Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Swimming and swimming and swimming some more

Big milestone this evening: I swam a mile non-stop! That's 36 laps in our YMCA pool.

When I look back a couple of years, I remember thinking that I'd never be able to swim that far. But problem.

This week is the last of 12 weeks of base training in all three events—in addition to long swims, Alex and I have been doing interval workouts in the pool with our tri club once a week. I've spent a lot of time on the bike trainer in the basement, watching The Daily Show, Angel, Glee, or reading my Kindle, and Jasper and I have hit the roads a bunch, building up to a 12 mile long run this week.

We're seven weeks from our first triathlon of the season, back at King Pine for Year 3 (Year 1, Year 2). The big question is whether, as I head into a busy 3 months (adult inpatient service, 2 more weeks of surgery, 2 weeks of night call, and pediatric/OB inpatient service) I can keep up the training. It's time to get outside on the bike, and to add in some hills and speedier workouts on foot. Time will tell...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Numismatic Discovery

(Because how often do you get to use a word like numismatic? It comes right on the heels of our recent philatelic discovery. And, really, what's more fun than using recondite terminology?)

I made an interesting discovery the other day, quite by accident (as many good discoveries are). It came about while fishing through some spare change at my desk at work, trying to fish out two quarters to use at the Coke machine. After pulling out one, then a second, I hefted them in my hand before closing the change box...and noticed something odd. The clink of one coin against the other didn't sound right. It is not something that one thinks about consciously, but after living in the world for enough years, your brain does in fact know how coins are supposed to sound. You might even be able, without any preparation or practice, do a blind identification of each of the U.S.-denominated coins, solely by their sound. What is more: I'll bet that at least some of the audience, despite my low-fidelity A/V equipment, can discern which of the two following coins doesn't sound right:

After I heard this odd sound, I naturally opened my palm and had a look: the coins looked different, too. One of them was definitely more lustrous.

Both are quarters, both are legal tender, and both would be accepted at a store or bank, and in most vending machines. What's different? The quarter on the right was stamped out in 1964.

A little research on the internet revealed that 1964 was an important year for quarters: it was the last year they were made from a 90% silver, 10% copper alloy. From 1965 to present, they've been stamped from a sandwich of copper and nickel. This becomes apparent when we view the edge of these coins:

The reason for the switch was that, by the early sixties, the 0.18 troy ounce of silver in the quarter was worth more than $0.25, and so they switched to cheaper materials. In the early 1980s, the Mint stopped producing pennies from copper for a similar reason.

At the time of this writing, with silver trading at a historically ridiculous price of $35/oz, this means the melt-value of this 1964 quarter is actually a couple of bucks. If memory serves, melting down money and selling off the metal is, whatever the economics, illegal. However, using legal tender to produce other objects is legal, especially if you do not subsequently sell it.

So, to any of my jeweler friends: got any good ideas of what to do with a silver quarter?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Holy Stamps, Batman!

Hilary sent away for a book on bike touring in Nova Scotia. It arrived the other day. The book itself is nice, but I was most impressed with the philatelic extravaganza that it came in:

Spring Stirrings

If the calendar says so; it must be true! Spring it here! Most of the snow is gone, including that covering our raised beds. Over the weekend I had a quick look in the plots where, last fall, I'd planted in some garlic. Viola!

Alas, the day after these pictures were taken the garlic was covered over again by another 3 inches of heavy wet snow. Nevertheless, the opening salvo has been made.

Monday, March 21, 2011


The weather was gorgeous over the last few days. I rode my bike outside on Thursday, and it was fantastic!

Brynna took some inspiration from this on Saturday. Over the winter, she grew into the tricycle that we inherited from the girls next door, and her feet now reach the pedals. Off she goes:

She's working on the whole concept of steering, but having a marvelous time running into the remaining snow berms. And pushing the buttons on the trike, which actually speaks and sings in Spanish (it's Dora-themed).

And now it's snowing again, so I guess it was just a sneak preview of spring. Ahh, we're well on our way to mud season.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Dilbert, Light Bulbs, and Oil

Like I sometimes do with the newspaper, let's skip over the serious stuff and go straight to the funnies.

This is, in a nutshell, the problem with our energy policy - the inability to weigh long term costs properly. Yup, it's going to cost a whole freakin' boatload of money and creative destruction to upgrade the electrical grid, bring renewables up to a very large fraction of the energy mix, scrap inefficient equipment with newer stuff, alter our whole infrastructure to not rely on cheap petroleum, and accept that leveling West Virginia mountaintops and shattering the bedrock is not actually a better alternative to funding up petro-dictatorships on credit. A fair bit of behavioral and attitude changes will be necessary, too.

Sadly, a whole pile of economic arguments, mountains of scientific data, the informed opinion of every regulatory body in the government, and most of the U.S. military doesn't seem to count for much against the overwhelming burden of ideology in Congress. The sooner we accept the big transformative changes that are necessary, the better off we'll be.

Most importantly: even if it costs a boatload of money and pain to start now, it will be a whole hell of a lot cheaper and easier than facing crisis after crisis when they hit. Our collective inability to internalize this notion, and demand that our elected leaders have this kind of long term policy, is a ruinous course.

Which brings us to my next exhibit of human irrationality: apparently there is some hubbub about the impending demise of the traditional 100-watt incandescent light bulb. I'll admit: they give off such pleasing color, and have been around for so long, that it's hard to let go. On the other hand, the engineer in me knows that they are only about 5-10% efficient at converting electricity to light and makes me eager to relegate them to the dust bin of history. Who actually likes being so willfully wasteful? If people were rational, we wouldn't need to worry about government intrusion. As a matter of national pride, we would have been dumping incandescents into Boston Harbor years ago and clamoring for alternatives.

And incandescents are wasteful not only of energy and the environment, but of the owner's hard earned money. Compact fluorescents, even the highest quality ones (indistinguishable from incandescents), can pay for themselves in a year or two. The LED lamp you buy today may well be the last light bulbs you ever buy for a particular socket. Yet there are people so worked up about an overbearing government that they are stockpiling 100-W incandescents for the upcoming end times (of Edison's little wonder). Do they not realize that they are spending roughly the same amount that it would cost to upgrade all their lamps to CFLs and LEDs? Or that their stockpile won't last as long are modern bulbs, and they'll spend 5-10x for the electricity over that lifetime?

And now for our third exhibit: rising gas prices. It seems to me that we've been here before quite a few times. Should we be surprised at this point? Outraged? If there is outrage, it ought to that nothing has changed since the last time three years ago. In fact, rather than repeat myself with much tedious typing, I'll just point you to what I said about it then.

The conventional wisdom, particularly from the wingnuts of the nut wing of the Republican party, is that if we just let the oil and gas companies pave paradise expand domestic production, everything will be fine. This position is, more or less, unchanged since the last gas price crunch. Remember Sarah Palin's big energy policy speech before the election? Neither does anyone else, but the echo chamber of "say it enough times and it'll be true" carries the message on to this day.

Here is a very simple calculus: the world consumes nearly 90 million barrels of oil per day. The U.S. consumes about 20. We produce about 6. 90-20-6. If we drilled everywhere and laid pipelines through everyone's backyard, we might be able to extract a few million barrels per day more...for a perhaps a decade, maybe two. Would that bring gas prices back to the heady days of $1/gal? Will we be less susceptible to the fickle nature of the global oil market? Probably not, because by the time we do all that drilling, worldwide demand will probably have expanded by just as much, leaving us more or less right back where we started. 100-25-10. What's worse, this is an energy policy (or, at least, a gasoline policy) that has a lifetime of a decade or two - less than a generation.

90-20-6. Before any politicians opens their mouth about energy policy, they should preface it with those numbers. Anything less is pandering, ignorance, or deception.

What's my solution: use economics. People are irrational in their behavior. Failure to weigh long term costs is just one example of that. But one lesson from the last gas price crunch that continues today is that when gas gets expensive, people use less of it. What cars are manufacturers and consumers most interested in today? Hybrids and electrics - even if they can't yet get behind the wheel of one.

If we ultimately want to use less oil, making it more available by increasing its supply is not the way to accomplish it. That is an axiom of economics. One way to use less oil is to make the alternatives less expensive, so that people choose to use less of it. That could work, but we would need to have at least one, and probably many, really cheap replacements for oil available today to make the compelling argument for a whole economy to switch over. I see nothing on the horizon to indicate that.

No, if we want to kick the habit, then make gas expensive. This, too, is an economic axiom, and it can be put in place quickly. It works with cigarettes: higher tobacco taxes lead to lower smoking rates. Turn gasoline into the latest vice, and tax it accordingly. The increased gas price can, and should, be offset by lowering taxes on a whole bunch of other things such as the income tax - possibly even making it revenue-neutral. It won't be the end of the world: Europe and Japan somehow manage to get by with gas more than twice as expensive as ours. Shorter commutes get promoted, importing from halfway across the world won't look so appealing, big agriculture's rapacious appetite for petroleum-sourced fertilizer will shift, the economics of alternatives become more favorable, and our road infrastructure gets less of a pounding. Conservatives always want to let the free market figure things out. Let it, but with the proviso that oil is no longer gets a free ride. And essentially it does: the federal gasoline tax is 18.4 cents per gallon, and hasn't changed in years. The price at the pump swings more than that in a week these days.

It would have one additional benefit: at times when the price of oil really is up, a high gas tax provides a way to immediately and substantially reduce the pain at the pump.

Although it may be good medicine, I'll admit the middle of a spike in gas prices is not the best time to introduce such a proposal. The time to do it was when we weren't facing a serious problem: a year or two back, when gas was $1-2/gal less than today. But might-have-beens don't count for much in debate, and even less in policy-making. We ought not to live in the past, even when history can be instructive. We are faced with the challenges of the present. What will we do about it?

If history is any indicator, we'll have another crack at lower gas prices eventually. But, alas, history also indicates that we'll probably skip that opportunity in the pursuit of more demagoguery and grandstanding. There's an election coming up, don'tcha know?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Early Morning Wanderings

The other morning, I woke up to find Brynna missing from the bed.

I was post-call and tired, and she had arrived under the covers sometime after Alex had headed out for work. I had certainly not noticed her waking up and leaving the room.

So I dragged myself out of my warm cocoon and headed down the hall to her room, where I expected to find her playing or reading. Nope!

A bit more concerned, I headed down the stairs. I didn't see or hear her playing in the living room as I opened the door from the hallway, but as I came around the corner toward the kitchen, there she was.

Sitting on the kitchen floor.

Eating ice cream out of the carton!

Now, I have no idea how she knew that we HAD ice cream, or how to find it, or even why it occurred to her to look for it. But she had clearly been enjoying it for some time.

"Brynna," I said, "what are you doing?"

"I eating ice cream!" she answered brightly.

"Why?" I couldn't resist asking.

"Because I hungry."

"Why didn't you wake Mama up to make you breakfast?"

"I eat animal crackers and chocolate and ice cream." (In other words, 'because the foraging was way more fun than what you would have fed me, lady!')

Looking around the room, I realized that this was true. There was a bag that had contained animal crackers, now with only a few crumbs at the bottom. A piece of chocolate had been nibbled around the edges as if a small mouse had been raiding our kitchen. And a chair was dragged over to the counter near the utensils, which explained where she got the spoon that she was using to dig into the ice cream.

This early morning junkfood fest was, of course, its own reward, and it's something she keeps trying to replicate. Alex swears that a few days later, she came into our room briefly just to make sure he was still asleep before making a break for the freezer.

But why don't I let Brynna tell you all about it herself?

Transcript below, for those of you who aren't fluent in two-year-old:

"I stick my finger into the ice cream, then I swallow it, and then I eat some more. And then I eat some more, and then you come downstairs and close the ice cream top and put it into the freezer and then I have NO MORE ICE CREAM LEFT."

It's just about enough to drive me to drink. Or to my own carton of ice cream.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

So Very, Very Two

Brynna, after a delightfully mellow infancy, has reached that age. To illustrate this new hair-trigger temper, here is a transcript of a conversation we had in the car on the way home from Miss A's tonight:

Brynna: I want you to sing the "I love you" song!

Me: What "I love you" song?

Brynna (singing along with the Barney tune): "I love you..."

Me: Oh! Okay. (I start singing) I love you, you love me...

Brynna: NNNOOOOO! (screaming and crying) NNNNOOOOOTTTT THAT I LOVE YOU SONG!

Me: Oh, I'm sorry. What "I love you" song do you mean?

Brynna (again singing with the Barney tune): "I love you..."

Me: Hmmm. (Thinking hard, since Barney clearly not the right answer. Then, inspiration strikes.) I love you, a bushel and a peck, a bushel...

Brynna: NNNNOOOOOO! (screaming and crying again) NNNOOOOOTTTT THAT I LOVE YOU!

Me: Brynna, I'm sorry. I don't know what I love you song you mean.


Me: B, if I knew what song you wanted, I would sing it for you, but I don't.


Me: Can you sing it for me? Because then I might be able to sing it for you.

Brynna: NOOOOOOO!!!!!

Me: (Still searching brain for I love you song options while turning off onto our exit ramp) All you need is love, DO-do-DO-do-DO, All you need is love...

Brynna: (hysterical shrieks hit new register) NNNOOOOOOTTTT THAAAATT OOOOOOONE!

Me: Kid, I'm out of options.


Me: Oh, is this a special song that she sings for you?


Me: Well, I don't think I know that song. Maybe tomorrow she can sing it for me, and then I can sing it for you. How would that be?

Brynna: (snuffling) oooo-kay. (Screaming picks up again) I DOOOON'T WAAAAANT TO GO HOOOOOOOOME!

Me (looking for peace, at any cost): why don't we go home and have a snack? What would you like to eat?

Brynna: toast. With sugar and sauce and pepper (translation: sugar and butter and cinnamon)

Me: Sure! Absolutely!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Vacation, part 3

In today's installment, we introduce a new Brynna pastime: snow tubing. We brought Brynna to Great Glenn, just north of Pinkham Notch, so that she could give it a try. This is normally a cross-country skiing place, but they do have one slope they smooth, pack, and groom into a sort of sledding hill. At the bottom is a pile of inflated tubes with slippery sheets covering the bottom. Human power does the rest:

Some do more than others.

After a single ride down with Dada, Brynna was quite ready to have a go all on her own. The gentle slope, Brynna's light weight, and the inch of fresh snow all slowed things down enough that she needed a significant running push to get going.

She sure had a blast, though.

I prefer the running leap.

Contrast this lovely outing to the following night when we took Brynna to the tubing area at Cranmore Mountain. This is more in line what most would expect: steep and long chutes packed to an icy quick. Brynna enjoyed slowly climbing up the slope on the magic carpet conveyor belt with Mama. But she was utterly terrified of the trip back down, so much so that she refused to do it again. We have since tried to accentuate the positive: she's game to do it again.

Little Ski Bunny

Brynna was very interested when she heard that Mama and Dada were off skiing during our vacation. "I want to go skiing!" she said on Friday as Alex and I headed out again.

So we decided to oblige her. When we got back to Concord on Friday night, I pulled out my baby skis, which my parents had brought up a few months ago, and we adjusted them to fit onto Brynna's boots.

We started the skiing lessons in the living room:

B learned how to maneuver around quite quickly, especially after we explained the importance of not crossing her skis.

A high five for our little ski bunny:

Pleased with this small success, Brynna and I planned for a try at some actual skiing on Saturday morning. When she woke up at her usual atrociously early hour, we got all our warm gear on and headed off to Pat's Peak, our local ski area, where the beginner's area is free.

We strapped on our skis and practiced "scootch-scootching" as we made our way toward the beginner's hill. She actually has fairly good balance on the flat, but no weight to do any sort of edging when the going gets rough!

The bunny slope features a "carpet lift," which is a rubberized moving sidewalk that takes you up to the top. B was able to stand on her little skis right in between my big skis, and thought it was great fun to ride the "magic carpet." There were little animal figurines scattered in the woods that she took great delight in pointing out each time we headed up.

Once on top, I held a ski pole in front of her so she had something to hang onto, and zoomed her down inside of my snowplow. She loved it immediately! We developed a little chant: "bend your knees and straighten your skis!" (She doesn't have the power yet to be able to execute a snowplow herself, so we just focused on keeping a little weight in her skis, and pointing them in generally the downhill direction.)

Every time we got to the bottom, she'd say "more!" And then at the top, she'd hold her arms out and say, "I ready!" As soon as we started to glide down, I'd hear "let's go faster!"

We ended up doing ten runs down the bunny slope before she decided she was a bit tired and was ready for some hot chocolate. But after our snack, she demanded to go back out again, and we did five more runs before heading home.

I may have some actual on-snow pictures to post next weekend...since it was just the two of us on Saturday I wasn't able to hold her up and take photos at the same time!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Vacation, pt 2

Tuesday afternoon, after a reasonably relaxing morning spent lounging about the cottage, Hilary and I took Jasper an about half our gear to Bear Notch, located about halfway between North Conway and Crawford Notch, for some cross-country skiing. It's cheaper than downhill, more athletic, and much less crowded. A key advantage was that Jasper was permitted there, too. Jasper, of course, was beside himself with excitement: miles of running through the snow. The only downside was that we were going to make him wear his booties, so that his feet didn't get galled up with snow.

Oh the indignity!

He also got to meet a long lost cousin: a fluffy black dog of similar breed to his own.

Hooray for the outdoors!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Vacation, pt 1

Hilary gets her vacation doled out in week-long blocks a few times per year. It might seem like a lot in aggregate, but is a small pittance compared to the 60-80-hour weeks and weekends she outs in between. I, aside from some long weekends here and there, haven't had a proper stretch of time off since I started my current job some 20 months ago. So, we were determined to take a real, honest-to-goodness vacation when Hilary had some time off this first week of March.

We looked at going someplace warm (the Virgin Islands or Puerto Rico, for instance), but got scared off by the price. We ended up staying close to home and having a winter wonderland vacation in the north country. We ended up staying a few nights at a cottage that's a part of the Farm by the River Inn, where Hilary and I spent a fine long weekend some months back. Knowing that it would be difficult, probably impossible, to do the kinds of things we wanted with a 2-1/2 year old in tow, we brought along some help in the form of my mother.

We are all actually pretty good about traveling light when it comes to ordinary trips, but we also were bringing four pair of skis (2x downhill, 2x XC), a pair of boots for each pair f skis, two pair of snowshoes, enough warm layers for an antarctic expedition, some food for the week, an impressive variety of wine, our dog and his provisions, entertainment options and a carseat for Brynna, etc. etc. On Monday we slowly, painfully, packed up roughly a metric ton of gear between our station wagon and my mother's car, and eventually rolled out of Concord under cloudy skies and freezing rain.

After reaching the cottage and settling in a bit, we headed into town to our favorite North Conway restaurant - the Flatbread Company, for some awesome wood-fired pizza. We split an excellent dessert four ways for my mother's birthday as well.

The Farm by the River isn't really a working farm any longer, although they have leased a piece of the land to a fella who wants to make a go of it. Instead, they keep about a dozen horses and take folks on carriage, sleigh, and horseback rides. In the background there is Cathedral Ledge, one of the best places in New England for rock climbing.

Are we relaxed yet? (images by B)


That's a four-foot fence back there - only the tips of which are visible. I sometimes wonder where the raspberry canes are - then I remember that there's another level of guy-wires about two feet down.

A'yuh, we've had lots of snow this year.


Here is the closest I have ever gotten to seeing mushroom cultivation. This is from the most recent winter farmer's market here in town: a bag full of wood chips, innoculated with some mushrooms transplanted from elsewhere, then left to grow and produce. Holes are punched in the bag for transpiration, the addition of water, and the blooming of "fruit" - the edible part of the mushroom plant.