Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Inspiration for your next barbecue

African Tales.

Snore-cancelling headphones

Under the competitive influence of two gadget-obsessed colleagues I bought a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones for listening to music and DVDs while flying. They're quite extraordinary. Supposedly, they adjust to address and cancel whatever ambient noise is around you, then deliver your audio. Whatever it is they do, it works — to the point that if you just power them up in a crowded exhibition hall, you make your head an oasis of soothing quiet.

(To earphone novices, noise-cancelling earphones rely on battery power to generate the noise-cancelling effect.)

Turns out, Bose headphones also work to cancel out the sounds of nearby snoring. Sounds you might otherwise compare to a snorting bull about to flatten everything in his path are dimmed down to resemble the purring of a big, contented cat.

The only problem I've found with wearing the Bose headphones to bed is that I have to sleep on my back. But at least I'm sleeping.

Worse came to worse

I saw my neighbor's daughter and son-in-law stop by his house today and I went over to see how he was doing at the hospital. The daughter said they have decided that he will go from the hospital (where he went after another fall) to a nearby nursing home, and stay there. They don't want him to come home again because he's so physically fragile.

After they left, I looked over at his house, with his car parked out front, and the confused cat sitting on the front steps, and I felt very strange. It gave me an inkling of what it must have been like in Nazi Germany, or Poland, when your Jewish neighbors were taken away to a concentration camp. Of course Steve will not be humiliated, or tortured, or killed. But he was taken away against his will, and he won't won't be coming back.

I suspect Steve had been hoping that he'd die of a heart attack out in his backyard, among his raspberry bushes, or in his easy chair, watching a Mariners game on TV, or in bed, with Smokey curled up beside him. He is a fiercely independent person, and I can't imagine him taking well to living in a nursing home.

Episodes like this remind me to start studying up on poisonous plants for my own old age.

Monday, July 25, 2005


I took a vacation day today, even though it meant missing a day from work during a period with daily deadlines. So many of my colleagues have missed three or four days because of illness that I'm hoping giving myself a three-day weekend may inoculate me against that.

The weekend itself was fairly relaxing, particularly Sunday when Zorg and I went for a long walk through the neighborhood. I came back carrying a beautiful wicker chair, $4 at a yard sale, on my head.

Sunday evening Bob came over to have chili with us, and afterwards we sat around discussing technology and constitutional law.

This morning I went to the dentist to have my teeth cleaned, then went grocery shopping and picked up a dozen tiny cupcakes at Verite Coffee/Cupcake Royale for my mom's birthday. Came home, set the cats free for the day, and enjoyed a few hours out in the yard. My mom came over at 4 with her iBook. I got all her system software updated via our Airport and broadband connection, then showed her how to rip CDs into iTunes. We even downloaded a song from the iTunes Music Store. Once she had that down, I gave her her birthday gift, a silver iPod mini. We had steaks and roasted sweet corn while the mini charged and updated, and then she got to try it out. She left around 8 with all her loot (including various iPod accessories) and my Patsy Cline CD collection, feeling very au courant. I suspect she'll be marching around Edmonds wearing the iPod tomorrow.

Just before dinner, I got a phone call from our elderly neighbor Steve. He's at University Hospital, having suffered another fall. He wanted us to check on Smokey, the cat we share with him. Sure enough, a distraught Smokey was on Steve's steps, wondering why no one was letting him in. We have Steve's keys, so we let Smokey in, where he ate dinner and came to grips with the fact that Steve wasn't there. Then we left, taking Smokey with us. I am going to try to feed him over here, but if worse comes to worse, I guess we can just take him over to Steve's a couple times a day.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Joe Wegstein's chili

Joseph Wegstein is best remembered for his landmark work in early digital image processing, but I associate him with a fabulous recipe for chili.

My mom worked with Joe at the National Bureau of Standards in DC in the 1950s. We're talking the early days of mainframe computing at the Bureau, where Joe served as acting chief of the Office for Information Processing Standards. I was acquainted with him through his recipe for a distinctive and delicious chili with made with ground beef, onions, tomatoes, kidney beans. My mom made (and froze) enormous batches of the stuff. Over the years, I've made dozens of variations of it (hippie-style, with beer; vegetarian; spiced with peppers and cumin; thickened with corn flour; and mixed half-and-half with an Italian tomato sauce, then seasoned with oregano, garlic, and cocoa to create Cincinnati chili). But the basic, simple chili is still my favorite. Brown the beef, add chopped onions and celery, add canned tomatoes, canned beans (and, if necessary, water), and cook for a hour or two.

Thinking liberal, acting like nitwits

Why do so many people think like liberals but react -- and vote -- like nitwits? Here's a theory.

Create your own South Park character

I don't even like South Park, but I couldn't result this wonderful German flash site where you can create your own South Park character.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

More garage sale madness

John came over today to QA the berry-rhubarb pie and we walked down the alley to a neighbor's yard sale. She's selling her old farmhouse/beachhouse, probably because the folks on the wooded lot across the street are about to sell their property to a developer who plans to stuff seven new build-to-the-height-limit-and-beyond houses onto the view property.

It was a nice yard sale -- she had charming antiques and reproduction stuff: rugs, lamps, mirrors, and some great garden items. There was a huge, sturdy rectangular wicker basket, perfect for blankets and quilts. The price was high; I tried to haggle; she said the price was high because she didn't really want to sell it. When I offered the full price, she decided she couldn't part with the basket after all, and took it out of the sale. We all laughed.

I wonder how often that happens at yard sales?

Blogger ethics

Results of the Weblog Ethics Survey conducted as a thesis project at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore are now available, and well worth reading. It's a massive study; I'm only part-way through it.


British blues pioneer Long John Baldry died Thursday in Vancouver, B.C., where he'd lived for the past 25 years.

This article from Canadian Broadcasting describes his career and the enormous role he played in leading the early 1960s British blues scene that by the end of that decade became British rock and roll.

The article briefly mentions the voiceover work Baldry did in children's entertainment later in his career. You can hear him read "The Original Story of Winne the Pooh" on iTunes, where you can also purchase his early, astonishingly eclectic, album Everything Stops for Tea. It's a patchwork of Delta blues, Appalachian folk, gospel, ragtime, and English music hall, and includes a version of the New Orleans classic "Iko, Iko" that pretty much says it all about 1960's England trying to grok American folk music.

For Baldry's strongest blues performances, hunt for the 2005 re-release of his 1971 album It Ain't Easy, produced by Elton John and Rod Stewart.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Pies of summer

Two or three times every summer, my dad and I would set off on a drive to The Pie Lady's house. This was on Cape Cod in the 1950s, when big, turn-of-the-century country houses, always painted white, sat far back from the road, shaded by old oaks and surrounded by blue hydrangeas. The Pie Lady lived in just such a house. I imagined her in a large, sunlit kitchen, wearing an old-fashioned long dress and full apron, making her pies.

We never saw The Pie Lady. A glass pie case stood at the end of her crushed-clamshell driveway, in the shade of an oak, and filled with pies still warm from the oven: fruit pies, cream pies, and lemon meringue. You helped yourself.

We usually got blueberry, leaving payment (I believe it was $4) in a basket in the pie case. The lemon meringue was $5.

Although both my mother and I bake, we never made berry pies -- or perhaps we tried, and the blueberries were just too drippy? My mother's speciality was peach chiffon, a complicated pie created in stages with components (including perfect fresh peaches) that took most of the day to cook, chill, and assemble. I once started a peach chiffon late at night and arrived at the critical stage where you whip the egg whites at about 3 a.m. My first husband and I were living on the first floor of a multi-tenant Victorian in New Haven at the time; when I set to work with the electric beater it woke up everyone on the second and third floors.

The only time I made peach chiffon for Zorg he gave me a "this is sort of tasteless fluff" look, and I didn't try it again. It is rather subtle.

A year or so ago, I came across a terrific and easy pie crust recipe that one of the winners of the Puyallup Fair baking competition had shared with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. It produces a crust a lot more elegant looking than the old reliable Crisco crust I've used, and more delicate than the oil-based crust I've employed for hearty apple-and-raisin pies. So when I found myself with 8 pints of extremely ripe assorted berries and four stalks of rhubarb in the fridge, I knew it was time to bake a berry pie.

A Google search yielded dozens of recipes for berry pie filling, but they all seemed to be for canning and using later. Searching under rhubarb and berry pies, I kept coming up with this basic recipe:

5 cups of berries
2 cups of chopped rhubarb
1-1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup flour

Mix the chopped rhubarb with the sugar and flour, then add the rest of the berries. Put it all in the pie shell, add a top crust and cut a few air holes into it. Bake at 425 degrees (F) for one hour.

It just doesn't get any easier than that. The berry mix was one cup of blueberries, two cups of blackberries, one cup of raspberries, and a cup of yellow berries that look like raspberries. I used an old-fashioned aluminum pie plate with a lip to catch the berry juice, and put the pie plate on a cookie sheet covered in foil to catch any drips. Halfway through the baking, I dropped an aluminum crust shield over it.

The result was a pie with an extremely complex sweet-to-sour flavor and a stunning claret color. Both people who've sampled it licked their plates!

Wednesday, July 20, 2005


Indefatigable Northwest pundit J. Kingston (Jeff) Pierce has launched a blog, Limbo, with typically incisive and thorough essays on "Rove Rage," the death of actor James Doohan, and the historical impact of political wife and advisor Edith Bolling Galt.

I'm up to my ears at work this week, so I'll leave you in Jeff's capable hands.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Nincompoop Quotient

Perhaps the most irritating quality of nincompoops is their unjustified but nevertheless unflagging self-confidence.

As you stare slack-jawed at the wreckage of their latest get-rich get-thin get-famous escapade, they're already hatching the next bird-brained adventure.

A few years back, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published the results of a series of studies by two research psychologists documenting what I think of as "the nincompoop phenomenon." People were given tests of logic, grammar and (I love this) humor, then asked to rate their own performance on the tests. The low performers consistently overestimated their performance, insisting they'd done well, while many of the high performers underestimated their scores.

"Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices," the researchers report, "but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it."

Hair-raising as this research is, I can't help but hope that a new personality measure will someday result from it, one far more useful to society than the Intelligence Quotient. The Nincompoop Quotient would indicate the degree to which a person habitually overestimates his or her performance. (Wouldn't you love to see the scores for members of the current administration?)

It's worth reading all the way through the study for the authors' horrifying speculation that a major cause of nincompoopism among their test subjects (college students) is environmental, stemming from lack of feedback about poor performance. It makes sense: If teachers in our culture are reluctant to give negative feedback, and all the students in a classroom get As and Bs, why wouldn't low performers think of themselves as "above average" performers?

Thanks to the always-excellent Netsurfer Digest for unearthing this study. Netsurfer Digest is subscription-only, but they offer a free trial subscription.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Picture this

This meme is adapted from a post by themorgan. For each question, type your answer into Google's image search and see what you get.

My answers:

1. Your age on your next birthday

2. Your favorite color

3. Your middle name

4. The place you lost your virginity

5. A weakness of yours

6. Your favorite fruit or vegetable

7. Your favorite animal

8. The town you live in

9. The name of a pet

10. Your high school nickname

11. One of your hobbies

12. The one you love

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Migraine therapy

Six or seven years ago, I used to get migraines that lasted 24 hours (or 48, if I took the experimental migraine medicine that made them less severe) and ended up with me either throwing up or screaming in pain.

After a few months of acupuncture treatment in 1999, I reached a stage where I could get over a migraine in about 8 hours using a combination of Tylenol Sinus, a hot bath in a dark room, and black tea with sugar, followed by few hours of sleep. Now I'm often able to stop a migraine in a few hours using the first three ingredients, with no nap required. Pretty amazing. I come out of the migraine very, very tired and craving a dish of rice. (No idea what the rice thing is about, but it's intense!)

I've even been able, while traveling to and from San Jose, to fight off a migraine with just the Tylenol Sinus and tea, no hot bath, as long as I'm able to somehow get a lot of heat by wrapping up in a blanket on the plane or putting on wool socks and stay away from bright light.

Over the years, I've discovered that a few of our cats are "healing cats" that will stay with me while I'm suffering...or recovering. Kaylee -- usually an aloof cat -- turns out to be a "healing cat." She not only stayed with me during the migraine today, but when I got into bed she came over and put her head against mine, even though it can't have been a particularly comfortable way for her to nap!

I got over the headache just in time to go out and sit in the bright sun on the patio of the restaurant where the family was celebrating Zorg's birthday. I returned home feeling like an absolute dishrag, though. Back in the tub. Off to bed. Surely I'll have more energy tomorrow.

On the light side

"The System Administrator Song" -- warning to Mac users: This could cause flashbacks to your days working in a Windows environment.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Garden salvage rediscovered

Originally uploaded by Mysterious Traveler.
I'm tired of gagging on the exorbitant prices of pots and statuary at North Seattle nurseries and pretentious places like Lucca. (I knew the original owner of Lucca when it was on Aurora; he'd be appalled by the ugly dreck they're selling now at fleece-the-city-dweller prices.)

After spotting an ad for it in the July issue of Northwest Garden News, I went on a hunt for the eccentric, elusive garden salvage yard that appears and disappears like mirage on Highway 99 near the Lynnwood-Everett border. Several years back it occupied a lot just north of the Petticoat Junction dancewear shop; this time it turned up on the opposite side of the road, near the northwest corner of the Highway 99/148th intersection.

The stock includes estate-size fountains, statues, benches and such from as far away as Los Angeles; large slabs of marble; concrete pavers cast and dyed by the proprietor (see photo); sections of bamboo fencing; kitschy donkeys; sleek ebony African busts; oriental lanterns and pedestals; mermaids in ponds;little snails; huge orangutans and big turtles (Terry Pratchett fans, alert!); dragons; Celtic green men; brightly glazed Vietnamese pots; and slim angular terra cotta planters. In addition to the stoneware, there are several dozen huge pots (some plastic, some glazed terracotta) filled with salvaged plants, vines, shrubs and trees. At the back of the lot is a trailer with two poodles in the yard. In the middle of the lot, a large gazebo is filled with pottery, fountains, lighting, and shabby chic garden furniture.

My mother was with me on this visit and was appalled by the hodge-podge of styles. I was calculating how to get back there with a truck and pick up enough pavers to do a patio in our backyard. (A 12" by 12" paver is $5 in gray, $7.50 in either the green stains or the brown stains.)

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Late for work

The glare of my office supervisor, standing in the doorway of my office as I came down the hall this morning, let me know it was 10:30, and I was way late for work.

She's not understanding, particularly about weekends. Being a cat, Sheba expects me to be in front of the computer promptly at 9:30 every morning, typing away and occasionally smiling at her as she hangs out in her faux-leopard bed between the PowerBook and the flat-screen Cinema Display. (Her clue that it's a weekend should be that the PowerBook is closed and I'm working on the iMac.)

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

What do you want to see happen?

Today I took the "Lominger" competencies assessment (an optional online program offered by my employer).

You rate yourself on 67 competencies, assigning each one to a category: "top strengths" "skilled" "less skilled" or "do not use."

I had more "skilled" areas than "less skilled," but only six "top strengths." Five of my strengths were pretty much natural aspects of my personality, but one was something I've had to struggle with and work on in the course of my career — "Boss Relationships."

The keys to "boss success" I've discovered are these:

1. There is nothing (legal) you can do to change a boss who is a jerk. Get to work immediately on a transfer within the organization or find a job elsewhere, before you are transformed into a whining loser.

2. If you work for a good boss, your job is very simple: Figure out what that boss needs you to do, and do it. Periodically check with him or her to make sure you're on track, and make any necessary course corrections. If your boss starts going around the bend (unfortunately, this happens) refer to Key #1.

3. No matter how wonderful your boss is, there will always be problems and miscommunications. The magic words for those instances, given to me by a former colleague, Julie Swor, are: "What do you want to see happen?" Try it. It really is magic.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Test your brakes

If you drive I-5 between Bellingham and Seattle, you know what's going to happen as you approach the city of Everett, don't you? Even at 2 in the morning. Geoff Duncan's Theory of Everett-thing explores the phenomenon.

Friday, July 01, 2005

More ice cream

I had a vacation day today. Much of it was spent scratching my head over problems with phone and internet wiring, and moving furniture in the basement den, but I got to have a Thai lunch with the lively Fremont noodle group (a gathering of home office folks) and dinner at Sam's Sushi with Zorg.

I'd parked at the west edge of Fremont for the lunch this noon and walked in. On the way back, I stopped at the new soft-serve ice cream bar next to Deluxe Junk. (Not to be confused with the gelato place, just around the corner by the statue of Lenin, which I haven't tried yet.)

The soft-serve is real high-quality dairy (not the scary plastic does-not-melt stuff) and delicious. They have kid-size servings (bought one) and those waxy chocolate and butterscotch dips (didn't try one), plus they do floats. Very cool. I asked if they might have frozen custard this summer; the manager said the machines can handle it, but extra egg and butterfat in frozen custard would make it difficult to clean the machines. Frozen custard from Kopp's, Ted Drewes, Sheridan's, and Culver's, is a midwestern obsession, but pretty rare in Washington state.

Sheridan's has a store at 14389 SE Mill Plain Blvd. in Vancouver, WA, and the P-I reports that Snoqualmie Gourmet Ice Cream will be producing frozen custard for sale at Larry's Market soon. Chocolate frozen custard is on my list of 10 favorite foods.