call me bubble boy

I’m sick, again. It seems that my body is a playground for every virus that I come in contact with this Spring. This particular bug is all about high fever — I peaked at 102.6 degrees F (39.2 C) this afternoon. I discovered that I was sick at about 5am this morning, when I awoke with the chills from a dream that rehashed bits of the Indiana Jones movie we saw on Monday. There are worse things that hearing Harrison Ford say “I like Ike” over and over again.

Perhaps I need to start thinking of living in a bubble… like that kid played by John Travolta in The Boy In The Plastic Bubble. Call me Bubble Boy.

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a busy, busy weekend

The three day weekend was a very busy one around the Geek household. There was bad weather, great food, friends, sawdust, lots of wine, swearing, and rip roaring nostalgic adventure at various points. It was productive, a lot of fun, and slightly guilty.

The proceedings started bright and early on Saturday morning, when Mrs. Geek and I departed for a wine club event at a winery we know and love. Despite several weeks of decidedly good weather in the region where we live, the weather turned slightly nasty… and what was supposed to be a pleasant, sunny lunch followed by a boccie ball tournament had to move in doors, into the winery barrel room. Lunch was preceded by oysters on the half shell and the two kinds of the house sauvignon blanc (reserve and regular). Lunch itself was a sight to behold: Maine lobster boil, with shrimp, potatoes, corn, and artichokes. Guests were seated at long, paper-covered tables, and the food was simply poured out of large stainless steel baskets down the middle of the length of the table. The guests tore into the food like it was their last meal; I suppose that in this world of pre-processed, pre-portioned entrees, there is something truly primal being able to tear apart ones dinner.

Sunday was all about tools. Two home improvement projects have been bubbling up to the top of the list over the last few weeks:

  1. We got ourselves a portable, two-hose in-room Royal Sovereign air conditioner for our bedroom a few weeks ago in anticipation of the coming heat of summer. The hoses require a window insert that is normally meant for small vertical sash windows. We have horizontal sliding glass windows that are far too large for the factory-provided adapter. I needed to make an adapter out of plywood or fiberboard.
  2. We also got ourselves a bike hoist to hang my aging mountain bike from the rafters of our garage, freeing up some much-needed floorspace. The previous owners had some bracing up there for this purpose, but I felt that their setup needed a little beefing up. The hoist also needed to be installed.

Both of these projects would force me to expand my tool collection. I would finally have to break down and purchase some kind of workbench (like the Black and Decker Workmate) to hold the wood I needed to cut, and get some kind of power saw (like a jigsaw or sabersaw) to make some of the cuts. As we are now house frugal, this required busting the monthly household budget by dipping into savings to buy the necessary equipment. Both Mrs. Geek and my parents have reminded me that a) the tools were needed to complete these projects, and b) you can’t go wrong by buying tools. I’m still feeling some post consumer guilt about busting the budget though; we’ve had to dip into savings more often than not for the last few months… and I find myself wondering when it will stop.

Sunday afternoon saw the completion of the air conditioner installation. This was followed by impromptu grilled steak dinner with friends who live nearby… which was an absolutely wonderful way to cap the day.

Monday saw all the hard parts of the bike hoist installation completed… after far too much time spent going up and down a ladder… and cursing at the mounting screws provided by the hoist manufacturer (that my drill chewed up with reckless abandon.)

Mrs. Geek and I then went to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull… which was good, though not great… and could have been much, much better. Sometimes there are reasons that movies go through 18 years of development hell.

We finished the weekend with some grilling of hot dogs and burgers with other friends. I decided to use the occasion to expand my repertoire of home made ice creams to include strawberry (oooh… I can now make vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry — home made Neapolitan!) This led to a surprising amount of math.

Why, you ask? I generally use the Philadelphia ice cream base (just milk and cream, no egg yolks) suggested by Alton Brown on the Good Eats episode “Churn Baby Churn” to make my ice cream. He provided the original vanilla recipe. Moving that recipe “as is” to chocolate originally caused problems; good ice cream has a correct ratio of sugar to butterfat in the base and the cocoa butter in the chocolate threw that ratio off. Fortunately, I have an old copy of The Joy Of Cooking that has many, many recipes for ice cream (both with and without yolks), and I was able to calculate some butterfat ratios with it as a guide that let me create a much, much better chocolate ice cream. I felt that I needed to repeat this process again for strawberry… which caused Mrs. Geek to roll her eyes when she saw all the numbers scribbled on my scratch paper.

The effort proved to be worth it. The strawberry ice cream came out just fine… and the freezer in our new house does a bang-up job of freezing the bowl of our electric ice cream maker. I see more ice cream experiments in the future!

In the meanwhile, I think I need to put all my ice cream scratch pad calculations in a spreadsheet of some sort… and I’ll just close by saying that if that ain’t geeky, I don’t know what is!

bad life goals

Been trying to think of some truly bad personal mission statements lately. Some people choose life goals like “I want to be a good parent”, and “I want to stay clean and sober”. I’ve been trying to think of things that go nowhere near that simple… or really make any kind of useful contribution to society.

“I want to go to jail in all fifty states.”

“When I die, I want the Darwin Awards people to say ‘Wow, that was stupid!’.”

“I want to strive to be so completely and breathtakingly awesome that I will be like a tornado in a giant trailer park of my peers. Women will bare their breasts. Men will offer me beer. But don’t worry, I’ll also be incredibly humble.”

“I wish to live an enigmatic and semi-melancholy life of aspiring mediocrity that will inspire a brooding, cult-ish biography. That book will enjoy a brief vogue with the Hollywood A-List that will simultaneously cause two independent films and a TV mini-series about my life to be produced. All of them will be panned.”

“I wish to lick the bald head of a member of every race, creed, and nationality in the world, starting with someone who is Basque.”

“I wish to have a commercially sold beer named after me. I don’t care if it is good or not.”

stagflation

Money is a subject much on my mind these days. Though gas is routinely selling for more than $4.00 a gallon where we live, it is our mortgage that really makes me think about money. We love our house, and we are very happy with it (to date). It is also sucking up a lot of the excess capital that we used to spend on travel and eating out. There is no cushion in the monthly budget anymore; there are only things we need this month, a couple things we can afford this month, and things that will have to wait until some other month. And that savings account that used to make up our “rainy day fund”? It’s still there and growing during the first six months of the year… but that money is all spent, on car insurance and property taxes in the last half of the year. I don’t believe we are “house poor” (yet), but we are “house frugal”.

The cause for all the increased costs in the Geek household crystallized recently while reading some of the responses to an interview with Nan Mooney in Salon.com: inflation. The response pointed out that devaluation of the currency occurs when an excess of capital is injected into any economy. That is what happened during the 1970’s when the United States Treasury attempted to reduce the impact of high oil prices and soaring government debt by pumping up the money supply by literally printing more money. It is also what Wall Street and the mortgage brokers did in the early 2000’s by making credit far too damn easy to get. Buoyed by all this additional “funny money” (created out of thin air through various financial derivatives to fund outrageous mortgages for people who couldn’t really pay), housing prices more than doubled when salaries didn’t. My salary has risen by a very healthy percentage since 2000, but it can’t keep up with growth in the price of housing. Armed with half the capital I had in 2007, I could have purchased a home with a mortgage payment much more in line with what I was paying in rent. So even though the yearly rate of inflation over the last 8 years has not risen above four percent based on the Consumer Price Index, I have to think that the number has to be well into the double digits somewhere if the cost of housing is figured in. Say hello to our old friend stagflation. It’s been 30 years, but you had to come back, didn’t you?

(A part of me secretly has to think that the arrival of stagflation must be presaged by the appearance of hip-huggers and bell-bottoms… making the fashion choices of Britney Spears in some part a direct cause for the decline and ruination of America as a whole. It’s a comforting thought.)

I can see the unease that people have with the value of their money based on how much talk a return to the gold standard gets these days. People want their money to feel like it is worth something… and the idea that a paper dollar is backed by a measured amount of gold certainly provides sentimental comfort. Yet, I think the idea rings hollow. The idea that you can dig up value intrinsically out of the earth is a lot scarier to me than creating it on paper based on a well-researched set of economic indicators. Besides, moving to the gold standard would do nothing to stop the kind of change in cost structure caused in the last eight years by the availability of tremendously easy credit — credit card companies create the illusion of new money every time they issue you a credit card. And how many of the gold standard advocates would give all their credit cards, their car loans, and their mortgages? Not many, I fear.

pork fatigue

I have pork fatigue. I made a big batch of baby back pork ribs over the weekend. I made another batch a few weeks back. I also made a butterflied pork tenderloin in jerk sauce just before my surgery last month. I also grilled some pork chops recently. Pork. Pork. Pork. I’m tired of it. I don’t want to eat the leftovers.

Why? Because some of it has not been “fork tender” to put it mildly. It’s been undercooked, overcooked, and not properly marinated or brined. Gone are the days of the American “lard hog” (unless you send away from heirloom pork or raise your own out back) and the modern version of “the other white meat” can be fat-less and tending toward tough if handled improperly. All this is because I have been experimenting… I’m trying to get some good slow-cooked smoked ribs done on the grill, and crack open a couple cookbooks that I got for Christmas. It’s all been in a good cause, and I know my dinner guests definitely cleaned their plates when I fed the results of my efforts…

I have a hankering to go make myself some homemade Sloppy Joes. Beef, sauce, and veggies on a bun. It has a primal appeal.

The Diogenes Club

Broadsheet over on Salon.com alerted me to the impending arrival of a report produced by the Harvard Business Review entitled “The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering and Technology.” Based on a study of 1000 American women professionals in the science and technology fields, and a survey of 3000 women abroad with similar credentials, the report paints an unhappy picture for today’s women scientists and engineers. In particular, it found five negative factors that cause nearly half of the women in the report to leave the field upon reaching the ages of 35-40:

  1. hostile macho workplace cultures,
  2. feelings of isolation (being the only female member on the team),
  3. stalled career paths,
  4. risk and reward systems that put risk-averse women at a disadvantage, and
  5. unusually time intensive schedules that detract from family and social relationships.

While I am not a woman, I can certainly understand why women might feel this way.

The sciences are, in some ways, populated with men who might belong to Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Diogenes Club” — a men’s club “for some of the most un-club-able men in London.” Techies, at least in my industry, do not become techies to be social or political creatures. We’re there to solve problems. We work with machines and lab equipment because, on some level, we’re happier doing that than dealing with people. If you ever get the social/political itch, you become a manager or a marketer — and go on to make more money and attend more meetings than working science and technology people ever do. Being a Meyers-Briggs type INTJ myself, schmoozing and politic-ing is something I am not good at… and besides having a strongly analytical mind, I find the notion of dealing with technological systems more comfortable than human problems to a certain degree.

As exhibit A for this tendency, I merely need to point out my own behavior when I am focused on a problem. Mrs. Geek calls it “being on a mission”. I don’t want to socialize, or interact. I want to focus and work on a problem until it is solved. Socialization is secondary; it’s a tool I use only when I need information or understanding that I cannot deduce myself and obtain from written material. There is not a lot social chatter over the cubicle walls where I work… and at least one of my female co-workers has commented on this.

This unfortunately lets a lot of misogynistic behavior come through. Being more focused on problems, we men do not take the time to communicate about proper socialization and normalization as we probably should. Combine that with the fact that so very many of the people in sciences in the United States are from places like China, India, and Eastern Europe — places where feminism is viewed as more of a corrupting foreign influence than a guiding principle — women do get treated badly, and men are not punished enough for it.

I wish this wasn’t so. I try not to make it so. But we need more women in the field to make change possible… because I think part of the thing that is broken cannot be fixed without more input from women themselves. So I hope there are some MBA-types who will take this report from Harvard Business Review to heart and put some measures in place to keep women in the field. We need them. For so many reasons, we do.