Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving at the Farm

Here’s the reason we changed directions after two hours on the road. This is Dad's fun. It's also what keeps him alive. The field that burned is now one of the greenest parts of the farm. Tiny shoots, but green.

We went to see Dad for the Thanksgiving break. Full details are in the Ursula blog, so I just want to focus on how Dad is doing in this post.

We got to the farm at about 21:30—long after he had gone to bed on Wednesday night. By 09:30 on Thanksgiving morning, he was out in the fields. He took a couple of hours to rest mid day, and went back out to plow for several more hours. I estimated six hours in the tractor on Thanksgiving Day.

He worked even harder on Friday and finished his plowing on Saturday, just before the sky spit for a while but refused to settle the dust. So while he doesn’t have the stamina he did when he was a young man of say 70, he is doing great for someone who is pushing 89 and fighting cancer.

The only down news is that he seems to be trying to convoke himself that the doctor won’t be able to resume treatments on Monday. He says he may tell the doctor he doesn’t want to continue with the treatments.

On the other hand, he continues to set goals and work to see them accomplished. I’m hoping his pride and determination win out over his pessimism. To use his favorite phrase, “We’ll see.”

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Dragons Sleep

Pern-inspired ASCII Dragon Photo source: Benzendream

Advice for aspiring writers:

  1. Keep reading. Writers are readers. Writers are also people who can’t not write.
  2. Second, follow Heinlein’s rules for getting published:
    1. Write it.
    2. Finish it.
    3. Send it out.
    4. Keep sending it out until someone sends you a check.

There are variations on that, but that’s basically what works.

Anne McCaffrey

The dragons of Pern fly missing man formation today. I learned this morning that their creator, Anne McCaffrey, died of a stroke. She was 85.

The Ship Who Sang explores themes of humanity through human-cyborg interactions.Photo source: calibre2opds

I never met McCaffery, but she was the coolest grandmother figure an adolescent male could hope for. Her imagination took us places we could never have gone without her. Librarything credits 60 books to her pen. Each one had a lesson—maybe not the lesson my parents would have wanted, McCaffery had a strong ethical bent. I read one time that she approached each of her books with a child in mind.

She had a way of making you believe. If a severely disabled girl could control a starship, how could I not try to do whatever mundane thing was bothering me at the time? If the misfit could bond to the coolest dragon ever, maybe this misfit had something to offer. I guess that was her main lesson—believe in yourself. Believe in something.

McCaffery’s earlier works are often overlooked, but they are among her best. Some of her later titles had the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but that comes from following Heinlein’s rule. (Heinlein would also let the story devolve into random preachiness sometimes.) Even so, it was difficult to put her books down.

Somewhere, the ship continues to sing.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Quick Update

Since I don’t have a picture of Dad’s face when he got the good news, here’s one of my brother Edwin, me, and Dad. I think it was taken sometime in the mid 1800’s.

The test results came back with good news. Dad’s cancer had grown, but it was only on the surface. Given that this is a very aggressive form of cancer, the doctor said its limited growth was a very good sign that the treatments are working. He went on to say that he thinks we can beat it if we increase the testaments to every week (which is what he originally said he wanted to do but never scheduled them more often that every two to three weeks).

Sunday, November 13, 2011

…Home Again Hippity Hop

The first thing we did was rebuild the fence Chris knocked down while saving what he could of the hay crop. We also hung two new gates by the driveway so Dad can let the cows out to graze in the fields after harvest. Here’s the “Hippity hop” part of the title. Suna told Chris she wanted a picture of me This was the best we could do given the glare on the cab plexiglass.

Dad was feeling much better this morning, but he was still willing to listen to reason with regard to following the doctor’s orders. Instead of insisting on doing the work himself, he sent Chris and I out to hang gates and plant fence poles.

I drove the tractor while Chris did the brain work on the ground. He made sure the posts were aligned both along the fence and vertically. I would guide the front-end loader over the post and push it in the ground using the flat on the bottom of the pivot.

While planting the posts, we managed to scare up a bunny nest. I clipped one little guy’s left leg, but he seems unhurt otherwise. We took him back to the house for Dad to nurse back to health. He’s very friendly and seemingly unafraid of anything. Might be why they didn’t run from the tractor soon enough.

Later Chris found a pile of fur he thinks was their mom. She had been gone a week or so, which gives us hope that the little one we rescued and its siblings will survive OK.

By the time I had to head back to Austin, we had planted 61 posts and hung two gates. Dad was feeling “better than since before May” when he was originally diagnosed with cancer.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Home Again…

Moon rise and lens flare over the farm with a little hand-held jitter

Chris and I got to the hospital this morning about five minutes after the on-call doctor made his rounds and told Dad he was good to go home again. This was after the floor nurse last night told us the on-call never released patients on the weekend, and we would have to wait for Dad’s regular doctor to return on Monday. Luckily, they didn’t get the release paperwork ready until after they served him lunch, so we weren’t in trouble for making Dad wait.

Have I mentioned that he hates hospitals. He says, “If you say in a hospital long enough, they’ll kill you.” So there is nothing that would have made him madder than having to wait on someone to get him out of there.

We got him home, and he decided he wouldn’t push the doctor’s orders again. He laid down and slept most of the afternoon. We watched Lawrence Welk, and he went to bed. So did we. It’s been a long one.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Cancer and John Deere

Dad and Chris discuss farm things while we wait for Dad’s new John Deere to be delivered. This should have been our first indication of what kind of day we were in store for. The smoke the driver is pointing to was actually on the other side of Cuero—more than 20 miles away The driver carries the Slow-Moving-Vehicle placard to install on Dad’s new, larger tractor while Dad wanders over to kick the tires. Chris points out something about the tractor controls as Dad moves hay. Chris buries the last of the burning hay after the fire is contained. At lest the sunset was spectacular. Maybe it was just a new appreciation of the sunset. After a long, stressful day, Dad concedes we need to take him to the Emergency Room.

This date was supposed to be an auspicious one for weddings, movies, and other things. It certainly turned out to be eventful.

I got a call the day-before-yesterday that Dad’s cancer had returned. Chris had taken him in for some tests, and they were going to keep him over night. There was a lot of anxiety and gloom in the message. The doctor felt it safer to err on the side of pessimism. I told Suna and my boss that I would do what I needed to do to tide my work project (a conference call with Singapore and some paperwork) for a few days. Then I would head to Yorktown to hear from the doctor first-hand what was going on.

It turned out that I was at the office until after 21:00, so I didn’t head out until work-time yesterday. I got the hospital just after the doctor made his rounds and determined Dad could go home. The prognosis was still very pessimistic, but Dad was chomping at the bit to get home to his cows. So we headed that direction. We did get him to eat at Whataburger on the way. He slept most of the afternoon, and we all went to bed early.

The big deal for this morning was that Dad’s new tractor was being delivered. He was excited, despite being tired and complaining of problems with his catheter. Some minor adjustments, and he said everything was good. So we went outside to wait.

Dad couldn’t stop talking about the new tractor. He listed all of the features it had that the old one didn’t. He was especially proud that after using the old tractor for three years, the dealership offered him a thousand more in trade than he paid for it to begin with. When it arrived, a huge smile broke through the fatigue covering his face.

The driver unloaded the new tractor and got it set up while the salesman talked with Dad and Chris about a spreader Dad wanted. It had been laying in the yard for almost two years and had accumulated some sun damage, which resulted in some small breakage around the edge. Dad finally agreed to take it as-is for the price the salesman said he couldn’t reduce.

After they left, Dad was agitated that he couldn’t play with his new toy. Chris and I finally gave in. We decided that if he left it in turtle mode, it wouldn’t be any rougher than riding in a car. Dad climbed in to the cab. You could feel the joy radiating out of that tractor as he moved the eleven bales of hay that comprised the total output for the year. The drought hit hard, even though Yorktown has had more rain than the Hill Country.

After the hay was all lined up neatly along the fence, Dad wanted to hook up his disc so it would be ready when he was able to work the fields. That’s where the trouble began. The bold that forms the top pivot of the three-point connection was rusted solid. A spark from cutting that bolt loose set the grass under the implant alight. The fire spread quickly as dry grass fires are prone to do.

Neighbors were showing up to help within just a few minutes. The woman from across the road got Dad to sit in her pickup while Chris and I, soon to be joined by others, fought the fire as best we could until the fire department arrived. We may have had it mostly contained, but we would not have been able to hold without the massive amounts of water they could dump—much more than the puny water hose I was using.

All-in-all, we lost only a couple of acres of dry grass, but we lost half of the hay crop. We would have lost it all if Chris hadn’t driven the tractor through the fence and pushed the unburnt bales into the empty field across the driveway. Chris showed he could make the tractor dance while fighting the fire. The house was unharmed as were most of the implements. Two of the rubber wheels on the planter melted, as did the valve stem on a tire that must have been 20-years-old. Very little damage indeed considering the potential for disaster.

After Chris finished burying the last of the burning hay, we went inside and ate some pulled poke tacos for dinner. The meat came out of a plastic tub. The tortillas were store-bought, and the cheese was the lowest-price sliced variety at the store. It was delicious.

Then Dad said he thought we needed to go to the emergency room. His doctor was out, but the answering service said to have the ER nurse call his on-call when we got there. It turns out that the anti-clotting medicine they had prescribed for Dad causes the clots to become gummy, and one had plugged the catheter, causing Dad a lot of pain. They decided to keep him over night to make sure all of the clots were cleared out.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Zombies at Work

zombiesWho wouldn’t want to dance with either of these two lovelies? Photo source: Djordje Zlatanovic Photography Blog

From the “Overheard at Work” file, appropriate for the Halloween season:

“I’ve been invited to a Zombie Ball, but I don’t know if I’m going.”

“It’s a no-brainer. Go!”

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


We went to see Tommy last night at Cedar Park Center (CPC). Roger Daltrey and Simon Townshend, who turns out to be Pete’s brother—I was thinking son—put on a helluva show.

As always we were a little stressed about getting there as I get off work so late. Suna wanted to go straight to the bank and then to the show. I wanted to grab a quick bite so we didn’t have to pay ridiculous amounts of money for microwaved barfburgers. We stopped at subway and still made it to the show a half-hour early. Having the performance only a few miles from the house is a real convenience! And CPC is very well-designed for access and egress. Traffic was almost pleasant. (See if I ever say that again!)

We had really good seats, but I sure hope Suna’s photos come out better than mine. Too bad we couldn’t bring a real camera and had to settle for the phones. Here’s the least bad shot of the opening act.

The opening act was an animated Welshman named Paul Freeman. He brought a rock and roll sensibility to the acoustic guitar you see in the picture.

We really enjoyed his set. Daltrey’s sound system was set perfectly for vocals accompanied by an acoustic guitar. Freeman played several originals, the a cover of Anything You Want. He wrapped up with a couple more originals and even brought a pre-teen from the audience on stage to sing with him.

While the kid was walking up, Freeman admitted, “I wish I’d known there were children in the audience a half-hour ago.’ This was in regret for dropping the F-bomb a couple of times. The kid blustered through singing his part, and Freeman made him sound good.

Then it was time for the main act.

Daltrey, Townshend, and crew take the stage.

The band was tight, moving seamlessly from one song to the next. The road crew kept the guitarists in fresh guitars, sometimes bringing Townshend more than one during a song. The show was the definition of professionalism in almost all aspects.

Tommy comprised a little less than half of the show. I am so glad I finally got to see it live. Daltrey was in excellent voice, considering he said he has undergone throat surgery and therapy “over the last two years.” In anything, Simon Townshend has a stronger voice than his brother, and he covered Pete’s parts with ease. I was also very impressed with how well Daltrey sang Entwistle’s and Moon’s songs, which are in very different ranges and timbres than his usual. Both Townshend and the guitarist (whom Daltrey introduced as his music director) used devices similar to The Vocalist, so it often sounded as if there were 12 or more voices on stage coming from the four with mikes. (The drummer had a mike, but he banged it more often than he pretended to sing into it.)

Nobody slings a mike like Daltrey! Photo source: SongKick

The sound system was perfect for the vocals, but it also provided my only complaint about the evening. It was perfect if all you wanted to hear was the vocals and the music director’s guitar. The keys were almost always buried in the mix, as you would expect for a power guitar band. Townshend’s guitar was also lost in the mix except for a few occasions where he had the dominant part. But as soon as the music director started playing, Townshend was almost inaudible.

The bass player played a Fender (Precision, I think) with an octave doubler. The lower octave was mixed a little hot, which really muddied the sound. When the drums joined in, the low frequencies had all the punch of day-old oatmeal. In short, the equipment was state-of-the-art; the mix was not. The one bright spot to a fellow bass player was when he switched to upright bass. When he did that, the nervousness drained from his body and he just played. Not only that, the sound was clear and perfect—even with the rest of the band playing.

One unique idea Daltrey brings to this tour is to post mp3s of every performance. I would suggest you check out his “Johnny Cash Medley” or the whole thing, but you’d have to buy the download to hear more than 30 seconds of any song or more than part of the intro to the Cash medley.

There were a couple of times the band stopped playing, so you could say there was an encore even though the band never really left the stage. But really, Daltrey just kept going until he could’t sing anymore. I hope he sees it as a kindness that we all left when he said goodnight instead of demanding more.

If you get a chance to see one of the other tour stops, do so.

Saturday, October 08, 2011


Suna and I participated in NAMI Walks in Austin this morning. It involved waking up. Early. For us.

This morning, Suna and I joined friends from Live Oak, Wildflower, and First Unitarian Universalist churches to help raise money for NAMI, the National Aliance on Mental Illness. Although we knew it was a good cause and a good walk, we were’t exactly clear on what the acronym stood for. Was it the National Association for or against Mental Illness. Neither one sounded right because both were wrong.

We met some friends at Starbucks in Round Rock, and they drove us in to the event.

The walk was too much for some of the participants. Here two volunteers try to resuscitate a poor feller who collapsed en route.

We parked across the street from the walk, which was to take us from Ladybird Lake up Congress Avenue, around the Capitol, and back again. As with many of these health-conscious events, a large part of the preparation involved eating donuts and standing around with friends. I got to take a lot of pictures of dogs, people, and the city.

“Move over there! You! Jeez, it’s easier to herd cats!

NAMI organized team pictures. I hope our captain can obtain a copy for us. It was something of an ordeal for the photographer-in-the-sky, and I want him to know his efforts are appreciated. After several attempts to get our group to move back far enough to get us all in frame, he gave up and moved his ladder. Even so, he had a little more trouble getting some of us to move to the right until he pointed out that it was his left.

Two valid points: 1) Corporatism does not equate to capitalism. 2) Corporations are not people.

One of my favorite parts of the walk was when we passed the Occupy Austin protesters who, like the Occupy Wall Street gang, are still trying to figure out what they want to replace the egregious corporate greed of our financial sector with. The UUs cheered them, and they cheered us back. (Neither group cheered as loudly on the return trip. I think we were tired.) They seem to be nice people, even if I can’t figure out what they want from their media presence. Maybe that’s because they seem to be a clearinghouse for disparate leftist agendas…like what the Democratic Party was before they were assimilated into the Wall Street Continuum. Sorry for the Star Trek mashup, but it seemed appropriate.

There was even a visitor from another planet.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Fur Coat Anyone?

I guess there are two sides to every issue. The photographer agrees. Photo source: Berkley Magazine

From the "Overheard at Work" file, two guys were looking at a photograph:

“Dude! Is that a fur coat? It makes you look like a pimp.”

[immediate response] “I did have a job before this one.”

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Dad Comes Home

We hope the right of way looks like this sometime. Photo Source: Finger Farms

We arrived at the hospital about 08:20 to find Dad in good spirits, if a little grumpy from being awake all night. He couldn’t sleep last night because he had slept all day the previous day. No big surprise there. He doesn’t like to take drugs for pain or sleep because they can affect him the same way LSD does the general population. Just before the commissary closed, we headed down for another American breakfast, leaving Dad in the capable hands of the nurse who wanted to give him a bath while waiting for The Doctor to come by and authorise his release.

Just before noon, all the paperwork was done, and we thought we were on our way home. But Dad had to pee and couldn’t. Apparently, when we stood up, a blood clot dislodged and blocked the urethra. We spent another few hours, reflushing his system and napping, while he endured another mummy looking hospital lunch. When he was finally ready to go, we met the nutritionist on the way down. She thought we were being sarcastic when we told her how good the food was. I guess she’s used to complaints; nobody really likes the food when they don’t get much say in what it is, especially if it’s good for them and they’re used to an American diet.

We got Dad home about 15:50. He went to take a nap while Chris and I went to get his prescriptions filled. We found that the well had been “shut in.” That’s oil field talk for “shut down” either remotely or automatically. We drove by the new plant on the way into town and found it crawling with welding trucks, while workers in coveralls crowded around a large vessel. The burn-off flare was huge, meaning a lot of natural gas would not be sold.

When got back to Da Farm, each chilled in our respective busses (just like rock stars) until the temperatures dropped below the melting point of aluminium. During that time, I removed the old square TV from Ursula’s console and stored it in her belly. I also “fixed” the power adapter I broke installing the TexTag. It now looks right, but it still doesn’t have any power. I cleaned up a little and read.

That evening, Chris watered the Jiggs again while Dad and I inspected the pod. I’m kicking myself for not getting a picture of the ingenious rig Chris built for watering. He mounted a 200 gallon tank to the back of Dad’s new (a couple of years ago) John Deer tractor. A gasoline pump pushes the water through a three-inch PVC pipe with regularly spaced holes. It takes about an hour to fill the tank but only a few minutes to empty it.

Dad went to bed at his usual time (20:30). Chris and I headed to Dairy Queen to feast on nachos before bed.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Day Waiting in the Hospital

Citizens as it looked when I was born. It’s more modern now, and it takes up more than a block.Photo source:
I know I haven’t been keeping this blog up. But here’s the setup: Dad needed minor surgery, and I made the trip to wait with him. I had parked the RV there on a previous trip, so all I had to do was get there. This is the day of the surgery.

Early morning this! Dad needed to be at Citizens Hospital—it has now self-promoted to a Medical Center—around 07:30, so we had to be off about an hour earlier. That isn’t difficult for early risers like Chris and Dad, but for us former alleged musician types, it’s closer to the time we’d rather head for bed than the time we’re programmed to arise—no matter how much reconditioning we’ve done in the years since. We piled into the Black Dodge, and Chris was kind enough to stop for coffee before we got out of Yorktown.

We made it to the hospital and got dad checked into his waiting room. (His procedure would normally be day surgery, but The Doctor wanted to keep him overnight because of the remonteness of Da Farm. But nobody had told the hospital that. Or nobody who mattered.) And there we waited—Dad formost, but also Chris, my brother Jim, his wife Waynette, and me.




09:06—They came to take Dad away. We walked him to surgery. We were told the procedure would take a little less than an hour, and recovery would take another hour. Then we could find Dad in his Day surgery room. (Remember the bit about nobody telling the hospital about The Doctor wanting to keep Dad overnight?) So we went to breakfast, barely making it to the commissary before the gates (literal gates) were closed at 09:30.

For those of you unfamiliar with Victoria (and who really is?), the commissary at Citizens hospital is something else. Many locals make it an dining destination. So much for the myth of bad hospital food! We all had hearty American breakfasts filled with too much bacon and too many carbs. We ate like that one meal would have to hold us all day even though we didn’t yet know the truth of that.

10:15—We went back up to Surgery to wait for a status update.

10:25—The Doctor told us everything went well and he had taken “random biopsies” to check for any tumerous recurrances. We would just have to wait for Monday (if the stars align in a way that rearranges the fabric of space-time but doesn’t open a portal for the return of the Old Ones, and everything else goes well) or later (more likely) to know what the next steps in Dad’s treatment plan will be.

Citizens has an aquarium filled with really interesting fish like this neon blue thing. The aquarium is in the waiting area near my favorite napping spot.

11:15—We started asking where they will take Dad so we can be there. “The day surgery room where they got him from.”

“But,” we explained again, “The Doctor wants to keep him overnight.” Of course, nobody the people in surgery were aware of that. They directed us to Admitting. Admitting doesn’t know about post surgical room assignments. “That’s all handled by the Surgical nurse.” This time we asked a different Surgical Staffer, who verified that post surgical room assignments were indeed handled by Sugical Staff when the patient is ready to leave Recovery. A few minutes later, she tells us, “He'll be in 638. They’ll be bringing him out in a few minutes, and you can follow him up there.”

This little fella is waiting at the farm supply for someone to take him home. My friends tell me his name is Buford, and kids love to ride him and practice roping.

11:55—True to her word, a few minutes later, we saw Dad wheeling by and start to follow. But the elevator ws full. No worries; we kew the room number. We caught the next ride up to the sixth floor and begin looking for him. Unfortunately, there is no room 638. We all confirmed that we had all heard the same number. Then we found him in 628. He was still on another plane, phasing in and out of our reality, so we each told him we love him and we’ll let him sleep it off in peace. Then we drove off to buy fertilizer.

13:30—We found Dad still sound asleep and went downstairs to wait and inadvertantly nap.

15:00—We returned to find Dad somewhat awake. We spent the next few hours watching him gradually shake off the anesthesia and rejoin our world. We joked and told old stories and picked at each other mercilessly—you know: the kind of things families do to pretend they are not having the shit stressed out of them.

18:45—They brought Dad dinner. We made a show out of telling him what there was and getting the nutritionist to “sell him the menu” instead of just saying, “here’s food.” If you offer Dad something to eat, he’ll invariably say, “No, I’m not hungry right now.” But if you tell him what it is, he’ll realize he likes whatever is being served and start to take interest.

After getting him to eat a little of his dinner, we could that he was starting to get tired. We bid him a fond adeiu (or is it a bon fondu?) and headed off to eat too much at a new Chineese buffet. Our old favorite Chineese buffet is now a Mexican buffet—still run by the same Chineese staff. Imagine that.

20:15—We made it to the farm. Chris spread the fertilizer he bought earlier and put 400 gallons of water on the Jiggs he is sprigging over the pipeline right of way. Jim and Waynette went to bed in Dad’s trailer. Chris and I stayed up talking about nothing in particular until way too late.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Band of Heathens

Matt the Electrician Matt the Electrician opened for The Band of Heathens.

Suna won tickets to go see The Band of Heathens today. She had to brave downtown Austin twice: first she had to go pick up the tickets from KUT, and then she had to drive us down there for the show.

She drove because I hate driving downtown. So she picked me up from work, and we headed straight to the concert at Antone’s. Traffic was incredibly light considering we were in the middle of SXSW, and we got there in only a half hour. That left us an hour to kill before they even opened the doors.

I found the teller machine and then we walked Antone’s. We stayed outside looking at the skyline, looking at the front door, looking at the skyline, and listening to some kind of a punk band at The Lucky Lounge next door. Finally they opened the doors and let us in.

guitarist This guy did a really good job filling in on lead guitar for Matt the Electrician.

I was completely unprepared. I had wanted to get there early so that we could get good seats, but when we got and we found there is no seating at Antone’s. It is a big stage with a big open floor and several bars. They have room for the merchandise set up and their little bitty record store. But there was only standing room. When they say it’s SRO at Antone’s, they aren’t kidding.

cover The new album is well worth the money. Buy it from the band.

Suna and I each pick up identical heathens T-shirts. Well, not identical. They are at our respective sizes. And we got the new album. It was a CD release party after all. What about the vinyl edition because it had for bonus tracks and came with a CD anyway.

We met some nice people and talked with them and save each other’s places sitting on the stage so that we could be that close to bands when they started. One of the young girls that we were talking to was there waiting on her father who apparently had taken her to see the band of heathens when she was still wager young to be in the clubs. Boy that something I know something about, having grown up in bars—but those usually had chairs and tables.

Finally Matt the Electrician started his set. If you know Matt, I don’t need to say anything. If you don’t know him, saying anything about him won’t do the job. He’s a really good pop singer who plays a ratty old banjo and tells great stories between the songs. You can listen to one of his songs here.

Meh This guy (I really should learn their names) acted like the leader. At least, he had no problems telling the keyboard player to play in a lower register.

Matt ended his set with a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times,” taking his guitarist completely by surprise. The guy (whose name I didn’t catch, but Suna says he plays for Slaid Cleves) took it in stride. He seemed fairly nonplused and even managed a good solo. I was impressed with Matt’s ability to cover this song. He did better than Plant, but so would a cat undergoing castration without anesthetics.

The girl’s father showed up shortly before The Heathens took the stage, sometime during The Electrician’s set. And when they did, OMG…

We owned both of their previous studio CDs, so I was somewhat familiar with the music, but I wasn’t really prepared. The Heathens are definitely a live band. The albums, although very good and worth listening to on their own, don’t do them justice. I’m going to have to buy a couple of their live CDs and see if those catch the heart and spirit of the performance.

Blues Stringer Here is a real professional, untouched by any melodrama unfolding on stage around him.

Let me tell you, brother. The Heathens rock. They rock. Even though they’re singer songwriters, The Heathens is an electric band, and they rock.

The Heathens includes three lead vocalists, each of whom can stand on his own. The apparent leader plays an adequate guitar. He learns his parts and place them well, but his real job is to be a singer. And he sings very well indeed. The other main guitarist seems like an old-timey blues stringer. He can play a mean guitar, a slide guitar, a mandolin like the one we bought for Tubaboy, and just about anything else he wants I bet. The last vocalist (of whom I was unable to get a good picture) sounds a lot like Kenny Loggins in the early Loggins and Messina days. He’s also the best guitarist of three. He smokes, and he’s a pretty damn good keyboard player, too.

Bassist and Keyboardist The bassist1 and the other (my favorite) singer

I didn’t get the bass player’s name, but I did get an acceptable picture of him. The sad thing was that they didn’t run him through the house mains. He was competing with the band was just his unmiked, mid-sized Ampeg rig. They didn’t even run him through the subs hidden under the stage. So sad. But then mostly what he played was quarter notes on the tonic. I think this was to satisfy some perverse tendency of the guitarists because when he went for it, he let loose with some interesting chops that I could barely hear. Strangely enough, he is very present on the studio CDs.

1 Note the piece of foam near the tailpiece. It’s there to keep the strings from ringing. All Fender basses used to come with a chrome tailpiece cover that had a damper built in. Why “used to?” Well, you can still get it if you order it, but most bass players take it off, anyway. The tailpiece and pickup covers on my ’72 Jazz lasted about five minutes. That’s how long it took me to find a screwdriver once I got my favorite bass home.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Brithday Table Topics

Birthday Pie Apparently my friend isn’t the only one who likes Birthday Pie. Original photo from: merrimentdesign

Suna’s birthday is this Saturday. So I’ve been thinking a lot about birthdays.

This is a list of Table Topics questions I used at today’s Toastmasters meeting. Rather than having volunteers choose a number, I just picked a topic for them, including (jokingly) asking the guy I know never watches movies, “What’s your favorite birthday movie?”

  • Tell us about your favorite birthday memory.
  • Tell us about your worst birthday experience.
  • James Doohan who played Scotty on original Star Trek series, would’ve been 91 today. Tell us about your favorite Scotty moment.1
  • Do you keep your birthday secret from your coworkers? Why or why not?
  • Describe the wonders of cake.2
  • How do you usually celebrate your birthday?
  • Adults typically fall and one of three categories:
    • They lie about their age.
    • They don’t worry about her age and may not even know what it is.
    • Or they are proud of their age.
    Into which camp do you fall, and why?


  1. Substitute any celebrity birthday.
  2. I half expected to get a dissertation about the band, Cake. Instead, I got a wonderful story about birthday pie.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A Cup of Statistics

Risk Analyst Hoodie As this hoodie (available on Cafe Press) suggests, we should always be aware of risk. Relative statistics do little to help us evaluate the risks we take.

Here is the text of the speech I delivered today at Toastmasters. It is a bit of a ramble because I procrastinated and didn’t have time to apply sound instructional design to it. I also tried a physical ending, which confused at least one member of my audience.

The speech ran a little long, so I’ve marked some of the text for removal if I ever deliver it again.

Mark Twain may have said it best. “There are three types of liars: liars, damned liars, and statisticians.” In his 1952 classic, Elementary Statistical Analysis, Harry Hartkemeier says Twain implies that statisticians “have reached the superlative.” There is no better liar than a statistician.

But as much as we distrust statisticians, we all love to bandy numbers to support our points. I’ve heard that as much as 67.8% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

We love numbers, but we believe them only when they support our views. Why is that?

Have you ever deliberately falsified the numbers to support your claims?

Do you know someone who has?

Yes, we’ve all read about sloppy scientists who have [falsified the data]. We may know someone who has. We may even have done so occasionally ourselves, as with my reference to the percentage of impromptu statistics. Actually, less than half of all statistics are made up.

So why don’t we trust statistics?

  • They don’t seem to yield any useful information.
  • They are often contradictory.
  • They’re almost always confusing.
And speaking of statistics made up on the spot… Photo source: Dirt & Seeds

Like many on the right, I blame the liberal media. And like many on the left, I blame Fox News.

The media has become fixated on numbers. Statistics make sloppy reporting sound more credible. And in the drive for audience, they focus on one type of statistics above all others—relative statistics.

Now you won’t be able to find a textbook on relative statistics. It isn’t a real branch of the actual science. That comprises:

  • Descriptive statistics, which summarizes data by describing what was observed in a sample
  • Inferential statistics, which uses patterns in the sample data to draw inferences about the data

Inferential statistics is most often used in scientific research looking for a correlation between two variables.

And that’s where we begin to get into trouble. The first problem is that people unfamiliar with the scientific method confuse correlation and cause even though the first thing you lean in Intro to Statistics is that correlation does not equate to cause. Correlation does not equate to cause.

Early in the century, two separately reported studies told us that people who drink more than four cups of coffee every day have:

  • A 40% increased risk of colon cancer
  • A 40% decreased risk of heart disease

Sounds like a wash, right?

But increased and decreased risk are relative statistics. Even saying that something increases your risk of dying by 100% doesn’t give you enough information to make an informed decision.

  • If choosing one behavior over another increases your risk from 1/1B to 2/1B, that is a 100% increase—but not much of a risk.
  • If it increases your risk from 1/1000 to 1/500, it’s still a 100% increase. And it poses a much more immediate risk.
  • But even in the second case choose one behavior or the other won’t ensure you to live or die.

Another way relative statistics causes problems is that the media may only report one side of the equation. reports on a study in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine saying that women who take antibiotics during pregnancy are significantly more likely to deliver babies with birth defects than those who don’t.

  • Mothers of children with a fatal skull and brain malformation were three times more likely to have taken a sulfa drug than women whose children did not have the defect.
  • Kids with cleft lips or palates were twice when mothers had taken nitrofurantoins, which were also linked to congenital heart defects, eye defects, and being born missing one or both eyes.
  • Penicillin was associated with a higher risk of a kind of limb malformation.

The report fails to mention what these women were being treated for. We have no information about whether the conditions the women had could have similarly damage or even killed the fetuses. We do know that if the disease had killed the mother, the baby would not have had a birth defect.

The media loves to report relative risk because phrases like “100% increased risk” or “three times more likely” or “half as likely” get your heart going. They scare you. They make you want to pay attention to what the reporter says.

And about coffee: it turns out coffee may reduce the risk of colon cancer by speeding the passage of carcinogens through your gut. Web MD says the decreased risk of heart disease ranges between 19%–91%—no descriptive statistics there.

But it does explain the mechanism of the reduction: antioxidants and anti—inflammatory compounds in the brew.

So the next time you hear about relative risk, know that the information is probably reliable but useless. Hearing the numbers should start your research, not make up your mind. It’s up to you to find out what the numbers really mean.

Oh, and now they say coffee also reduces your risk of Type 2 Diabetes. Who cares if the statistics are only relative? I’m going for another cup!

Not one of my best efforts. Maybe I’d give it a B.