Thursday, March 7, 2013

Timeline of a Baltimore Snowstorm

Friday, 2:50PM: In spite of its name, publishes a story about an upcoming blizzard, which would hit the mid-Atlantic region sometime early next week. The writer draws parallels to the historic Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962, which killed 400 and caused $200 million in non-inflation-adjusted damage. At Constellation Energy headquarters, BGE executives leave work early to avoid the preemptive angry calls that start flooding in.

Friday, 3:17PM: The last roll of toilet paper on store shelves within a 35 mile radius of Baltimore is purchased from Giant in Towson.

Saturday: Some anonymous jerk on the internet (probably from D.C.) coins the term "Snowquester." National media sources seize upon this and a Twitter frenzy ensues, to the chagrin of everyone. In response, local redditors suggest the term "Bohquester" as an alternative even though that term has absolutely nothing to do with weather.

Sunday: Local evening news leads with reporters checking in from Inner Harbor. The upcoming blizzard's impact on nearby local restaurants (Starbucks and Quiznos) is discussed at great length. The anchor wonders aloud whether any conventions will be impacted. When someone tells him through his earpiece that there's nothing scheduled anyway, he looks embarrassed and cuts to commercial.

Monday, 12:00PM: On NPR's Midday Maryland with Dan Rodricks, the previously scheduled topic (income inequality) is dropped in favor of a storm discussion. The irritated guest from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies struggles to make a connection between snow removal and food deserts. A caller gives a lengthy oratory lamenting the storm's likely effects on some Chesapeake Bay species of fish that nobody else has ever heard of.

Monday, 4:00PM: AMC TV decides to move the day's filming for The Walking Dead to the parking lot of the White Marsh Costco, to take advantage of the whole situation there.

Tuesday, 1:00PM: Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley give a joint press conference from MEMA (Maryland Emergency Management Agency) headquarters to reassure a weary public that government officials are prepared for the upcoming mayhem. O'Malley is wearing an Under Armour golf polo, so it's clear that he's ready for just about anything. For starters, Wednesday's trash collection will be cancelled, a move which the mayor explains will also allow the city to immediately cut property tax rates by 10%. Someone in the audience asks whether parking tickets will still be written tomorrow.

Tuesday, 11:00PM: Dozens of drunk patrons in The Brewer's Art whip out their smartphones to try to figure out what the hell is taking so long. Forecasts now predict the precipitation will start at midnight.

Wednesday, 12:05AM: The forecast is again updated; precipitation starting at 1:00AM. A few of the now extremely drunk people who are also MICA students start to worry because they didn't bother doing their art projects due on Wednesday.

Wednesday, 8:30AM: Everyone who can work from home has already arranged to do so. Some light rain starts to fall, causing minor irritation to a Canton woman trying to walk her dog.

Wednesday, 9:05AM: The Baltimore Police Department issues a tweet reminding drivers to slow down and allow extra stopping distance given the weather conditions. This immediately causes Baltimore drivers to "jump" from the 2nd worst in the nation to the 4th worst. Just kidding; they ignored the tweet completely.

Wednesday, 2:05PM: An area man gets excited when he looks outside and sees a single snowflake falling slowly toward the ground. When it melts immediately after landing, he's disappointed. But in the back of his mind, he's secretly glad, having already drank through what was supposed to be three days' worth of beer.

Thursday, 12:30PM: The Baltimore Sun meteorology department decides to have an impromptu staff picnic in the sunny park.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

How I fixed my back pain the hard way: introduction

It was a typical afternoon in early spring, and in a room in a nondescript suburban office building, I was lying motionless on a table, with my right side up. My head rested on a small, firm, black cushion. Suspended about a foot above my head was a large mechanical instrument. A thin metal rod protruded from it, and the end of the rod was nestled between my earlobe and the skin of my neck. To anyone else, it would have looked like something out of a sci-fi movie.

I closed my eyes as the anticipation built. This was not the first time I had been on this table, under this device, and it wouldn't be the last. I took a deep breath and exhaled. A few seconds later, I heard the unmistakable metallic thunk. Along with the sound came the lightest touch I could imagine noticing on my skin. My doctor helped me sit up, then lie down again, on my back this time. Within seconds, I noticed the warmth in my forehead, like someone started shining a bright light across my eyebrows. This flowed throughout the rest of my face, into my cheeks, and eventually down my left arm and through my fingertips. I felt the muscles on the back of my neck slowly relax. I gently brought my feet together and noticed that the lumpy protrusions on the inside of my ankles lined up perfectly; there was a time when they had missed each other by an inch and a half. Within a few minutes, I began to feel how I imagined most "normal" people felt most of the time, in the absence of pain; in other words, I felt awesome!

I didn't know it at the time, but the constant discomfort I'd had in my upper back for most of my adult life would be almost completely gone for nearly a full year, in contrast to the few weeks of relief I'd come to expect. And the assortment of accompanying symptoms would be gone with it: the sudden seemingly random bursts of pain, the tingly sensation in my left hand, my swollen and tender jaw muscles when chewing... all of it would leave me alone, at least for a while.

I also didn't and couldn't have envisioned the way the pain would all return again, while doing something as innocuous as anything in daily life: watching a movie. I was lying in the same position as in my appointments, on my left side, but without having my head properly supported. My heart sank when - out of nowhere - I felt the unmistakable sensation of bones shifting in the back of my neck. Within a few minutes, my left hand felt slightly numb and the pulling sensation had returned to my upper back. The other symptoms also returned within a few hours, and living with them was a hundred times more agonizing after experiencing how good it feels to be without them.

This is the story of how I came to manage my chronic pain. It's a story filled with defeats and triumphs, mystery and intrigue, colorful characters, and yes, even romance. I should state up front that the amount of pain I was in can't compare to someone afflicted with fibromyalgia, muscular dystrophy, or even serious trauma. But it was enough to adversely affect my life, although that fact remained the elephant in the room for many years. It finally came to a head when, on a typical night out with friends, I found myself incessantly rotating my left shoulder to crack my back, just to comfortably sit in my chair. I was forced to admit to myself that the constant back cracking was not normal, and worse, that it was beginning to intrude on my professional life, my social life, even my sleep. It was as if I'd just realized a fly had been buzzing around my ear for as long as I could remember. But that night, I had no way of knowing just how complicated and involved my search for a flyswatter would prove to be. I also didn't realize that not only could my main complaint be resolved, but that many other things I didn't even know were wrong would also be fixed. I didn't fully grasp just how dramatically my quality of life would improve.

I write about my experience in the hope that someone else dealing with the same frustrating problem will find it useful, and may even find relief using what I've learned. I also hope to draw attention to what I think is a serious deficiency in our modern medical system: the vast chasm (both actual and perceived) between traditional and alternative approaches. I am a scientist, an atheist, a skeptic to the core. I find no merit in healing crystals or homeopathy. But without receiving a treatment that would surely be featured on Quackwatch (a site I will have many things to say about later), I would still be in pain today. Absolutely nothing exists on the allopathic side of medicine that could have addressed my underlying problem. And that fact is itself a problem.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

All I Want For Christmas is a Super-Intelligent Public Transit System - Part 1

I was having a friendly debate with another commenter over at Chicagoist, in an article lamenting the latest round of RTA cuts. Upon floating some rough ideas for how Chicago's transit system (or, indeed, any city's transit system) could be made to operate more dynamically, I was rebuked by a solid wall of skepticism.

I think my biggest problem--and my problem with most technology--is that I simply don't see the benefit outweighing the expense of implementation coupled with ongoing maintenance. I honestly believe that a simple, fixed route bus system runs about as efficiently as it is possible for a bus system to run.

Could it be? That nearly the simplest possible approach to a bus system one can imagine happens to be the most efficient? I find that to be highly unlikely. Many problem domains don't favor simple approaches. Said another way: the universe is complex; deal with it. Take one example from the field of computer science: sorting numbers. Specifically, how can we efficiently store a collection of numbers that will allow us to quickly search the collection to see if a certain number is already there? One very simple approach is to store the numbers in a sequence, then put that sequence in order using bubble sort, then perform a binary search on the now-sorted collection.

The approach to sorting described above works fine when you're only sorting and searching through a few different numbers. But once you start dealing with thousands, millions, or billions of them, the performance breaks down badly. A more complicated approach to sorting involves using a specialized construct known as a red-black tree. A red-black tree is much, much more difficult to create and work with than the simple approach (believe me, I had to suffer through it in college). But it's also much faster, and handles searching through even very large collections of numbers with acceptable performance.

In many ways, the number sorting example is analogous to comparing a fixed route bus system against the one I will present in this post. Just as with the simple number sorting example, the simple bus system (fixed-route) works OK when the system is small. Suppose that the entire city of Chicago consisted of two high rise condo buildings, one grocery store, and two large office buildings. Every person lives in one of the high rises, works from 9:00AM-5:00PM in one of the offices, and goes grocery shopping every day from 6:00PM-6:30PM. This kind of city is the perfect candidate for a dumb fixed route system! You can set up bus routes that go back and forth between each high rise, and the grocery store and offices. Even if you create "express" routes between each of these buildings (a pretty sweet deal for everyone), that's only ten total routes. You can probably even eliminate some of these if, for example, two of the buildings are close together, or a building is in between two other buildings (the bus can just stop at the building in the middle), etc. And, because everyone is on the same schedule, you only need to run each of the routes at one point during the day (for example, the "high rise to office" routes only need to run a little bit before 9:00AM every day). Cheap, effective, and simple.

But what happens when the people in the high rises start to work different hours from each other? Or start wanting to go grocery shopping early in the morning, before work? Or (gasp), the city starts to grow and a developer builds a whole bunch of townhouses that are scattered around all the existing buildings? In other words, what if our simplistic, imaginary Chicago started to look more like the real thing? You either need to start adding more routes (more buses, drivers, and money), or having existing routes make additional stops (slower commute times, lower frequency of trips), or both.

Fortunately for us, in the real Chicago, the streets are laid out in a nice gridlike fashion with perpendicular "major" streets roughly a half mile apart in all directions. This general layout admittedly lends itself pretty well to a fixed-route system, at least as well as any particular layout could. But regardless of the street layout, and ignoring the fact that many people still need to make trips that don't align to these routes very well, the fixed-route system still breaks down in the face of dynamic human behavior. That's just the price we pay for being free-willed, living beings instead of cold, calculating robots. Just to give a non-comprehensive sample of some pesky human-caused problems that spring to mind...

  • Many people don't follow the same schedule every day. They might go into work early, leave late, or attend to errands/appointments in a completely different location before heading to work.

  • Certain neighborhoods start to become "hot" and lots of people suddenly want to live, dine, or get drunk there. It takes months or years for this sort of information to filter through the bureaucracy before changes to routes are implemented to meet the changed transit need - if ever. By the time the schedules/routes do change, the hot place might have moved somewhere else (coincidentally, I always keep up with these things; I rode my vintage bike to the hot spots way back before anyone else even knew about them).

  • Some people work in different locations some or all days, possibly at different hours. People are moving in to, and out of, the city every day, for a myriad of reasons (excitement over taking advantage of a large urban transit system, followed by the inevitable letdown upon seeing that system in action, being chief among them, I'm sure).

  • People might choose different modes of transit to get to their final destination depending on the season, time of day, their mood, and the alignment of the stars. They might bike in the summer, and in the winter take a bus during rush hour, or drive if it's a weird (i.e. non-rush hour) time.

  • One fine day, a whole bunch of people from all over might be interested in attending the same air show/Hungarian festival/llama parade.

Even if the CTA waved a magical wand (in a union-approved fashion, obviously), read every single rider's mind one evening, figured out their itineraries for the next day, and completely re-organized all their fixed routes to optimally[1] accommodate the day's transit needs given their stock of buses and drivers, it still wouldn't be that useful. The next day, everything would change again!

at this time, please open your favorite media player and start some overly dramatic/cheesy music What are we to do? Is there no hope? Are we stuck with this naive, frustrating, and inefficient way of using our buses? In a word: no! Stay tuned for our next installment; if you want to work ahead, I'd suggest watching some X-Files reruns.

[1] "Optimally" is surprisingly difficult to define in cases like these, and often boils down to what exactly you want to optimize. You can't have it all. For example, you can either minimize the average length of every rider's trip, or minimize the amount of time every rider has to wait before the bus arrives, but not both. For more details than you could ever want to know, as usual, see Wikipedia.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Homegrown Wisconsin/Simply Wisconsin CSA Weeks 15-21

Week 15: September 23, 2009

Tatsoi, red peppers, radishes, tomatoes, red cippolini onion, eggplant, potatoes, carrots, sweet corn, celery

The tatsoi was new to me, but tasted great raw. The carrots tended to be stubby but flavorful. At this point I started donating all my potatoes to my coworker Anand (there will be many more to come).

Week 16: September 30, 2009

Broccoli, red and green peppers, potatoes, green cabbage, parsley, radishes, pears, carrots, red/heirloom/roma tomatoes, two dozen eggs

The eggs continue to impress, and parsley goes well with them. Heirloom tomatoes are weird but kinda tasty nonetheless.

Week 17: October 7, 2009

Butternut squash, kale, leeks, carrots, red bell/lipstick peppers, potatoes, heirloom tomato, green pepper, pears, kale, mizuna, two dozen eggs

The greens were good but a surprise (haven't got that many in a while, but it was no challenge to finish them all). I ended up cooking the squash with a pot roast - probably wasn't the best way to prepare it but it turned out OK.

This was a Jeff-style omelet served over this week's green's and a curry chicken tender from Trader Joe's. What you can't see is the pool of coconut milk underneath everything. Mmmmmmm.

Week 18: October 14, 2009

Carrots, red cippolini onions, acorn squash, butternut squash, tomato, green peppers, jalapeno peppers, sweet pepper, leeks, mustard greens, cilantro, sweet potatoes, apple cider jelly, two dozen eggs

Phew, what a box! Saving the jelly for later, when I figure out something to do with it. With eggs, peppers, and onions it became sort of an omelet week, which isn't a bad thing. The mustard greens were OK as salad, not quite my favorite.

Week 19: October 21, 2009

Pie pumpkins, beets, Connel red/Cortland apples, candy onions, brussels sprouts, carrots, sweet potatoes, radishes, red cabbage

The first apples, and they're great. I gave the pumpkins to my mom since I had little interest in them. Brussels sprouts are in a tie for first place as my favorite vegetable so this week was all good.

Week 20: October 28, 2009

Lettuce, potatoes, carrots, Delicata squash, unknown greens (something like cabbage), apples, onions, parsnips, celeriac, two dozen eggs

This was the last week. =( The newsletter wasn't available, so I couldn't tell what the green cabbage-like thing was. It was pretty good in salad though. Also, I wasn't sure what to do with the celeriac so unfortunately it ended up going bad. The squash is yet-to-be-consumed but I have a feeling it will end up being quite tasty, knowing the person who will be helping me prepare it.

This marks the end of my summer Wisconsin CSA. In the end, it was well worth the money. However, as in my previous experience, it was a bit much for one man to consume, particularly in those weeks with lots of greens or unusual items.

Now I'm signed up for a meat CSA through Liberty Family Farm in Michigan. I'll post some updates as that progresses. So far, it's great. More to come on that.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Homegrown Wisconsin/Simply Wisconsin CSA Weeks 9-14

Week 9: August 12, 2009

Tomatoes, green peppers, watermelon, carrots, green beans, eggplant, sage, white onions, celery, rhubarb

Normally I'm not a fan of tomatoes, but these were good. Cut them up and grill in a skillet. The watermelon was yellow, which I've never seen before. With some apprehension I bit in, only to discover it tastes exactly like red watermelon. As usual I failed to do anything with the rhubarb so I froze it.

Week 10: August 19, 2009

Red tomatoes, heirloom tomatoes, bell and cubanelle peppers, carrots, green beans, raspberries, rhubarb, white onions, chard, sweet corn, two dozen eggs

A nice variety of peppers for omelets. The berries are consistently tasty. Green beans aren't really paleo but I ate them anyway (steam), as well as some of the corn (boiled). Again froze the rhubarb.

Week 11: August 26, 2009

Red tomatoes, green peppers, watermelon, basil, parsley, banana peppers, jalapeno peppers, heirloom tomatoes, red onions, sweet corn, raspberries

More good peppers and soft, crisp lettuce. The heirloom tomato was pretty tasty and juicy.

Week 12: September 2, 2009

Red tomatoes, green bell pepper, anaheim peppers, red onions, sweet corn, muskmelon (cantaloupe), lettuce, cucumber, turnip greens, two dozen eggs

The cantaloupe had a bad spot in the middle but was otherwise great. Another nice variety of peppers for omelets. The eggs are, as usual, fantastic, with golden omega-3 rich yolks.

Week 13: September 9, 2009

Tomatoes, red and green bell peppers, heirloom tomatoes, yellow onions, two of: lettuce, arugula, chard, kale, collards, or frisee

No picture because I didn't actually get this one! Oddly enough, I was in Wisconsin this week for a trail building volunteering event with the Ice Age Trail Alliance. The person who was supposed to pick it up for my, in my absence, wasn't able to. So it was donated to a local food bank. I'm sure somebody ended up eating and enjoying it.

Week 14: September 16, 2009

Orange tomatoes, green Italian fryer pepper, garlic chives, yellow onions, a very large cauliflower, kale, lettuce, potatoes, celery, pablano pepper, two dozen eggs

What a massive cauliflower! Everything has been great from this box.

Sometime during the past month they changed the name from Homegrown Wisconsin to Simply Wisconsin. Regardless of the name, sadly, the season is almost over. But the good news is they have a winter share too, which I might sign up for, and I also found out about a meat CSA from a different farm that will deliver locally grown beef, pork, chicken, and lamb from November through March. I'll definitely be signing up for that one.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Homegrown Wisconsin CSA Weeks 5-8

Week 5: July 15, 2009

Bunched beets, leafy hardy green, kale, red cabbage, zucchini, mini onions, dill, cucumbers, blackberries

The cabbage was excellent. Getting killed by so much dill though. Berries were succulent.

Week 6: July 22, 2009

Spring onions, celery, Swiss chard, broccoli, cucumbers, zucchini, mixed beans, common thyme?, two dozen eggs

Eggs were awesome as always. No trouble polishing off everything this week, except the herb...

Week 7: July 29, 2009

Portabella mushrooms, chives, red new potatoes, carrots, onions, lettuce, fresh garlic, fennel

Everything was good except the potatoes and fennel. Got this one just before going on vacation so I brought it all with me. My family could use everything on the trip except for the fennel, the stalk of which tastes like black licorice.

Week 8: August 5, 2009

Portabella mushrooms, chives, white new potatoes, carrots, onions, mixed beans, zucchini, fennel, cucumbers

I was still out of town for this one so again Jen was kind enough to pick it up for me. Most of it was gone by the time I got home so no picture this week. I still enjoyed the onions, zucchini, and a couple potatoes in a stir fry.

I'm picking up another one tomorrow, so no more time to waste not cooking, eating, or doing dishes!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Homegrown Wisconsin CSA Weeks 3 and 4

More delicious and nutritious veggies and berries over the past couple weeks. I'll just skip right to the pictures.

Week 3: July 1, 2009

Little gem romaine, green cabbage, collard greens, garlic scrapes, turnips, green zucchini, snow or sugar snap peas, mini onions, unknown herb

That list is from the newsletter but not everything is necessary in the picture. That's because I was out of town for the 4th of July weekend and had my roommate's girlfriend pick up the box in my absence. In return I encouraged them to eat whatever they wanted from it, which I presume they did. But there was still a good amount left when I got home on Sunday night.

Another funny thing... I really wasn't kidding about the "surprise factor." As you can see and I'm embarrassed to admit, I couldn't even identify the herb at the time! In the newsletter they only tell you it will be either X, Y, or Z (the exact item is a mystery to everyone until you open the box). No matter, whatever it was I chopped it up and sprinkled over almost every dish and it worked. Googling around now I'm 90% sure it was parsley.

After a late Monday night of orchestra rehearsal and drinking polish beer, nothing quite hits the spot like tuna in olive oil and frozen blueberries over a pile of greens. The sudden and unexpected disappearance of our can opener almost prevented this meal. Fortunately, it turns out that with a little effort you can open cans with a Santoku knife (thanks again, Google!)

Another "Everything in the box" stir fry, this time cooked in delicious and nutritious coconut oil. And to think... some poor souls believe it's meant to be wasted in their hair!

Week 4: July 8, 2009

Lettuce, some other type of lettuce, kohlrabi, hardy green, kale, garlic scrapes, zucchini, snap peas, mini onions, cucumbers, unknown herb, blackberries, and another 2 dozen eggs

I crept heroically through the 7:30 PM Eisenhower traffic jam to make it to the pick up site on time this week. As you can see, totally worth the effort. Where to even begin? With no time to think... I just started eating.

When a man is forced to test the limits of how many pounds of greens a human can consume in a single meal, that man requires two plates for dinner. A nice side effect of this - even if I somehow had the desire to eat something bad like a candy bar or some oatmeal afterward, it would be futile to attempt since the first bite would quickly run into an impenetrable wall of chlorophyll just south of the pharynx.