Thursday, August 24, 2017

I Remember: the California Condor

It was the summer of 1972.  I spent most of the summer backpacking in the Cleveland National Forest, near San Diego.

On one particular morning, I was crossing a broad meadow.  The meadow was covered with dried grass, about 2 feet tall, and I was concerned about rattlesnakes.  I was shuffling my feet, making as much noise as possible, to give the snakes warning so they could get out of my path.  My attention was mostly on the ground.

Partway across the meadow I stopped to take a break and have a drink from my canteen.  Looking up, I was amazed to see a California Condor soaring overhead.  At that time, the Condor was on the brink of extinction... there were very few left in the wild, so seeing one was a rare treat.

I watched him for a few minutes.  He was gliding in a wide circle, barely moving his wings, riding the thermals.  It was an awesome sight.

After a while, I decided I'd better get moving again, to get across the meadow before it got too hot.  As I walked, the Condor seemed to keep pace with me...  circling back again and again, never getting too far away. 

In those days, there were no smart phones, and my camera was packed away.  I wish now that I'd taken the time to unpack it and get a photo, but I did not. 

I've often wondered what he was doing.  Was he searching for prey?  Was he curious about me?  Maybe he was waiting for me to die!

It probably took me 45 minutes to cross the meadow, and he stayed with me the whole time.  When I reached the tree line on the other side of the meadow, I paused for another drink, and took one last look at the magnificent bird before continuing on my way.

Friday, April 29, 2016

This is How You Trash a House

I recently bought a new house in Elk Grove, California (just South of Sacramento).

The seller had been leasing the home to some extended family, and requested a short rent-back to give them time to move out.  Apparently the family felt they were being "forced out of their home" and decided to trash the place.  These are just a few photos of the damage.

The seller was close to foreclosure, and most of the price went straight to his bank.  Both the seller and the family are judgement proof - they have no assets worth going after.  My insurance company - Nationwide - seems to be fast an reasonable so far, but I am stuck living in a hotel while the damage is repaired.

On the plus side, as my realtor pointed out, I'm going to end up with a really nice house.

A partial list of the damage includes kitchen appliances ripped out, kitchen cabinets smashed, interior lighting fixtures removed, interior doors smashed, holes punched in walls, window screens destroyed, a couple of windows broken, the back patio awning completely removed, broken furniture and trash thrown in the pool, liquids poured on carpets,  garage door kicked in, stair railing broken, and garbage and debris left everywhere.  It's going to cost over $2,000 just to have the trash hauled away.

On the plus side, Elk Grove is a beautiful community, the neighbors are really nice, and I think it's going to be a great investment.

Friday, October 09, 2015

On a Serious Note

I have just undergone treatment for prostate cancer.

After reviewing the options - surgical or radiation treatment - I found a fairly new treatment called Cyberknife (a brand name for robotic Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy, or SBRT).

The treatment replaces ten weeks of radiation therapy with five days!   It's much less expensive, and the total radiation exposure over the full course of treatment is about half the exposure from conventional therapy.  Yet the clinical results are essentially the same as conventional radiation treatment.

They are able to do this by using a precisely focussed beam of radiation, which allows them to administer a much higher dosage to the tumor with little damage to surrounding tissues.

Before the week of treatment, they implanted 4 gold seeds in my prostate, and then, using MRI and CT scans, created a computer model of my prostate and the cancer.

During the radiation treatment (which lasted about 45 minutes each day), the computer used real-time CT scans to precisely position the beam of radiation on the places they wanted.  I simply had to lie reasonably still on the bed.  

Click the link to see a Cyberknife promotional video.
A sequence showing the robot arm in action starts at 1:08.
The bed itself was mounted on a robotic arm so they could position it in the general area they wanted; they could also tilt and swivel it in any direction.

The radiation emitter was mounted on the end of another robotic arm.  The arm itself was repurposed from the automotive industry, where it’s used in assembly plants.  It was BIG, and had a number of complex joints that could pivot in several directions, so it was able to move the emitter all around the bed.  The radiologist told me that the system has 1 mm accuracy. 

The only hard part was an extremely restrictive diet.  Anything that causes gas or bloating can cause organs to shift and make it harder for the software to follow the treatment plan developed by the oncologist.  And I was only allowed to have clear liquids after lunch, until the following days treatment.

The treatment sessions themselves were actually restful.  My radiologist dimmed the lights in the room, and I let my mind wander, or slept a bit.  The robot went through the same sequence every day, so after a couple of days I knew what to expect.  As it neared the end of the sequence on Friday, my final day of treatment, I actually felt a bit sad that I wouldn’t be seeing my “buddy” again.

SBRT can be used for different types of cancers, not just prostate, and major medical centers across the country now offer the treatment.  Despite that, many doctors don't seem be be aware of the option. The urologist who initially diagnosed my cancer did not even present this as an option.

I wanted to share this so that others know about this amazing treatment option (if your condition meets the criteria for SBRT).

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Spanish Missions in Arizona

Building on the success of my California Missions and Texas Missions websites, I've just launched a new site,

There were only five missions built in Arizona, between 1691 and 1768. (Apparently even the Spanish missionaries found 115 degree temperatures a bit extreme.)

The first three were founded by Jesuit missionary Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, who was responsible for more than 20 missions.  Most of the missions founded by Kino lie within the Mexican state of Sonora.

The mission church at Mission San Xavier del Bac was constructed between 1783 and 1797.  It is the oldest "European" structure still in use in Arizona.

I've certainly enjoyed learning about the Arizona missions, and in particular the work of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, who has been likened to Saint Junipero Serra, founder of the missions in California.

For my technically inclined readers, the Arizona Missions site is built on Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Hall of Flame Museum of Firefighting

The Hall of Flame is a surprising cool museum located in Phoenix, Arizona. They have a collection of over 80 vehicles used to fight fires, including wagons from the 1700's up through fire engines from the 40s and 50s... plus a lot of other equipment, like helmets and axes.

At 70,000 square feet, this is the largest firefighting collection and museum in the world. It's well worth a couple of hours to explore.

You'll even learn some things.  For example, cities once had lookout towers with bells to keep watch for fires and sound an alarm.

And in more modern times, a "3 alarm fire" means that three different calls were put in for different fire companies to fight a blaze.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Hiller Aviation Museum

In a place like the Bay Area, there are so many things to see and do that many very worthwhile places get overlooked.

The Hiller Aviation Museum is one of those places.  It's just off 101, on a frontage road near the San Carlos Airport.  In fact, there are windows in the museum where you can watch the airport activity, and speakers so you can listen to the air traffic controller.

The museum has a great collection of aircraft, ranging from a full-size replica of the original Wright Flyer up through modern jets, and a few antique cars to put the aircraft in perspective.  There is a nose section of an actual 747, so you can see the cockpit and even sit in the pilot's seat.   They even have a prototype jetpack, and a NASA spacesuit.

There are several interactive exhibits, including a simulator that allows you to "fly" a Wright aircraft,  and an air traffic control station.

Upstairs the museum has a number of computers running MicroSoft Flight Simulator.  Many of the museum volunteers are pilots, and they are very happy to give kids flying tips and help them out.

This museum is well worth a trip, and once you've visited, you'll find it's a great place to take out-of-town visitors who get tired of driving by tech companies!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Road Trip 4: Downward to Phoenix

I spend a couple of hours in the morning wandering and "old" Flagstaff.  No, this is not the Flagstaff of cowboy legends...  just the old downtown area, consisting of small stores and restaurants in buildings dating to the early 20th century.  It's a pleasant morning, but there isn't a lot to do, so I decide to get on the road to Sedona.

* * * * * * * *

As I leave Flagstaff, the road takes on the character of mountain roads in the Sierras.  It's narrow and winding, and along the way there are pine forests, walls of rock, and dramatic dropoffs.  The rocks are reddish brown, rather than the grey of Sierra granite, but otherwise the drive feels familiar.

* * * * * * * *

Sedona is amazing!  The main street is filled with busy shops and restaurants, but the bustling downtown can't begin to compete with the beauty of the surroundings.

* * * * * * * *

The road gradually straightens as I leave Sedona.  It continues to descend, and I once again find myself in desert.  From time to time I pass stands of Saguaro cactus that seem to stretch for miles. This feels like the desert of the old west.

My arrival in Phoenix is anti-climactic.  Traffic builds, and the freeway widens.  There are more onramps and offramps, and soon I am passing by shopping malls and car dealers.

There is a heat alert in Phoenix today.  When I arrive at my hotel, the temperature is 112 degrees. Improbably, there is a basketball court outside my room.  I think I'll skip shooting hoops today.  Maybe tomorrow.  But probably not.