hose from the irrigation system to feed back into the house system; can't drink it, but it's fine for toilets and showers and such. [Rant for later on what a waste it is for the rest of us to use potable water for such things.] In the short run, we decide that running a hose from the irrigation system into the main bathroom of the house so we can refill the toilet tank is the easiest solution. Of course, that means running the irrigation system all the time we want to use any running water. But we can try it for a bit.

Come back from dinner to find a note saying the irrigation system had to be turned off because earlier in the day when the Helpful Neighbor (see above) took down a dead tree, it seems to have broken a pipe in the irrigation system, which is now pumping water into the air and flooding another neighbor's yard. Right.

Fill enough buckets to use for flushing purposes overnight. Make sure we have water for washing hands and such. Make a note to deal with the irrigation system on Monday, too.

Monday morning, the pump guy shows up bright and early (well, that is certainly something different from city life!). He's even familiar with the property, having grown up in the neighborhood; he used to mow the lawn years ago. [Future thought, on how Grandma seems to know people all over town, even though she hasn't really lived her for ~50 years.] As he heads back to the pump house, he notices a BIG nest of "meat bees" in the ground, says he has something to handle it in the truck, and he actually does, which is cool. Fewer bees is good, because there are a LOT of them around here this summer.

He determines that the problem is that there is air in the pump, mainly because we've been drawing too much water from the system. We're not used to a well/pump system, so we've been doing things like taking back-to-back showers, which really need some time to recover from. Oops!

OK, so suitably chastened, we now have water for the house. Cousin who lives in the basement has looked at the irrigation issue. Her dad was a pipe fitter, and has taught her about the irrigation system (which is good, because she lives here all the time, and needs to take care of it, which she does, very well). She is able to patch the pipe back together (not actually broken, just pulled apart at a point where she can patch it back easily), so we have a full irrigation system again, too.

Wow. Lots of action for a weekend in the country, and all for stuff we totally take for granted back home. I now have a greater appreciation for both the level of care people have to take for their own operations here, and also for the care people take for each other.

Somewhere in the course of all this, it turns out that the flush mechanism in one of the toilets is running and wasting water (which we clearly don't want, given how precious the pumped well water is!). At last! Something I actually know how to fix. Quick stop at the hardware store (run by people who live down the street, of course, and who know Grandma when she walks in...see above) gets me a set of replacement parts, and in the next day or so, my daughter and I will fix it.

Whew! That's a lot of water issues for just a couple of days. Makes me want to go back to the fair and watch the bunnies.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A Few Vacation Notes

I'm largely disconnected while off on vacation this week, but I thought I'd provide a few little slices of life here in North Central Washington.

We arrived at Pangborn Memorial Airport in Wenatchee the other day, and found that the little cafe in the airport has free wireless Internet, so we got a few last e-mails read before heading off into Rural America.

On the drive over to Leavenworth, where the family has property, we spotted several promising spots for later visits, including Tom, Dick and Harry's Fabulous Burgers (on Easy Street in Monitor), which promises "Durn Good Burgers" on the sign over the door. More on that later. And of course, the tour of the Aplets and Cotlets Factory in Cashmere.

As it turns out, we've done both of those, and we've even been to the burger place twice, because it was...well...durn good! And Boswell's Furniture across Easy Street is a really good store, too.

But mostly we've been relaxing, playing games, reading books, and riding bikes (rented from Das Rad Haus...did I mention that Leavenworth styles itself a Bavarian village?). Tonight we'll be going to see the local theater company's production of Camelot (The Sound of Music, staged outdoors at the ski hill, is sold out).

Still to come, inner tubing on the river, and probably some other stuff I've forgotten.

I'm writing this in the library, which turns out to have free wireless Internet (yay!), while the rest of the family plays in the public pool.

Nothing weighty on my mind right now. Just ready to sign off, ride home, and maybe take a nap before the show....

Oh, wait! How did I forget to mention the North Central Washington District Fair? Best. Corndogs. Ever. Actually, the Lions Club calls them Pronto Pups, but they're really, really good. They make the batter right there. And where else can you watch angora yarn being spun right off the bunny? It was a lovely, if windy, day in Waterville, WA.

Friday, August 17, 2007

And a Quick E-Voting Note

A friend pointed me to this article, in which Diebold, a leading purveyor of electronic voting systems, is sort of, almost, spinning off its elections unit. Buried in the story is this gem:
Voting technology updates were encouraged by $3.9 billion of funding for the Help America Vote Act of 2002, following the disputed presidential election in 2000 that came down to a highly scrutinized recount of punch-card ballots in Florida.
Not that I'm suggesting that anyone would rush to market a product that didn't work very well, just because there was a lot of money available for such products.... Well, yes I am. $3.9B is a lot of reasons to sell junk. Of course, there is also this:
Diebold has often defended its voting machines and its own business intentions, even after its former chairman and chief executive, Wally O'Dell, sought with little success to convince critics his Republican politics and fundraising for President Bush were not the motive for the company's involvement in elections.
Political motivations can be almost as strong as financial ones.

Theme Park Overload

I'm still recovering from a family trip to San Diego two weeks ago. It was our first attempt at doing a home exchange, and it seems to have gone well. We got to stay in a very nice house, visit friends, and go to far too many tourist attractions.

San Diego is a lovely place, with great weather and many fun things to do. We didn't even scratch the surface, but we managed to fill far too much time with stimulating activity.

We had taken our daughter to San Diego a few years ago when she was fanatical about pandas, because the San Diego Zoo had a new panda cub on display, and we thought it might be her only chance to see a live baby panda. She has since seen a newborn cub at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, so I guess it wasn't a one-time thing. And much to our surprise, the day we arrived in San Diego, the Zoo announced the birth of yet another cub, although it won't be on display for many months. So I guess we have good cub karma or something.

During our brief visit, we managed to hit Coronado Beach, get ice cream at the Hotel Del Coronado, spend a day at Legoland, another full day at the Zoo, and a very full day at SeaWorld.

Legoland was actually the key reason for this trip. The last time we'd gone, our daughter was a bit too small (i.e., too short) to do a lot of the rides and things. This time, she was just tall enough to be able to do anything in the park, at least with someone along. (The Volvo Driving School was a big hit.) So we pretty much did it all. Legoland is impressive in that it manages to be really fun for small kids, but has enough to hold the interest of adults, too. The Lego sculptures are very impressive: I love their little scale model of Washington, DC.

The last thing we did at SeaWorld was probably the most impressive, a ride called Journey to Atlantis. At the start of our visit, we agreed that each member of the party (there were six of us) would get to choose the thing they most wanted to do, and the group would do it. My daughter chose the Atlantis ride, but the first couple of times we went by, the lines were incredibly long. Later we got into the queue, but they shut down the ride for a while, and we bailed. Finally, we came back in the evening, the line wasn't too long, and we got to ride. And man, was it impressive! It is both a water-splash ride and a roller coaster, and both very good. You start out going up, then dropping down into a big splash pool, then circle around and get elevated again, and this time you go around a pretty good roller coaster. So it's like two rides for the price of standing in line once, and so much fun that we had to ride it twice in a row.

I had somewhat hoped to take in a baseball game at the new ballpark, but it didn't fit into our schedule. On Saturday evening, however, I was in a store picking up some beer, just in time to hear Barry Bonds hit his 755th home run on the radio. That was weird. (And of course, I was at the park when he hit 756 a few days later.)

All in all, a very exhausting trip. One needs to get back to work to get some rest!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Poor Little Rich Kids

I found this article from the New York Times by a link at Infoworld. The gist of the article is that a lot of the millionaires in Silicon Valley (and there are a lot of them) don't feel rich enough. Here's one of the people quoted:
“I know people looking in from the outside will ask why someone like me keeps working so hard,” Mr. Steger says. “But a few million doesn’t go as far as it used to. Maybe in the ’70s, a few million bucks meant ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,’ or Richie Rich living in a big house with a butler. But not anymore.”
Now, look. I know it's expensive to live in the Valley. But really. It's hard to get worked up about this when there are plenty of people living in (absolute or relative) poverty in the same area. The people who clean their offices and collect their trash and such have it a lot harder.

I did find some interesting discussion at Infoworld, too. It goes in a couple of different directions. On one hand there's some feeling that the attitudes of the subjects of the article are misrepresented (which is, in my experience, quite possible), and on another that a lot of these folks are supported by programmers who make nothing off their efforts (open source projects).

In a sense, those both hit the same ethic: some people work because they like to, or at least work on some projects because they like to. I certainly know a lot of programmers who program for money, but also do projects for fun, and often make those available freely. [For a discussion of that phenomenon, the best book I recall is Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, by Steven Levy. It's a bit dated, though I see there's been an updated edition. Another terrific book that touches on the motivations of engineers is Tracy Kidder's wonderful The Soul of a New Machine.]

[Grrr. Blogger posted this before I was ready!] Update:

The point I mean to make here is that the Times article hits some nerves around here (the greater Silicon Valley). There are clearly a lot of folks who don't know what "enough" is, but there are also plenty of people who are driven by desires other than wealth (and who consequently have plenty of it). It ain't all cut and dried.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

E-Voting update

My sister points out that I haven't written about the latest flurry of bad news on the electronic voting front. Good point. And yes, I know that all those links come from one source, but that's kind of the point.

Basically, we've gotten confirmation that the machines don't work (right), but we still have to use them. Terrific:

[UC Davis computer science professor Matt] Bishop, however, said he was surprised by the weakness of the security measures, both physical and electronic, protecting the voting systems. His team of hackers found ways to get into the systems not only through the high-tech equipment in election headquarters but also through the machines in the polling places.

If the testers had had more time, they would have found more flaws, he added.

BTW, Dan Rather has done a bit of investigative reporting, and his report airs tonight. Unfortunately, it's on HDnet, which my cable company (Comcast) declines to include HDnet on its systems. I imagine some or all of it will turn up online shortly.

The machine makers and the county voting officials are upset with the Secretary of State (who oversees elections, statewide), thinking she's out to get the machine makers:

During her election campaign last year, Bowen made it clear she had little confidence in the security of electronic voting machines and vowed to review their use in the state.

"Voting systems are tools of our democracy,'' she said Friday. "We want to ensure that the voting systems used in the state are secure, accurate, reliable and accessible to all. This (study result) is not a big deal to me. It's a big deal for everyone in the country.''

And that's pretty much what I've been saying all along: Voting is too important to leave it to inadequate systems.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

History and Choices

History is a funny thing. I was at the ballpark Tuesday when Barry Bonds hit his 756th career home run (and again Wednesday, when he hit number 757), breaking the former record set by Hank Aaron.

On one hand, it was great to be there amongst the excited throng to see an event of that magnitude. Having been there for many of his other milestone home runs (500, 600, 660 and 661, 700, as well as most of the big ones in his record-breaking single season with 73 homers), it gives me a sense of closure to finally see him atop the career list.

On the other hand, the excitement is dulled somewhat by the controversy over whether Bonds might have enhanced his performance in ways that are neither legal nor within the rules of the game.

I don't intend to rehash the arguments here (or even present my own). That's my point: I'm tired of all the speculation and opining and pontification. It has dulled my appreciation of the most impressive sports performer I have ever seen. Whether fueled by illicit activity or not, Barry Bonds has consistently outperformed my expectations of what is possible.

And really, that's why I watch sports: I want to see people do outstanding things, often things that I can't even remotely imagine doing myself. And Bonds has done more of that, on a consistent basis, than anyone I have ever seen.

A good friend pointed me to this excellent piece from the LA Times the other day. I found this passage particularly pointed (emphasis mine):
As a society, we're way too OK with being users. Abusers even. And our multimillionaire athletes, the ones we -- perhaps foolishly -- hold up as paragons of virtue simply because they can run and throw, are they supposed to be different?

Said Hoberman on the phone the other day: "You can't have an enormous development in performance enhancement in society in general and expect the sports world to be immune to it."

It's not only about pharmacy drugs. We want to be able to bash Bonds and head to a surgeon to get a new chin and new lips, so we can fake everyone into thinking we've slowed the march of time. We want to bash Bonds and then drive to a health-food store and load up on non-prescription pills that have us feeling as if we can walk through walls.
I need to go back and reread a novel on this subject called Achilles' Choice, by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes. As I recall (I read it back in the mid-90s), it wasn't a particularly well-written book (especially by their standards; I generally like those guys a lot), but it deals with exactly the dilemma an athlete such as Barry Bonds faces in what is popularly being called the "steroid era": whether to artificially enhance oneself if that is the only way to be competitive. And of course, it's not just in sports. There are plenty of everyday people using chemicals or other substances to help them perform in their jobs.

All of which calls to mind a quotation my mother sent me many years ago, when she was studying at Oxford for a summer, culled from Samuel Butler's novel, The Way of All Flesh:
What, then, it may be asked, is the good of being great? The answer is that you may understand greatness better in others, whether alive or dead, and choose better company from these and enjoy and understand that company better when you have chosen it--also that you may be able to give pleasure to the best people and live in the lives of those who are yet unborn.
As we evaluate the greatness and achievements of others, it would serve us well to examine them in light of our own choices and our own achievements. What lengths are we willing to go ourselves, and at what costs? And what will we tolerate in others in their/our pursuit of excellence?

The ancient Greeks honored the notion of aristos, or superiority, to the point that one who was the best at something could be forgiven shortcomings in other areas. Check out the Illiad, and consider how many characters (including the aforementioned Achilles) are described as being the best at something, yet display their shortcomings in other areas.

Instead of carping at one man's achievements, perhaps we should be having a larger discussion of virtue, how we define it, and what we're willing to tolerate in the pursuit of achievement.