If it seems like I haven’t posted much recently, it’s because I’m working on migrating my web site from it’s current “platform” (PHP) to Django (Python-based), and I’ve already migrated my blog to the new system. It’s at http://swingleydev.org/blog/, and includes an RSS feed. It lacks a system for reader comments, but I will eventually add this feature.
Sun, 15 May 2011
Sun, 17 Apr 2011
In late August 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, destroying the levees designed to protect the city, flooding 80% of it, and killing 1,464 people. City of Refuge, written by the author of Why New Orleans Matters and a resident of the city, is a fictional retelling of the disaster and it’s aftermath. It’s an emotional story, well written, and does a good job of making New Orleans and the devastation of Katrina real. Read next to Dave Egger’s Zeitoun, it’s hard to imagine how the maintenance of the levees, emergency response, and relief efforts could have been worse. Thankfully, book mostly stays clear from making political arguments or assigning blame, focusing mainly on how two different families cope with the destruction of the city they lived in.
I enjoyed it—learning more about the disaster and the rhythms and flavor of the city itself—but I wouldn’t recommend it except for readers interested in another perspective on Katrina.
Sun, 10 Apr 2011
A month ago, we noticed that our pump was coming on when we weren’t using any water. We immediately suspected the toilet because there was no evidence of water anywhere (on the floor, leaking under the house, etc.), but when we shut off the water supply to the toilet before going to bed, the tank was still full of water in the morning. The gaskets in our kitchen faucet were starting to fail, and it was occasionally leaking down the stem of the faucet, so we replaced the cartridge hoping this would solve our water problem. The faucet works a lot better, but we were still losing water.
We tried turning off the pump at night to confirm we really were losing water, and when we got up in the morning, we had no pressure. The combination of turning off the pump and the toilet supply resulted in no loss in pressure, so the leak was somewhere in the toilet after all. It wasn’t the flapper valve (or the tank would be empty in the morning), and we didn’t see any drips or leaks, so the supply must have been leaking into the top tank somewhere under the water and draining into the bowl where we didn’t notice it.
The obvious fix for this is to replace the stuff in the tank. But the toilet didn’t really work very well anyway, and used the full 1.6 gallons per flush. Andrea installed a dual flush kit that was supposed to use less water for liquid waste, but it didn’t work: the lower “number one” button didn’t release enough water into the bowl for it to actually flush. 1.6 gallons of water doesn’t sound like much, but we’re currently paying 10 cents a gallon for water, so we’re spending more than a dollar a day just to flush the toilet. We have an outhouse, but because we’re so close to Goldstream Creek, it can’t be in the ground and needs to be pumped out whenever it gets full. So our best option was to replace the leaking toilet with something that won’t leak, and uses less than the standard 1.6 gallons of water per flush.
The two current strategies to lowering water consumption in a toilet are to make the top tank smaller so less water is used for every flush, or to implement a dual flush setup where a small amount of water is used for liquids and the full volume flushes solids. Consumer Reports doesn’t give the dual flush models very high ratings, mostly because the bowl isn’t rinsed as well when so little water is used. As a result, we decided to get a toilet that uses a smaller top tank (1.28 gallons per flush). The highest rated model by Consumer Reports is an American Standard one-piece “Cadet 3,” but the local plumbing place and the box stores didn’t have that model in stock. Getting one shipped to Alaska would have taken more than two months. The next place models were the two-piece version of the Cadet 3 and the Kohler Cimarron. Consumer Reports gave the Cimarron slightly higher marks overall, with better bowl cleaning but worse solid waste elimination ratings. While we were in the store, we went to the web site for the company that rates toilets for solid waste elimination (www.map-testing.com) and consulted the latest ratings (from April 4th (!)). The Cimarron was better rated for this statistic (1,000 vs. 800), so that’s what we got.
Installation went smoothly. Thus far, we’re satisfied. What is surprising about the toilet is how fast it flushes. It empties the top tank into the bowl in less than a second, and the bowl empties almost immediately after that. It seems that the strategy is to dump almost all of the top tank water into the bowl as quickly as possible to eliminate waste, and use the small amount remaining to wash down the bowl. So far so good! We’re saving more than three cents each time we flush, and hopefully we will have many fewer double (and more…) flush events.
Sat, 09 Apr 2011
After my disappointment that Skippy Dies was eliminated from The Morning News Tournament of Books, I decided I should read the book that beat it, and which eventually won in the final round by a one-vote margin, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, just out in paperback. After beating Skippy, Goon Squad was beaten by Franzen’s heavyweight, but came back in the zombie round and eventually met Freedom (again) in the finals.
Some of the comments from judges choosing Goon Squad:
- Sarah Manguso: Franzen made me weep for lost love, but Egan reminded me that death is coming.
- Jennifer Weiner: Egan gets my vote, because if Franzen takes the prize, then the terrorists win (and because even if he doesn’t, you know the Los Angeles Times will run his picture anyhow).
- Anthony Doerr: Which of these two books might help, to borrow Zadie’s Smith’s clause, “shake the novel out of its present complacency?” Egan’s.
- Michele Filgate: There’s no comparison. Egan’s novel is innovative and playful, while simultaneously smart and captivating.
- Andrew Womack: For me, this decision comes down to pacing, and Franzen is the Pink Floyd to Egan’s Sex Pistols; by the end of Freedom I couldn’t take another meandering guitar solo, while I was dazzled by how much Goon Squad packed into such a compact space.
Jennifer Egan (on hearing she won):
- A rooster will fit perfectly into our Brooklyn landscape…our sons will be thrilled; our two cats, even more so.
I just finished it, and I was blown away. I wasn’t expecting to like it much: a “novel” of connected short stories, ho hum. An entire chapter done using a piece of software implicated in the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster (PowerPoint), yetch. But the way the stories weave through time and from one character’s viewpoint to another, never so obvious as to touch the same scene twice, but covering such a wide swath of time was amazing. For me, it wasn’t until the last chapter, which takes place at some point in the 2020’s, that the collective effective of the stories really came together into a very real feeling for the things we gain and (mostly) lose in our lives; the way our decisions combine to make a life.
The final contest in the Tournament really was a fitting one—both Egan and Franzen are attempting to describe modern life in America (as cliché as that sounds). Franzen does this by filling his book with the full lives of his three main characters. Egan does it by sprinkling her chapters with short bursts from a wide range of related characters, varying perspective, time, age, and narrative style in each. The challenge for Franzen is how to tell the full story of three people without the reader growing sick of them. The challenge for Egan is getting us to actually care about the characters in the short time we spend with them, or at the very least be willing to listen to what they have to say.
She succeeds, spectacularly.
Sun, 03 Apr 2011
Jenson’s yawn pretty much summarizes my feeling about this book. The main character has convinced himself he needs to murder someone to avoid stabbing his child with an ice pick. He carefully plans how he’d do this but when he gets a prostitute who will serve as victim, she’s as damaged as he is. Much of the story concerns the back and forth as these two damaged individuals try to figure out what is going on with the other. My problem was that I really felt no investment in any of the characters and the whole premise seemed really unlikely.
One good thing: the book was short.
Fri, 01 Apr 2011
Yesterday was opening day in Major League Baseball. Yahoo!
I watched bits of Tigers v. Yankees, Padres v. Cardinals, and much of the Giants v. Dodgers game, all on my iPhone. I haven’t subscribed to MLB.tv, but yesterday’s games were sponsored by Volvo, so anyone with the MLB 11 app could watch for free. The quality is reasonable, and the app seems smart about not consuming all the available bandwidth.
I root for the A’s, Giants and Phillies (and favor the Tigers and Cubs when there are no other rooting interests). All three are pretty good teams, and all of them have the starting pitching to contend, but may have trouble scoring runs. The A’s have no power threat and a cadre of fragile, replacement-level position players, the Giants need a good season from Posey, Sandoval and rookie Brandon Belt, and the Phillies are hurting without Werth and Utley. But however it turns out, it’s great to have baseball back.
Well, however it turns out as long as the Yankees, Angels, Braves and Dodgers don’t wind up in the World Series…
Thu, 24 Mar 2011
Deuce died today from liver failure probably caused by a problem with his bile duct or gall bladder. He was just shy of fourteen years old and was a very healthy dog except for a having a toe removed a few months ago due to a slow growing tumor and an incident a couple years ago where he somehow managed to break his tail (!?).
Dusenberg (he came from a litter named after luxury cars) was our first sled dog and our second dog after Nika. He was a tall, gorgeous looking husky with a great coat and very upright and alert ears. We got him in the fall of 2001 when he was four years old, and despite his many quirks, he was a great dog once you learned how to handle him so he felt comfortable. He was an outdoor dog for the first six years we had him, coming inside only for food. Whenever we’d try to keep him in the house beyond dinnertime he’d pace back and forth until we let him out again. Then, suddenly, in December 2007, he decided that being in the house was OK. It took several more months before he learned to lay on a dog bed instead of the floor, and by the end of his life, he actually preferred being in the house, curled up on a dog bed. After his foot surgery, he stayed inside every night, and often during the day while we were at work.
He’d still get nervous when anything changed or he heard loud noises, often grabbing a dog bowl and pacing around with it like a safety blanket:
He was a very sweet dog, and the only one in our yard that would run away from a fight instead of trying to get involved in it. Whenever I’d clean the dog yard, he would follow close behind me, patiently waiting for me to turn around and pet his head. And in the last year, he enjoyed playing with the kittens, pawing at them and pulling them around on the floor (video at the bottom). Every morning when I came down the stairs, there’d be Deuce curled up on a dog bed (he was afraid of going up the stairs). Tomorrow morning will be hard, not seeing his furry ears and bright face looking at me as I come down the stairs.
Rest in peace Mr. Deuce. We love you.
Sun, 13 Mar 2011
I just finished Swamplandia!, the first novel by one of The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 list (the author, Karen Russell was born in, gaak!, 1981) about a family of alligator wrestlers in the Thousand Islands region of Florida. Despite that description, it’s a lot less Geek Love, and a lot more non-traditional Bildungsroman. I enjoyed the book, particularly how convincingly the environments of the characters were drawn. The details, sights, sounds and smells of the Florida swamps and jungles, and the unpleasant realities of a low-income job at an amusement park (or really anywhere else):
…the hours contracted or accordioned outward depending on several variables that Kiwi had catalogued: difficulty of task, boredom of task, degree to which task humiliates me personally.
The main character is the girl Ava, who narrates her half of the story in the first person, but I found I enjoyed Kiwi and his struggles on the mainland more. Once the story got going (which for me, was when all the characters had left Swamplandia!) I ripped through it in a couple days.
I hadn’t realized how much southern Florida had been destroyed by a variety of ill-advised Army Core of Engineers projects and non-native species introductions. This book, and Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country (which I read in 2009) really makes you appreciate what the place must have been like before humans got around to messing around with it.
Sat, 12 Mar 2011
I probably should have mentioned this sooner, but my favorite literary event is going on right now: The Morning News Tournament of Books. It’s a tournament-style “competition” where pairs of books from the previous year are stacked against each other, and a literary judge decides between them. It’s always entertaining reading, both in what the judges have to say about each of the books they review and ultimately decide between, and in the commentary at the bottom. Last year’s winner was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a book I read last year and highly recommend.
My favorite in this year’s competition is Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies. Alas, it met it’s match yesterday: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. I’m hoping Skippy shows up again in the “Zombie Round,” where losers that may have been unfairly judged get another opportunity to get back into the contest.
Reading what the judge had to say, and the comments, it’s clear that Egan’s book certainly deserved to win as much as Murray’s. Here’s one such comment from John Warner (Anthony Doerr was the judge):
Her books are just very alive down to the sentence level, inventive and surprising, even when you’re braced against them as with the PowerPoint story, which I also approach with a sneer, but was won over by, kind of like my attitude towards Katy Perry, and Jennifer Egan managed to do it without shooting fireworks out of her breasts. (As far as I know.)
But Warner has this to say about Skippy Dies:
Skippy Dies is one of those multi-character, many-threaded novels that manages to hold everything together all the way through to the end. For me, it was the best book of the year, superior to Freedom … The dialogue among the students is the funniest and sharpest I’ve read in years. My investment with the characters is deep and lasting. The title is no spoiler, since the titular character is killed off in the first paragraph. (It’s like Gallagher smashing the watermelons first.) As we go back in time and get to know Skippy and his friends, the heart breaks a little as his inevitable death approaches. Reading it, I got the feeling that Paul Murray put everything he had in the book. No withholding whatsoever.
As it turns out, my favorite book of last year, The Instructions wasn’t in the contest. So I’m still rooting for Skippy Dies.
Today is the first time in a long time that I’ve been able to take both Nika and Piper out on the trails. For me, this is a turning point in a very long, stressful illness that Piper is still recovering from.
A couple months ago Piper got what we can only assume was an abscess inside her chest cavity. The result was that her chest filled with fluid and made breathing very difficult for her. The original diagnosis, made before she started having any real symptoms, was cancer, and we were preparing for the worst. Thankfully, Andrea didn’t give up on her, and several fantastic veterinarians in town didn’t either.
She spent some time in a hyperbaric chamber to get her oxygen levels up, and she had the fluids drained from her chest several times. Eventually, she had surgery to insert a pair of tubes into her chest, and we spent the next two weeks flushing her with fluids, every six hours. There’s a photo of the setup below. The procedure was to hook the saline bag to the input port on one side of her chest and put in 250 ml of fluid. Then we’d switch sides, and open the drain port on the side that had just been filled. Repeat until a liter has gone in and come back out again. The whole procedure took more than an hour, four times a day. At the same time, she was getting pain medication and antibiotics.
In the beginning, even after we had a good diagnosis, she was so sick that I don’t think anyone had much hope that she could be saved. She was too weak to stand without help and had a head tilt that seemed to indicate she’d gone septic. But as soon as we got some of the fluid out and the antibiotics started working on the infection inside her she improved dramatically.
Throughout all of it, Piper was fantastic. She went up on the couch to get treatment, went into her kennel at night, and handled all the trips to the vet without complaint or struggle.
She still has to take antibiotics for at least six months to make sure the infection really is gone, and it’s been a cold couple months because her chest was shaved prior to the surgery, but it’s all worth it. Seeing her running around on the trails today with Nika was a pleasure, and I think she enjoyed it too.