Thursday, November 30, 2006

Article: Enchanting day at Enchanted Rock

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, saw some of the most beautiful weather of the year. I can’t understand anyone spending that day shopping. Since my son Philip’s nuclear family went to his fiancĂ©’s grandmother’s house for the holiday, he was free to spend the day with me. We decided to get up early--though not as early as the shoppers--and head to Enchanted Rock State Park.

Enchanted Rock is a gigantic granite dome located on RR 965 north of Fredericksburg. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife website (, the dome rises 425 feet above the ground and is one of the largest batholiths in the United States. A batholith is an underground rock formation that has been exposed by erosion. There’s a lot of impressive erosion going on at Enchanted Rock. The rock looks like it is sloughing its skin.

Since the weather was so nice, Philip and I decided to take my little Jeep Wrangler with the windows off. We used the back roads, traveling through such towns as Sandy, Willow City and Eckert. The miles wore by in a shifting tableau of cattle, small streams, goats and live oaks. This area is spectacular with wildflowers during a good spring but it’s a very nice drive any time of the year.

Eventually we wound our way to the park. Our fantasy that everyone else would be shopping or sleeping off their Thanksgiving “cheer” was shattered immediately. There was a line of cars waiting to get it. Luckily it moved fairly quickly. Once parked, I got my camera gear and water packed up, and off we went to climb the dome. Unfortunately everyone had the same idea. A long trail of colorful dots, the bright shirts of fellow climbers, wound up the side of the great rock.

In my opinion, the point of hiking is to get some time alone with nature. Given the number of people on the so-called Enchanted Rock, that wasn’t going to happen. But there was another granite dome right next to it, not quite as large but way less populated. We decided to head up that one.

The domes are not hard to climb. They’re fairly steep but the rock is rough and there’s plenty of traction if you have a good pair of sneakers on. I stopped at multiple places to take photos of the jumbled rocks that litter the smaller dome. It was at one of these stops that I focused my camera down slope. This reminded me that I’m afraid of heights. Suddenly the rock did not feel secure at all. I might plummet to my death at any moment. Luckily Philip has absolutely no such fear. With his guidance and occasional hand-holding, I made it to the top.

The view was wonderful. The air was clear and cloudless. Scrub forest stretched over the hilly countryside below us with little sign of human disturbance. Some trees even displayed a Texas version of fall color. We sat on a boulder and watched a spiny lizard while butterflies and birds flitted by.

Later we made our way carefully down the least steep section of the rock and into a canyon with a small stream. Dragonflies danced above rippling water. We continued our hike around the back of the dome, past a stock pond and a scenic overlook and finally to the parking lot. We’d spent about four hours in what Philip jokingly calls “the tawdry beauty of nature.” Now it was time to head back home.

We used to go out to Enchanted Rock all the time when the kids were little. Now it seems we don’t have time to do things we used to enjoy. As we left, Philip commented that he is going to bring Celeste, his eight year old daughter, out as soon as possible. Maybe all we need is a little reminder about what is important in life.

A train of people heading up the official "Enchanted Rock".
The view looking up the rock we chose to climb. Notice the two standing rocks. I had Philip climb those for a photo.
Here are the standing rocks up a little closer.
Now there's Philip on top of one of the rocks!
Taking this photo reminded me of my fear of heights.
Our rock had a lot more boulders on it. This is looking toward the Enchanted Rock.
Here's Philip on the top of our rock with the back of Enchanted Rock in the background and a view of the Hill Country.
Some of the boulders congregated on the back of Enchanted Rock.This shows how the skin of the rock is being sloughed.
A bit of Texas fall color.
A dragonfly we saw near a stream at the base of the domes.
This is the stream where we saw the dragonfly.
The sun sparkling on the water of the pond. It looks late but I think it was about 2:00 pm.
The forest around the base of the granite domes.
Philip admiring the view from a scenic overlook on the loop trail.
It was around this area that my brother Stephen and I caught three water snakes one day. Stephen made me catch them because water snakes always bite.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Article: Cephalopods

I visited the Houston Museum of Natural Science recently. There’s a lot to see there, including the amazing Body Worlds exhibit which shows partially dissected human cadavers in various poses. The cadavers have been plasticized so they don’t smell. That was what brought me there in the first place. It was interesting but I’ve already seen my share of cadavers.

What really got my attention was the Strake Hall of Malacology. I didn’t even know what malacology was, although I was somewhat familiar with some of its members. Malacology is the study of mollusks. The most familiar mollusks are, of course, snails. Or maybe it’s oysters or clams. I suppose that depends on whether you like seafood.

There are over 100,000 species of mollusks and the museum had a fantastic display of their incredibly beautiful shells. With over 100,000 species of mollusks there are a lot of shells to display. The thing that interested me most in the exhibit was a small aquarium housing two very cute mollusks. How can a mollusk be cute? Have you seen a cuttlefish? They are amazing animals. These two were swimming placidly, their eight arms streaming down from between their eyes and their two tentacles holding them stationary. They followed my movement with big, intelligent eyes.

Cuttlefish belong to the group of mollusks known as cephalopods, made up of four groups of animals, the cuttlefish, squid, octopuses and nautiluses. Most people only know cuttlefish from cuttlebone, the calcium supplement provided to pet birds. The cuttlebone is the last remnant of the ancestral shell shared by all mollusks but now only obvious among cephalopods in the nautiluses.

The cuttlebone is not what fascinated me as I stared into the aquarium. What most amazed me was the way the two captives were changing colors. Cephalopods are known as “the chameleons of the sea” but this does not do them justice. Chameleons can display some impressive color changes but they take minutes to accomplish. They are totally outclassed by animals such as these two cuttlefish. They changed colors so fast they were actually flashing. And each was trimmed with a narrow strip of neon purple.

On the wall of the museum was a mural showing a sperm whale battling a giant squid. Giant squid get up to about 45 feet long but at least half of that is in the tentacles and arms. They don’t weight much and will always lose a battle with a sperm whale.

As I watched the two little cuttlefish, I was saddened by the knowledge that they couldn’t be very old. The very oldest of cephalopods, those that live in nearly frozen artic waters, are thought to live up to six years. Most other species live between one and three years. Amazingly this includes even the giant squid and its slightly larger relation, the colossal squid.

Cephalopods are possibly the most intelligent of the invertebrates, animals without backbones. They have been shown to use their incredible color-changing capabilities to communicate with each other. Associated with their chromatic abilities, cephalopods have very good vision and large brains. If it weren’t for their short lives and generally solitary habits, they might someday rule the world! Well, maybe not. The lack of bones and the inability to function on land will probably save us from a cephalopod take-over even if the overcome their other obstacles.

Web information:

Mural at Houston Museum of Natural Science of a giant squid and a sperm whale.
One of the two cuttlefish at the museum.
I believe this is a face everyone can love.

The second cuttlefish showing a darker pattern.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Article: Adventures in medicine

When I broke my wrist last year I thought I had a standard condition. Haven’t doctors been fixing broken bones since Hippocrates? If they can’t get that right, how can they possibly do complicated procedures like organ transplants? I was in for a rude awakening.

I suppose every break is a little different and mine was particularly bad. I broke off the distal end of my radius and shoved the broken shaft of bone into my wrist. My hand twisted and the palm collapsed in on itself. Still, I’d heard of worse. I was in shock when I got to the ER but that doesn’t explain my confidence in the medical profession. Brain washing by such TV shows as ER and Marcus Welby explained that.

It took several months before I realized things weren’t going well. How long does a broken wrist take to heal anyway? My physical therapist recommended a medieval-looking device called a supination split. I was to wear it while sleeping. How could anyone sleep with that contraption of metal, and Velcro wrapped around their arm? You have to be very tired.

Four months of the split convinced my doctor that it wasn’t working. Time to try something new. How about a surgical procedure called a Suave-Kapandji (SK)? How about cutting my ulna in two, pinning the wrist end to my radius and letting the section attached to my elbow just ‘flap in the wind’? “It takes some getting used to,” my doctor said. I was worried. Is it okay for a bone not to be connected to anything on one end? You don’t really need it, the doctor explained, it’s extra like your appendix. Call me skeptical, I decided to get a second opinion.

I went to a doctor recommended by my doctor. You wouldn’t go to your mechanics best friend for unbiased advice would you? I assumed doctors were above that kind of thing. Even so, Dr. #2 did not completely agree with Dr. #1. Could do an SK, he said, or could just cut a section out of the ulna and pin it back together, a procedure called an ulnar shortening.

I needed another opinion, someone who would agree with one of the previous doctors. But Dr. #3 came up with a completely new procedure--radial reconstruction. He would take out the pin Dr. #1 put in, cut the radius apart and restore it to its original length using a bone graft from my hip. I was stunned. How did my hip get involved? Time for another opinion.

Dr. #4 took a cat scan of my wrist. He examined it closely and proclaimed there was nothing wrong that a good shot of cortisone wouldn’t fix. Dr. #1 had already given me cortisone but Dr. #4 said he didn’t do it right. He must not have done it right either because it didn’t work again.

There was only minimal agreement in the diagnosis I’d gotten. Drs #3 and #4 were both adamantly against an SK. Both said an ulna shortening was possible but probably wouldn’t help. Since I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life getting more opinions, I decided to go with Dr. #3. His procedure could be done in two parts, first remove the pin then reconstruct the radius. Removing the pin sounded reasonable.

Dr. #3 examined the cat scan taken by Dr. #4. Diagnostic tests are nice, he said, but have no correlation to symptoms. People with good diagnostics can have debilitating symptoms while people with no symptoms might have terrible diagnostics. Then why do they call them “diagnostics?” They don’t diagnose anything.

During surgery, Dr. #3 noted extensive scaring involving the pin and the tendons and other tissues surrounding it. A week later I was able to rotate my arm freely. Two weeks after that, I got full range of motion back in my thumb. Within two months all of my major complaints were resolved. My doctor expressed surprise but gave me a clean bill of health and discharged me from his care.

Turns out I didn't need a radial reconstruction or ulnar shortening or the horrendous Suave-Kapandji. But I might have had any one of those. In science there's usually a right answer. In medicine you just have to cross your fingers--if you can.

X-Ray of my wrist right after the break.X-ray of my wrist with the pin installed.My pin lying on top of the wrist it once held together. I'm thinking of making it into a bracelet. Me the day I broke my wrist. That "cheese" really helped support my arm so I could sleep.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Article: A child's story

If pride comes before the fall, my niece Tiffany is in for a long plummet. Who can blame her? Her six-year-old son, Harlan, is an extraordinary kid. Oh, he’s a handful alright! That boy can run from dawn until dusk and not be winded. But he’s got moments that more than make up for it. A couple of weeks ago his face might have been framed by a halo. After reading Tiffany’s blog on Harlan’s recent angelic behavior, I decided to interview him for this column. At a family gathering, I dug out paper and pencil and sat down with Harlan.

I’d never interviewed a six-year-old before. It is quite an experience. Harlan’s energy level is through the roof. He couldn’t sit still--on the couch, on the floor, demonstrating the actions of his story by running across the room--it was hard just to follow him with my eyes. Luckily I knew most of the story from Tiffany’s blog...or did I? As the interview progressed, Harlan’s version differed from his mother’s on several counts.

The basic facts were consistent. Local firefighters visited Harlan’s school to teach fire safety. Impressed, Harlan came home to quiz his mother on various safety aspects, for example where their emergency meeting area was and when the batteries were replaced in their fire alarms. He remembered everything the firefighters told him with some help from a check list.

Along with the list, he had some crayons and a sheet of paper with a fire engine and a firefighter on it. The paper explained that it should be colored and entered in an art contest at Buda Fire Fest a couple of weeks later. Harlan set to work making his coloring the best ever. Since the original paper had writing on it related to the festival, Harlan cut out the relevant pieces and glued them to an identically sized white poster board. Using the crayons provided (and some markers of exactly the same colors) he filled the sheet with a dramatic scene illustrating fire safety.

“Why did you want to do such a good job coloring?” I asked Harlan. “I wanted to win a bike,” was the unabashed answer. Harlan did, in fact, win the coloring contest and a bike. I asked if he didn’t already have a bike and he said yes, but it had scratches on it. He wanted a new bike.

“But your mom told me you were giving the bike away,” I said. “Yeah, that was her idea,” Harlan replied. His halo seemed a bit tarnished. “No, no, no,” Tiffany interjected. She proceeded to have a long debate with Harlan about exactly whose idea it was to give the bike away. Finally Harlan said, “Yeah, it was my idea. I wanted to sell it...” The halo vanished. Tiffany jumped in. He didn’t mean sell, he meant donate. A silvery glow framed his face. Harlan, bouncing on the couch, added he’d rather have the video games anyway.

This was the first I’d heard of any video games. They became a major source of contention. Tiffany insisted Harlan’s dad brought them up after Harlan, on his own, decided to donate the bike. Harlan was vague on exactly when the games entered the picture but seemed sure it was his mother’s idea. Finally both agreed on Tiffany’s version of the truth.

The next issue was whether Harlan rode the bike. His first story was that he’d ridden around at the Fire Fest. Tiffany refuted this so he changed his story to he walked it around. But he also fell off. How could he fall off when he wasn’t riding? Thus began a long, confusing story. It didn’t help that Tiffany constantly interrupted in order to “clarify.” I could see why criminal investigators only talk to one person at a time. I asked my niece to just let her son talk. I was interviewing him after all. Realizing she couldn’t restrain herself, she graciously took her two-year-old outside to play.

After much questioning and many stories I determined Harlan did not know the difference between sell and donate. Money doesn’t mean much to most six year olds. His halo fit solidly back on his head when I realized he wanted to call the fire station to find the exact right person to give the bike to: it should go to a child who lost his bike in a fire. What a sweet kid! But then why does he have such a devilish grin?

Harlan with his drawing and prize bike.

Harlan's more devilish nature is exposed.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Article: Traveling for work

There are good things and bad things about having a job that involves travel. I’ve been thinking about this a lot this past week as I find myself in Kawasaki, Japan. Looking out of my hotel window, the city stretches on forever, blending seamlessly with Tokyo—the largest city in the world—to the north and with Yokohama—the second largest city in Japan—to the south. It is not a pretty sight.

Of course, the fact that I live in Buda is a good indicator that I’m not enamored with cities in general. But Kawasaki is particularly ugly. It would take some time to count the number of smoke stacks I can see from here. Kawasaki is not mentioned in the Lonely Planet guides to either Tokyo or Japan. No tourists come here; the city has nothing to draw them. In a way that’s nice. In all of its ugly, industrial squalor, Kawasaki is authentically Japanese. But it is also boring and depressing.

Each morning I travel from my hotel to work on the extensive and efficient train system that circulates the citizens of the metropolis throughout its great expanse. I am lucky to be able to travel a little after the main pulse of rush hour. Still, the station is so densely packed that it is difficult to move. The Japanese walk quickly, efficiently, not bothering much about what or who surrounds them. I find myself dodging constantly. On a crowded street in the US, I think people would move out of my way. In Japan, this isn’t true. I have been bumped many times.

I arrive at work around 10 o’clock in the morning and enter a building that is a patchwork of many industrial buildings each grafted onto the next through a series of long, narrow hallways. In order to find my way, I keep track of the colors of the floors: gray, then left at the dark green, up the speckled stairs, right to the blue carpet hallway, turn left onto more dark green, down the long hall with the parquet wood to more dark green, across an enclosed bridge with flowers on the window ledges, more dark green, left at the patched up brown floor, through a sliding door onto gray carpet and finally I am there. Across the street the company has two brand new 50 story towers. I wonder what they are like.

I work with six Japanese engineers here. They all seem nice. I am giving them a tutorial on how to use the tool our company provides. Only one does much talking. Even though Japan is an industrialized nation, and even though these people are highly educated, they don’t speak English. Even the best English speaker of the group has a lot of trouble conveying his questions.

The thing that makes this at all possible is that many of the engineering terms have no Japanese equivalent. As they talk among themselves, I can hear these words, complex and multi-syllabic, weaving patterns through their speech. The Japanese language is composed almost exclusively of single consonants followed by single vowels, like the word Kawasaki itself. When an English word such as processor or software enters the sound stream, it is obvious.

By the end of the day I am tired and it is already getting dark. The train is packed, I am lucky to find a seat. I wander around near my hotel looking for someplace to eat. The streets are packed. This is the shopping district and everyone is out shopping. I open a wooden door and enter a tiny restaurant. The entire establishment would fit in a child’s bedroom at home. The proprietor almost certainly does not speak English. I use the few Japanese food words I know and sit patiently waiting to see what will appear. So far I’ve been lucky, The Japanese eat some things I would refuse for ethical reasons but I have yet to be offered anything like that.

Next week I am taking a few days off to go to Hiroshima and visit a national park. I am going to see things that tourists see and do things tourists do. I will see the other side of Japan. Unlike most tourists, I will carry with me something of an understanding of the life of Japanese working people.

View from the Kawasaki Nikko hotel.The Kawasaki train/subway station during a bit of a lull.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Article: Life goes on

Shopping seems to be the national pastime of Japan. Every city has a massive shopping district where the entire populace spends the evening hours strolling, talking, eating and drinking. The noise and crowds take some getting used to. Walking along the narrow streets requires constant vigilance to prevent collisions with people or being hit by the thousands of bicycles that wend their way through the crowds. It’s a mystery how they do it.

This weekend that mystery was compounded by my location. I’d gone to a town in southern Honshu, the main island of Japan, to try to escape from the bustle of Tokyo only to find myself immersed in the same press of crowds in a city only marginally less densely populated. I hadn’t expected that. Sixty years ago this city was utterly destroyed by American bombing during the last days of WWII. It was projected never to exist again. Yet here was Hiroshima, not just raised from the ashes, but completely devoid of any trace of the nuclear event that killed half of its citizens.

The next day, I walked from the train station to Peace Memorial Park located at the hypocenter of the atomic blast. Along the way I came to a small memorial. A fraction of a hospital building had been preserved and placed so passersby could marvel at the bent steel frames of the windows. Beside it was a small fountain. Beneath the fountain, visitors had left bottles of water.

Water is a symbol of the suffering of the atomic bomb victims. An estimated 80,000 people died within a few days of the bombing. The lucky ones died without knowing what happened but many, many suffered both thermal and radiation burns. These people, their skin hanging like threads from their bodies, begged for water as they died. The stories of survivors chronicled at the memorial all relate this same horror.

Peace Memorial Park’s green lawns, flower beds and rows of shade trees belie the prediction that nothing would grow in the shadow of the bomb for 75 years. Looking around, it is hard to imagine the devastation and suffering. The story is told within the walls of the museum, in the names of the victims recorded in the cenotaph (an estimated 140,000 by the end of 1945 and now around 200,000 as a result of cancers and other illnesses related to the bomb), in the thousands of paper cranes cram the memorial to Sadako Sasaki, and the A-Bomb Dome.

Little Boy, the name given the nuclear device that destroyed Hiroshima, detonated 600 feet above the building that is now the A-Bomb Dome. Everyone in and around the building died, incinerated by the nearly instantaneous rise of 7,000 degrees F generated by the bomb. Most of the remainder of the city was flattened to rubble, but the shell of the A-Bomb Dome remarkably survived and is now preserved. Staring through the framework of the dome at the high rise buildings behind it, I wonder two things: why didn’t they preserve more and why did they rebuild here at all?

I guess I know the answers to both questions. The Japanese are amazingly resilient, as all people can be when they are driven to it. This was their home, the home of their parents and their parents’ parents. That history cannot be discarded. At the same time, the constant reminder of death and destruction does not lend itself to healing. The people needed to move forward. Some would have chosen to preserve nothing to remind them of that day, others warn that such things cannot be forgotten least they be repeated.

A crowd of uniformed schoolchildren passed behind me on a tour of the park. They were laughing, jostling with each other, hardly looking at the dome. Certainly not thinking of the people--possibly their own ancestors—who suffered here. Not thinking that the ground under them was once radioactive. Do these children ever worry that their city might be attacked again one day? Has the threat of nuclear weapons from North Korea registered on them?

I guess a bigger question is has it registered on us? I wish our politicians would all visit the museums of Hiroshima.

For more information on the museum and park:
Drawings made by A-bomb survivors:

Photo: Inside the Memorial Hall.
The walls show a 360 degree view of Hiroshima not long after the bombing. The mural is made of 140,000 tiles, each representing an individual who died. The object in the center is a fountain to sate the thirst of the victims.

Photo: Hiroshima cenotaph
The cenotaph holds the names of all of the victims of the atomic bomb. Modern Hiroshima rises in the background.

Photo: The A-Bomb Done
The bridge in the background was the actual target of the bomb.