Leslie's Latest News

Thursday, July 31, 2003

Salem Visit, Part 1. Salem, Massachusetts, a coastal city 16 miles north of Boston, may be best known for the Salem Witch Trials. They play this up to attract tourists, with a Witch Museum and a Witch House, among other things. But Salem has a lot of interesting history that is unrelated to the witch trials, including a Maritime Historic Site and houses connected to famous son Nathaniel Hawthorne. We went out there on a gorgeous day, so it was great just to be on the waterfront enjoying the sun and the sea breezes. We had a nice seafood lunch at a restaurant called the Dry Dock, which featured a second-level outdoor deck overlooking the harbor before starting to walk around.

Although it's a small city now, in the 18th century, Salem was a booming seaport. Its merchants made a killing during the Revolutionary War by operating privateer ships that captured British trading vessels. Shipowner Elias Hasket Derby (1739-1799) made his fortune this way and was probably America's first millionaire. After the war, Salem turned its ships to long-distance trading with the far east. During its heyday, Salem was the 6th-largest city in the country, and its customs duties accounted for 25% of the total revenue of the U.S. government.

The Maritime National Historic Site addresses this part of Salem's history. For a nominal admission fee, you can tour the Friendship, which is a replica of an "East Indiaman" merchant ship originally built in 1797. (The original was captured by the British during the War of 1812.) You can also visit the Custom House, an imposing brick building that stands at the foot of the docks, and the West India Goods Store, both of which show examples of the types of good that were imported by these trade ships. We also signed up for a short guided tour of two houses in the area.

The Derby House is a large brick mansion facing the harbor just a few doors down from the Custom House. This was build in 1762 for Elias Derby, and is the oldest brick house in Salem. We also visited the Narbonne-Hale House, which was an earlier 17th century house that was continuously occupied by various middle-class craftsmen and tradesmen right up to the 20th century. This house had been added to several times over the centuries, and contained a scale model that allowed the tour guide to show us the various transformations it had gone through.
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Wednesday, July 30, 2003

The weather has been great lately, so Alex and I took a quick day trip out to Salem yesterday. We visited the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the House of Seven Gables. Then in the evening we went to see Seabiscuit. It was a great day, and I'll write more about it later, but in the meantime, here are some pictures. (Today I'm going to a guide training walk on shrubs at Garden in the Woods, so I don't have much time to blog.)
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Monday, July 28, 2003

Although the raspberries are a bust this year (as I mentioned previously), the rest of the veggie garden is doing pretty well. I'm picking lots of green beans, swiss chard, zuchini, and carrots, and the tomatoes, eggplant and peppers are forming fruits. I've been able to keep up with the weeding, and everything looks pretty healthy. I picked some basil and made myself pesto for lunch today.
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Machinka came back home this morning and is now safely re-collared and sleeping off her adventures.
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Sunday, July 27, 2003

Alex and I went to a small Magic tournament today at Your Move Games, designed to be a low-key tournament to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Magic and the new card redesign coming out with the 8th edition. It was fun, although much too hot. (Thank goodness Your Move is moving to a new location with better air conditioning soon.) Alex and I both won our first matches, respectively, then got paired up against each other. Alex smashed me, but I was happy for him because he hasn't played for a long time and it was good to see him do well. He ended up playing the final match at the top table, lost to a really strong deck, and finished up 7th with a 4-2 record. I ended up 14th (out of 40) with a 3-3 record. We both won a few packs and got a commemorative foil card. We had a nice dinner afterward at Out of the Blue, where we asked them for a pitcher of ice water to help compensate for the dehydration.
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Saturday, July 26, 2003

I just got the results back from my annual glucose test with the Diabetes Prevention Program. The 2-hour glucose levels were the lowest they've been since I've started the study. This is encouraging, as the level was rather high in last year's test (163, putting me back in the "impaired glucose tolerance" range), but now I'm back to a normal value (107, where "normal" for the 2-hour measurement is anything less than 140). (I was at 186 when I was tested at the start of the study.) Since I was around 130 in years two and three, I'm thinking that last year's measurement was just some sort of sampling error. My fasting glucose level hasn't changed as dramatically; it was 96 when I started the study, went down to 86 after 2 1/2 years, and was 92 in the latest test. ("Normal" for the fasting measurement is under 110.)
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Here's a good NYT article on how the availability and price of food influences how much people eat - The Gorge-Yourself Environment.
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Whew, it was hot this morning! I did the 5k Lovelane Charity Run/Walk this morning, and came home really dehydrated (in spite of drinking tons of water). Luckily, the walk was in Weston, and there was a lot of shade, but it was still hot. I hooked up with another volunteer, Carrie, and her husband, which was nicer than doing it alone. Carrie was about my speed - happy to walk on the uphills and jog slowly on the flats and downhills. We took an embarrassing 54 minutes to go the 5k, but it was fast enough for me. I've been home for hours now, and I still feel zonked. I'd brough my camera to take pictures, but it failed to function. I hope it just needs new batteries.

Machinka is away again, and this time she's managed to shed her collar. Some kind neighbor left it attached to my front door and I found it this morning. The expansion elastic section had broken. I hate knowing she's out there without any id - I've always felt more relaxed about her escapades knowing that she is carrying my phone number on her. I have a spare collar ready to go the next time she shows up and I can get it onto her.
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Friday, July 25, 2003

The weather has been rainy and humid this week, and my first crop of raspberries are just rotting on the vine, but otherwise it was a pretty good week. I finished Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which was excellent, and did the usual Garden and the Woods and Lovelane volunteer work. A few contributions came in, so I can do the Lovelane charity walk tomorrow without feeling too embarrassed. Alex had two job interviews, and we had a nice dinner at Legal Seafoods to celebrate things picking up and the promise of better times to come. My weight loss efforts are still on track; I'm down 8 1/2 pounds from April 1 with just a few more pounds to go.
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Thursday, July 24, 2003

One of the things about being out of work is that you start to notice how many ways other people have found to separate you from your money without actually providing you with any benefit in return. I usually don't go for service contracts, but my air conditioning system is getting old and hasn't been tuned up for a while, so when I got an ad from Keyspan advertising a service contract that included a free tuneup, I took the bait. Now I knew that what would probably happen is that they would come and find all sorts of things wrong and use it as an excuse to bill me for various parts, but the labor was supposed to be free and I figured it was worth it. According to the add, you could schedule an annual tune-up 2 weeks after the contract was in effect. So today I got my service contract confirmation and called to schedule my tune-up. The first response I got was that there were no more slots available this season and I would have to wait until next year. I responded that in that case I'd like them to refund my money and cancel the contract. Well, then she managed to find a way to "squeeze me in" in mid-August. How much do you want to bet that I stay home all day on the morning of August 11 and they never show up? Or am I being too paranoid? Stay tuned...
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Ya gotta be rooting for these guys.
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Now that I'm not working, I decided that it would be good to start using the public library again, rather than buying books. I used to be frustrated with using the library because usually the books I wanted weren't found on the shelves. This is still the case, but new technology reduces the frustration level a lot. My local library is part of the Minuteman Library Network, a consortium of several dozen town libraries. I can access the catalogs and place a book request all on the web. When the book is available, it gets transferred over to my local library and they give me a call to come pick it up. Yes, there's still a long wait for popular books, but at least I know that eventually I'll get them. (It's a little like Netflix that way.) I'm curious to see just how long it takes to get to Krakatoa, by Simon Winchester (70 holds) and Kate Remembered, by A. Scott Berg (126 holds). It shouldn't be quite as bad as it sounds because multiple copies are in circulation throughout the system. In addition, I can get science fiction and fantasy (like the latest Harry Potter) from the New England Science Fiction Association library. And there's always the old standby, borrowing from friends. When I do buy books, my first try is always half.com and then overstock.com, where I often find prices lower than amazon.
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Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Now there's another cheap, easy-to-use weblog service, called Sparkpod. It offers a 60-day free trial and then costs only $25/year complete with hosting. Pluses are that it has a very simple user interface that looks like the weblog page you are editing. It also offers comments and RSS feed. Minuses are that it doesn't give very many options for the page appearance. Here's my sample blog on Sparkpod.
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Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Say goodbye to bananas....

The banana is about to disappear from store shelves around the globe. Experts say the world's favourite fruit will pass into oblivion within a decade. No more fresh bananas. No more banana bread. No more banana muffins or banana cream pie.

Why? Because the banana is the victim of centuries of genetic tampering. Scientists say they will be unable to prevent the extirpation of the banana as an edible commercial crop. And its demise may be one more powerful argument in the hands of those who are concerned about genetic modification of foods.

The banana's main problem is that it has become sterile and seedless as a result of 10,000 years of selective breeding. It has, over time, become a plant with unvarying genetic sameness. The genetic diversity needed to cope with environmental stresses, such as diseases and crop pests, has long ago been bred out of the banana. Consequently, the banana plantations of the world are completely vulnerable to devastating environmental pressures.

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Greetings, Earthlings is a weblog from space, complete with pictures, written by Ed Liu aboard the International Space Station. Interesting stuff. I just read his article on "Working Out", where he explains the various problems and benefits of working out on the space station. Some quotes:

The treadmill is a 900-pound monster that resides in the Service Module (unfortunately right next to our dinner table). The treadmill is so big because it isn't bolted to the floor, but rather is loosely suspended inside a pit in the floor and has a big gyroscope inside that stabilizes it while you run. This is to isolate the vibrations from your footsteps so they don't shake the Station around. In effect, you are running on a floating treadmill. It might seem strange to think that a person running could shake a 200-ton Space Station, but in fact it can. On my first space mission we visited the Russian Mir Space Station, and I remember watching a crew member run on the treadmill there (which was hard-mounted to the floor). As they ran, you could feel the oscillations reverberate through the Mir, and in fact you could actually look outside and see the big solar arrays actually move up and down. For those of you who know what resonant frequencies are, that was what was going on. To prevent this, the elaborate treadmill system was developed and is used on ISS. It is kind of interesting running on the treadmill because the "floor" underneath your feet moves around a bit, like running on the deck of a small boat.

You might be wondering how we can actually run since we are weightless - the answer is we wear a harness (that fits like a backpack harness) that is connected to the treadmill with bungee straps. There is, however, an important difference between running here while being strapped to the treadmill and running on Earth. If you load up the bungees so they pull down with a force equal to your body weight, all that force is transferred by the harness to the contact points on your shoulders and hips, which can get pretty sore after running for a while. The fit of the harness depends on your body shape, and I've been trying various adjustments of the straps to improve the fit while the engineers on the ground work on a better design.

We also have two stationary bicycles... The great part about the bicycles is that they are mounted facing the two largest windows on the Space Station, so while you ride the bike you can look out the window and watch the world go by. If you ride the bike for 90 minutes, you can ride all the way around the world - so Lance Armstrong eat your heart out!

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Sunday, July 20, 2003

During my last tour at Garden in the Woods, someone asked how old the canopy trees were. The answer (80-90 years) got us into a discussion of how little old-growth forest remains in New England. During the agricultural boom of the 19th century, about three-quarters of New England was cleared for farmland or pasture, and the remaining forest was often cut for lumber. (At Garden in the Woods, for example, you can see a lot of multi-trunked oak trees. These result from the trees resprouting from the stumps after having been cut for lumber.) When the Midwest began to be settled and farmed at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, farming in New England became less economically viable, and much of the old farmland was allowed to revert to forest. There is actually more forest in New England now than there was a hundred years ago, but very little of this is original old-growth forest.

I made this assertion during the tour, but couldn't really give much more information, so decided to do a little research. I've since learned that there are only 1500 acres of documented old-growth forest remnants in Massachusetts, representing just .05% of all the forested areas in the state. Most of these are in small patches of 7 to 60 acres in size, and most are located in the mountains of western Massachusetts. The only patch of old-growth forest east of the Connecticut River is on Mount Wachusett, disturbingly close to a commercial ski area. In fact, there was an editorial in the Globe this morning, deploring the fact that the state has approved a project to expand the ski area by clear-cutting twelve acres of the buffer between the ski area and the old growth forest.
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Dismayed by U.S. policies, some Americans contemplating move to Canada. Now there's a thought. Universal health care, social liberalism, all in one fell swoop.
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Saturday, July 19, 2003

I've been trying to get sponsors for the Lovelane charity walk next week, but so far no luck. (Well, one person has said they will donate, but I haven't received the check yet.) I've never done this before, but back when I was working it seemed to be easy. People would post their pledge sheet in the kitchen, and everyone would just sign up with their contributions. I don't have the same resources now that I'm not at work, but I have sent out a lot of emails, made an announcement at a club meeting, and posted it in my blog. Nothing has worked so far.
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Here's a link to the experimental TypePad version of my weblog. The recent posts are the same; there are just a few additional features, like being able to view all posts in a category, and sidebar lists of photo albums and books recently read. Comments and RSS feed are provided by TypePad (in Blogger I have to use third-party tools). Neither service seems to support a search feature; I use a third-party tool in Blogger and I imagine I could also add that to the TypePad blog - just haven't tried it yet.
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Navigating the shoals of bureaucracy, continued... Massachusetts has a benefit for unemployed people where they will pay 80% of your health insurance premium (up to a maximum of $250/month). The catch is that your annualized income (looking back 6 months and ahead 6 months) must be less than 400% of the poverty line, and you must be on unemployment. (Yeah, that makes sense - when your unemployment expires, and you really need the help, you can't get it anymore.) Since I got a fairly generous severance package, I calculated that I would become eligible around June 15, so I submitted an application. Yesterday I got back a denial. As far as I can tell, they forecast my future 6 months of income as though I would be continuing to collect unemployment for the full 6 months, which is not the case. I am only eligible for another 12 weeks or so. So it looks like I will need to file a grievance in writing to try to get them to review the decision. It's worth it, though, even if I can only collect for a few months.
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Some very generous friends took me and Alex to see The Producers in Boston this evening. We had a great time (except for trying to fit into the Colonial Theater seats, which have no leg room to speak of). The show was very funny, taking the opportunity to offend just about every group you can think of, not even drawing the line at sex-starved little old ladies. Brad Oscar, who took on the Max Bialystock role on Broadway after Nathan Lane left the cast, was outstanding. Now if I can just stop hearing "Springtime for Hitler" running through my head, I'll be able to get to sleep.
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Friday, July 18, 2003

Progress on the insurance front. The people who have been negotiating for me with my company's old health insurance company have made a breakthrough. They say that I will be getting full reimbursement for my vision claim, and will be get a reimbursement from the flexible benefits account if I pay in the $90 that would have been deducted from my paycheck for the months that I was laid off to the end of the plan year. This obviously makes me more than a little nervous, but they have assured me that the reimbursement will happen. I guess I will trust them on this, and hope that I don't end up feeling totally stupid when it's all over. I feel a little better that the payment is going to my old company rather than directly to the insurance company. At least I know the people I will be dealing with if there's a problem. Stay tuned for more exciting developments...
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Thursday, July 17, 2003

If you have a strong stomach, check out the 2003 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest results. The winner, by Ms. Mariann Simms of Wetumpka, AL, begins:

They had but one last remaining night together, so they embraced each other as tightly as that two-flavor entwined string cheese...

One of my favorites is a Dishonorable Mention in the Detective category by Theresa Olin of Nineveh, NY:

The sobering scene was laid out before Detective Robinson like a centerfold spread in Better Homes and Gardens or Martha Stewart Living, if the splayed bodies could be considered home furnishings such as hand-knotted 100% wool Tibetan area rugs or allergy-free hypodown throw pillows stuffed with European goose down and the blood on the walls had been a carefully spattered burnt vermillion latex paint for a classic aged or contemporary Jackson Pollock-like finish.

Other categories include Adventure, Children's Literature, Purple Prose, "All Creatures Great and Small", Romance, Science Fiction, Spy, Vile Pun, Western, and "Dark and Stormy Night".
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Wednesday, July 16, 2003

I spent most of the day at the Garden in the Woods today. At first it looked like no one was going to show up for the morning tour, but I waited around a bit and eventually snagged 4 people who took the tour and seemed to enjoy it. The meadow is still not blooming - I'm told it's late this year. But one exciting new development is the Indian Pipe, which I'd been watching for, and which just started coming up in two places in the garden. Indian Pipe a strange flowering plant that has no chlorophyll and is all white. It survives via a symbiotic relationship with soil fungi that provide it with nutrients. Since it doesn't need sunlight, it can live in deep shade.

After the tour, I worked on data entry for the surveys for a while. I also trained another volunteer to enter surveys - there are now 4 of us, which means progress will be quicker. We have done about 45% of them so far.

Late in the afternoon, there was a thank-you party for the volunteers. Most of it was pot luck, but the Garden provided some additional food and some excellent entertainment, in the person of Steve Schuch of Night Heron Music. I enjoyed the performance so much that I bought two of his CDs and am listening to them right now as I type this. He played some original songs (on guitar and violin), read poetry, told stories, and, in honor of the location, did a sing-along of Pete Seeger's Garden Song ("Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow..."), which everyone in the audience seemed to know.

The head of the NEWFS gave a little talk in which he commented on the large number of volunteers that the society has attracted. In part, I think this is due to the fact that they are unfailingly good to their volunteers. When I originally wrote to volunteer, I received a welcoming response almost immediately. Every time I show up to do something, I am verbally thanked, and sometimes I've gotten written thank-you notes for special jobs. Even though they don't have a lot of money to spend, they keep coming up with little perks for the volunteers, like garden tours and special talks. About a half hour before the start of the party, the staff were all asked to move their cars out to the street, so there would be room for the volunteers to park in the parking lot. And at the party itself, all of the staff from the director on down, plus the head of the board of directors, made an effort to mix with and get to know everyone. In addition to the tour guides, there are volunteers who help tend the garden, work in the gift shop and library, manage the slide collection, help with mailings, plus a huge number of conservation volunteers throughout New England who survey native plants and perform various projects to help ensure their survival. They are a real textbook example of how a small staff (maybe 2 dozen) can leverage the power of hundreds of volunteers to accomplish an amazing amount of stuff.

Later in the evening, I stopped by the NESFA clubhouse and borrowed their library copy of Harry Potter. So I may be out of touch for a few days while I work my way through its 870 pages.
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Tuesday, July 15, 2003

I wish Jane Austin could see this - they're gonna do a Bollywood version of Pride and Prejudice. (Via Crooked Timber).
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Michael Kinsey in Slate:

Linguists note that the question, "Who lied in George Bush's State of the Union speech" bears a certain resemblance to the famous conundrum, "Who is buried in Grant's Tomb?" They speculate that the two questions may have parallel answers.

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Monday, July 14, 2003

To catch up on a few older items... First, Machinka is back home again. It rained on Friday, and that usually works to bring her back to the fold for at least a few days.

My friend Lisa came out to the the Garden in the Woods on Friday with her two kids, and we had a nice time in spite of the rain. The two-year-old, Maria, was particularly taken with Ozzy the cat, and enjoyed seeing the cottage where he lives and his little cat door. The flowers are in a bit of a lull right now. The cactus flowers have faded away and the meadow is still just getting started, with the purple coneflower, black-eyed susans, and bee balm leading the way. The tall white spires of cimicifuga (also known as snakeroot, bugbane, or black cohosh) look really great in the woodland garden.

Readercon was okay, but I think I wasn't really in the mood for it. They get a lot of big-name authors for such a small convention, but I tend to not find the program topics all that interesting, unfortunately. They tend to be somewhat high-brow literary and slightly pretentious. Sadly, my friend Priscilla was away on vacation, so we didn't get a chance to ostentatiously play Magic in the hotel lobby. I did get a chance to touch bases with some friends I don't see often, and Alex and I slipped away on Saturday afternoon for a lovely brunch on the outdoor deck at Papa Razzi's. The Saturday evening Kirk Poland Memorial Bad Prose Competition was amusing, as always.

Sunday I stayed home and enjoyed the pleasant weather by mowing my lawn and ripping some more ivy vines off of my house. Filled two yard waste bags and still have a long ways to go.
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I had my Diabetes Prevention Program annual appointment this morning, marking 5 years that I've been in the program. The main event at the annual visit is a fasting glucose tolerance test. They take some blood samples, then feed you a bottle of flavored glucose (you have 5 minutes to get it down) and then take further blood samples after 30 minutes and two hours. I brought my iPod and some reading material, but didn't get much chance to relax, as in between the blood samples, I got to fill out a million questionnaires (on health and exercise), had my feet examined, my blood pressure measured (in both arms and both legs), had 3 EKGs taken (regular breathing, while holding my breath inhaled, and while holding my breath exhaled), and got my height, weight, and waist circumference measured. The whole process took nearly 4 hours.

It's been interesting to see all the recent news stories about various food manufacturers starting to think about making over their products to make them more healthy, out of fears of potential lawsuits. The release and dissemination of the DPP results last year was just one of many bits of information that have all combined to make it clear that obesity is a big health problem in this country. So I like to think that participating in this study for 5 years has had some impact on the world, hopefully for the better.

One note of absurdity... One of the health questionnaires I answered was copyrighted, and it was specially noted that questions 18a and 18b were copyright by the Rand Corporation. What were questions 18a and 18b? Well, 18a went something like this:

How would you describe your general health during the past year?

Excellent / Very Good / Good / Fair / Poor

Now can someone explain to me how that can possibly merit copyright protection?
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Friday, July 11, 2003

Busy day today. Worked in the garden (starting pulling up the ivy vines - a tough job that will take a while), played with the TypePad beta, and watched some Wimbledon that I'd saved on TiVo (especially Martina Navratilova winning her 20th Wimbledon title in mixed doubles at the advanced age of 46!) In the afternoon, I went out for the first summer Lovelane session, working with new people and new horses in a new location. Once I learned the ropes, things went fine. I like the instructor and the other volunteer (a very responsible 13-year old girl). And the horses, Moe and Gypsy, were very sweet and easy to handle.

The students were all interesting. One girl was riding for the first time and was very frightened at first, only getting on the horse with lots of coaxing. And for the first few times around the ring, she wimpered and wanted to go home. But the instructor distracted her with talk, and by the end of the lesson she was smiling and eager to come back and ride again. So that was gratifying. The new location is an active stable (not dedicated to Lovelane like the previous location I worked at), so it was a little distracting at times. Especially today, as the farrier was there working, someone was unloading a truck, there were a couple of dogs running around, and there were other people working with other horses getting ready for a show. I expect it may not be quite this busy all the time.

In the evening, I had dinner with Alex and then we went to see Hollywood Homicide with Harrison Ford, which turned out to be better than I expected. Finished the evening by watching an exciting Amazing Race (they're down to 5 teams now). The last two episodes have confirmed my impressions that I never want to travel in India.

Did I mention it was gorgeously beautiful out today? Sunny and dry, warm, but not hot, in the daytime, and cool in the evening. It couldn't have been any better.

Machinka has disappeared again. I know she is alive because her food dish was emptied out the night before last, so she must have stopped by at least briefly in the middle of the night. But she's been staying away for days on end now. I hope she remembers that this is where she lives.

Tomorrow I'm working at Garden in the Woods, with a friend dropping by around lunchtime to tour the garden and eat a picnic lunch on the patio. Then in the late afternoon, I'll be heading over to the Readercon science fiction convention, which is out in Burlington for the weekend.
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Thursday, July 10, 2003

Alex and I had been planning to go off on a daytrip yesterday - not sure where, just somewhere near the ocean. But the day started out cloudy and rainy, so we changed our plans and stayed in town. We had a nice lunch at The Summer Shack where I tried to emulate the ocean theme by ordering a lobster salad sandwich. Then we went to see the new movie Pirates of the Caribbean, which was silly and entertaining. Johnny Depp as the pirate Jack Sparrow was particularly good. After the movie, dinner at J.P. Changs, steamed mahi mahi with ginger and scallions and sugar snap peas stir-fried with garlic.

Alex pointed out that we weren't driving so I could have wine with dinner, so I ordered a nice glass of Riesling. Unfortunately, halfway through I realized that I was not supposed to drink alcohol because I had a Diabetes Prevention Program blood test the following morning. At that point, I figured the damage was done, so I finished the wine. Called up this morning and admitted my error, so we rescheduled my appointment to Monday. I was feeling embarrassed, but I'm not too disappointed because today looks to be a gorgeous day and I plan to get outside and enjoy it before I have to go out to Lovelane this afternoon.
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Wednesday, July 09, 2003

And here's what's happening in my garden today:

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Damn mosquitoes, damn them to hell, I say. And blessings upon Diphenhydramine hydrochloride, without which I could not survive the summer.
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It's a bit cooler today, although cloudy and threatening rain, so I hurried this morning to get at least the back lawn mowed and did some weeding in the garden. As I pondered on the repetitive nature of this task, I started thinking that weeds are a lot like spam. I mean, you put in all this investment to provide a beautiful seedbed for useful vegetables, and the weeds come along for the free ride, getting in the way and crowding the useful things out. Hmmm... could that be a book? "Everything I Know About the Internet I Learned From my Garden"? Oh, wait, it's (almost) been done already.
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USA Today yesterday had a pretty good article on blogging.
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Here's a really good article about the politics of fat in foods and the pressures that make it hard for people to eat healthy foods.

The opponents of lawsuits against the fast food industry argue that "everyone knows" that McDonalds and Burger King sell high-fat foods and that those who eat these foods do so by their own free choice. Yet, knowledge alone is not enough to combat the power of life-long exposure to the media and to the omnipresence of fast food franchises and convenience foods. ... Precisely because food preferences are formed over time and are deeply ingrained in our lifestyle, it is difficult for people to change their dietary habits, even when it is revealed that some ingredients in these foods are unhealthy or dangerous.

What is really at stake in the politics of fat is the extent to which government should restrict corporate and media influences on the American diet. There is no choice for consumers when every street corner and highway is crowded with fast food franchises and no healthy alternatives are available. There is no possibility of informed consumer decisions, when saturation advertising entirely overwhelms the cautionary messages of doctors and health professionals.

(Via Follow Me Here)
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Tuesday, July 08, 2003

From Time Magazine:

10.2: Average number of vacation days U.S. workers take each year.
20: Vacation days British workers are guaranteed by law
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I went to the Garden in the Woods to work on surveys today, but took a break in the middle to take a quick walk around the garden. Things have changed yet again from the last time I was there. I took some photos, and set up a little photo album over in the TypePad world (to experiment with their photo album software). Main feature this week was the Western garden, with golden California poppies, blue flax, and yellow prickley pear cactus.
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Catching up on some movie reviews...

Kissing Jessica Stein was fun. It's about two woman who get involved in a lesbian relationship for different reasons - one is adventuresome and wants to experiment sexually, while the other is a bit repressed and has had bad luck with men. There is humor in how they adjust to each other, and some exploration of the nuances between love, desire, and friendship. This was an indie film production, with the writers of the original stage play and screen play also producing the movie and playing the lead characters. It's always fun to listen to the commentaries on these indie films, as you get all sorts of interesting stories about how they produced the film on the cheap. You learn that most of the sets are borrowed from friends and relatives and there were several situations where filming was rushed because the owner of the set had changed their minds and revoked privileges and were threatening to call the police to get them out of there.

Bringing Out the Dead, on the other hand, was very hard to watch and I almost didn't finish it. That's not to say it was a badly-done movie; it's just that the subject matter was too painful. Based on a book about the life of an emergency rescue paramedic, it just dealt with too much despair. It shows you how terrible it can be to have a job where people who are in crisis look to you as their only hope. Not just now and then, but over and over again every hour you're at work.

The Hours was amazing and wonderful. Based on Virginia's Woolf's novel, Mrs. Dalloway, which revealed a woman's whole life by following her through an ordinary day, The Hours follows three women in three different times and places through a single day. The first is Virginia Woolf herself, as she is writing the novel in the 20's in England, the second is an unfulfilled housewife reading the novel in the 50's in Los Angeles, and the third is a professional woman who is living a modern version of the novel in present-day New York. The editing of this movie is uncanny, as it switches us from story to story and shows the parallels and congruences between the writer and the readers. It is very much aided by a wonderful score by Phillip Glass that underlines the feeling that these stories are profoundly linked. Although Nicole Kidman won an Oscar for her performance as Virginia Woolf, I thought the best performance was actually Julianne Moore's as the housewife (she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but didn't win). Meryl Streep plays the New Yorker, and there are also excellent performances by Ed Harris, Toni Collette, Miranda Richardson, Allison Janney, and Claire Danes. Oh, and Eileen Atkins (who is known for her movie and stage portrayals of Virginia Woolf) turns up for a cameo role as a flower-shop owner. A really beautiful and original movie.

Far From Heaven is a movie in the style of the 1950's melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Julianne Moore turns in another amazing performance as a housewife who learns that her husband is having a homosexual affair, and then becomes attracted to her black gardener (played by Dennis Haysbert, the president in the TV show 24). The film stays entirely within 1950's social conventions, where homosexuality is considered deviant behavior that is not discussed in polite society, and the crime of being friendly to a black man results in social ostracism. A bit of a curiosity, this movie makes you reflect on how much has changed for the better since the 1950's.
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Monday, July 07, 2003

I've been chosen to be a second-round beta tester for the TypePad, the new blogging service being developed by the makers of Movable Type. Under the terms of the agreement, I'm not allowed to discuss details of the features they are offering, although I am allowed to post a link to the test blog when I get it set up. I don't think I'll move my regular blog onto TypePad quite yet, as the pricing has not been set and I don't know if I'll be able to continue there once the beta is over.

Today was for catching up with boring routine stuff, like laundry, groceries, and cooking. I made a rather nice shrimp and asparagus salad with a lemon-tarragon dressing (although it was a real pain to peel a pound of medium-sized shrimp). Also a pseudo moo shi pork, made with packaged shredded cabbage and carrots, slivered pork chops, scallions, sesame oil, hoisin sauce, and soy sauce, wrapped in flour tortillas. Very tasty, if not very authentic. I got out to the garden for a short time to do some weeding, but it was pretty hot.
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An article from 1950 predicting the future world of the year 2000. Boy, did they get it wrong!
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Sunday, July 06, 2003

Utne sent me a free copy of their magazine last week, and I found it interesting and subscribed. One of their features is a page of interesting quotes. I found this one striking.

Naturally the common people don't want war, but after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag people along whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.
-- Herman Goring, Nazi leader, recorded by psychologist Gustave Gilbert, who interviewed German defendants at the Nuremberg Trials, published in his book Nuremberg Diary (1947)

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Preparatory to seeing the movie, I recently read the 2001 book, Seabiscuit - An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand. A non-fiction book that reads like a novel, it's a fascinating story of an unlikely champion racehorse and the interesting people associated with him. Owner Charles Howard, who made his fortune selling those new-fangled automobiles in San Francisco (taking horses as trade-ins); Trainer Tom Smith, who didn't talk much, but learned to communicate with horses in his younger days as a cowboy riding the last of the great cattle drives; down-and-out jockey Red Pollard, secretly deaf in one ear, coming back to riding after sustaining serious injuries; and Seabiscuit himself, short-legged and ugly, difficult to handle, and prone to falling asleep in his stall right before big races. Beautifully written, with lots of inside details about racing in the 30's, and a true love of the sport. Here's a paragraph that sticks with me, about jockey George Woolf's death in a racing fall:

For George Woolf, the last sensations of life were the sight of Santa Anita's russet soil and the curve of Please Me's neck, the coarse feel of mane in his hands, the smell of the horses's skin, the deep roll of his breathing. As Woolf and his mount passed the grandstand and banked into the first turn, some witnesses thought they saw Please Me stumble. Bu most saw Woolf sink from the saddle, unconscious, his dieting and diabetes finally taking their toll. He slid into the air. There was the awful dissonance of a lone horse galloping riderless. There was terrible speed and terrible, sudden stillness.

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This poll asks for your personal preferences on a variety of issues, then gives you a rating of each candidate by how closely they match your views. My results were:
1. Green Party candidate
2. Kucinich
3. Kerry
4. Dean

(And if that's too serious, you could also try the Presidential Mistress Selector. (I got Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson.)
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A bit of humor: the Weapons of Mass Destruction 404 Error page
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Friday, July 04, 2003

Gary Farber calls this the World's Easiest Literary Quiz, but I only got 10 of 13 right. (I should have gotten 11 because I have actually read the answer to #8, but somehow I just couldn't remember the first line.)
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A weblog called 8 Good People tells the stories of 8 experienced writers who have been unemployed for over a year.

We know they’re just 8 good people out of the thousands of other unemployed good people hoping the economy will improve and the job market will take a turn for the better. We don’t claim they’re representative of society as a whole. They’re not on a mission to highlight the pitfalls of living in a country where being employed is the only way to get decent health coverage.

They just want to work. So these 8 good people have formed a fellowship of the hopeful. They want to tell you what it’s been like being out of a job, what they’ve done and are doing to survive. How they approach the job market day after day. Most important, they want to draw the attention of prospective employers. When all 8 achieve their goals - find steady work - this site disappears.

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I planted swiss chard for the first time in my garden this year. Johnny's Selected Seeds was featuring the variety Bright Lights, which was a 1998 All-America Selection (this is an award given to new introductions of flowers and vegetables that are judged to be significantly better than the competition). Bright lights is milder than ordinary chard, and comes with multi-colored stems. The growing habit of Swiss Chard is very convenient. You can pick it when it is small for salads, or when it is larger to cook. When you cut leaves off, the plant continues growing and producing new leaves. But the best thing seems to be that the plant doesn't bolt (start producing a seed head) when the weather turns warm like most of the other greens (lettuce, bok choy, spinach). So you can continue to pick it into the summer. The only problem now is to come up with some recipes. In general, it appears that you can use the leaves wherever you would use spinach. Yesterday I made a pasta dish with garlic, turkey sausage, red pepper, swiss chard, and parmesan cheese, and it was pretty good.
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Thursday, July 03, 2003

On Tuesday, I finally got a plumber to come over to replace my basement utility sink. I'd had a big old soapstone sink that was cracked and leaning over to one side, and I was getting water leaking out onto the floor. The plumber charged an outrageous amount to put in a cheap molded plastic sink, but at least the major problem is fixed. He did not advise replacing the faucet, which was dripping, because he said my pipes are old brass pipes, probably with thin, weak threads, that are very likely to give way if he started doing major work at one end. So unless I wanted to face replacing all of the piping (for a few thousand dollars), he thought I should just settle for putting a screw cap on the faucet that would stop the dripping and could be removed when I wanted to use it. I also had him cap off a gas line leading to an old stove in the basement, so now I can remove the stove if I can get a few strong guys to come over some day.

You know, I'm not sure your plumber should, as he is leaving, tell you all about the vacation in Maine he's setting off to, that your check probably paid for....

The last few days have been lovely - sunny and warm, but not too humid. The only unfortunate thing is that the mosquitos that the spring rains were breeding have now come out in full force.

I led a garden tour yesterday and got a good turnout of 6 people. Two local ladies - one who had been to the garden before, bringing her friend that had never seen it. And another local lady, bringing her sister and brother-in-law from out of state, and a grown son who appeared to have Down's syndrome. We got off to a delayed start, as I suggested they might want to put on bug repellant (we sell it in packets in the store - your choice of DEET or non-DEET - I always use the DEET). Once we were all armored up, the bugs weren't too bad, and I think they all had a good time. Lots of exclamations about the beauty of the place, especially down by the pond, and lots of good questions about native plant conservation, most of which I could answer.

The hot weather really made a big change in what is blooming now. Not much left in the woodland garden - just a few flame azaleas and mountain laurels, but they're fading fast. A patch of galax (wandflower) looked particularly lovely in a shaft of light coming down from the canopy, and the tall spires of cimicifuga (bugbane, snakeroot, or as the nurseries like to call it fairy candles) were just starting to bloom. After the walk, Bonnie (the staff member who trains and organizes the guides) showed me something else to talk about in the summer. Many of the woodland plants have their seeds dispersed by ants, and if you pop open a seedpod, you can see a little tuft of white stuff attached to each seed. The white stuff is particularly appealing to the ants as food, so they carry the seed back to their nests just to eat the good part, then they leave the seed in their middens, which is the perfect place for it to germinate.

Out in the sunnier parts of the garden, many of the taller meadow plants are now starting to bloom. We saw milkweed (home plant of the monarch butterfly), big yellow spires of Carolina lupine, pink meadow phlox, bright yellow evening primrose, pale yellow crepe-paper-like flowers on the prickly pear cactus and the star-shaped white flowers of Bowman's Root hovering over the foliage like little butterflies.

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Tuesday, July 01, 2003

One of the things we mention during the garden tours is that invasive alien plants sometimes have bad effects on the ecosystem, taking over and forcing out native plants. We provide a list of particularly aggressive alien plants and recommend that they not be used in gardens. Unfortunately, I find that I have a number of the forbidden plants in my garden, and I'm conflicted about what to do about it. For example, one of the plants on the list is Japanese honeysuckle. I have a Japanese honeysuckle vine growing up a trellis on the side of my porch. Not only does it provide screening from the neighbors, but it has the most absolutely delicious fragrance of just about anything else in the garden. It's in bloom right now, and I just love sticking my head out the back door to take a deep breath. I'd hate to see it go. The other two plants are a winged euonymus (also known as burning bush) and something called goutweed, which is just about the only thing I've been able to get to grow at the top of my retaining wall. I will try to experiment with alternatives to the goutweed, but the euonymus is pretty big and taking it out would leave a big gap, so I'm not sure what to do about that. I'll certainly avoid planting any of the forbidden plants in the future, but I may continue to live with what I already have.
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