Monday, March 31, 2008

Central Slice Theorem

Thanks to Bob for being a guest speaker in my Bioinstrumentation class today! He was engaging, funny, and took us all on a mathematical journey into imaging systems. Here he poses with a free-handed Fred Flinstone to illustrate the Central Slice Theorem in computed tomography.

Tomography is used to recreate 3-dimensional images in the medical field. CT scans, ultrasound, geological imaging, and cartoons all use tomography. Yabadabado. The image below is from one of my students, Yasaman, who's cousin, Sam, is being treated for cancer in his neck. The egg-lookin' thing in his neck is a tumor. Here is his blog.

Animated PET

Join me in a prayer for Sam: Father God, you are the creator of all of us. Thank you for giving Sam a good mind and a good attitude during his illness. We pray for his health and healing in Jesus' name. We pray for peace for his family, and wisdom for his doctors. Amen.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Overwhelmed by Darkness

When I first visited Kibera, the largest slum in Kenya, my emotions were sent reeling. One million people living in squalor. Very few had electricity or plumbing in their homes. By the time I saw it, I had been in Kenya for two weeks and already seen much poverty. But Kibera was overwhelming. Here the poverty was not only deep, but it was wide. There were so many people living in such terrible conditions, that I left feeling powerless.

The guides that I was with were local professionals that worked for the NGO, Practical Action. I told them how I felt. I told them I didn't think anything I could ever do could make much difference to this place. I felt as though I could devote my entire life to trying to help this place, I could give all the money I ever will have, and it would barely make a ripple in this sea of trouble.

They reminded me that, if I make a difference in one person's life, I have done something significant. Just one person. If we really believe that people are made in the image of God, and that they, therefore, have a special value, then what we do for them, and how we relate to them, is cosmically significant. This is what Mother Teresa knew when she scraped the dying off the streets of Calcutta. This is what Jesus meant when he said that what we have done to the "least of these" we have really done to him.

Despite knowing this, and despite remembering that making a difference in only one person's life is significant, I recently became overwhelmed again. Last Thursday, a graduate student and I travelled to Katy, Texas, to meet with a Honduran man (Uncle H.) who has experience setting up NGO's and socially responsible rural advocacy for-profit businesses there. Did you follow that? It was an informative and eye-opening meeting. (By the way, Mom, sorry I didn't get to see you or say hello.)

But I left again feeling overwhelmed by the scope of what we are trying to do. The map shown is shows a "corruption index" of some kind. The government corruption, the bureaucracies, the under funded government programs, and the unethical business practices (like intentionally making contracts with rural farmers that are likely to default on loans, and taking their lands as collateral) - all this left me discouraged that we can really make a difference. Insert sad face emoticon.

But then, Friday night, we had yet another meeting. This one was at church and was for leaders of the small groups, or cells, and was meant to be a time of encouragement and refreshing. And it was. Our pastor shared that he too, can feel overwhelmed and discouraged by the "darkness" of the world. There are so many bad things out there, and so much personal pain and suffering. It sometimes gets him down. But recently, he has been meditating on a beautiful verse from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. Chapter 60 verses 1-3 reads:

"Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth, and deep darkness the peoples; but the LORD will rise upon you, and His glory will appear upon you. And nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising."

May it be that when people look at me, they see the light of Christ reflected, that it shines in the "darkness" of the world, and that people, nations, and even kings, will be drawn to Him because of it.

Heady stuff.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Honduras Team Meeting

M and I met with our engineering students today to discuss what to expect in Honduras, culturally speaking. I think we all found it encouraging and envisioning. I think we're ready to get on a plane tomorrow.

We met a man who is from La Ceiba, the city in which we intend to live. He said he can connect us with a good realtor to find a house with air conditioning and everything. M spent a while talking with him and now she feels much more confident about the whole endeavor.
I am excited to bring my family and to be staying for a longer time than I ever have before. All of my previous trips to developing countries have been 1-3 weeks, but this time it will be 7 weeks. The students will fly in and out on 2 week "shifts", though a few will be doing more than one shift. I think we have a good group this year. They're in it for love. They're in it to give, not to receive. I'm impressed.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

National Anthem

I really love our national anthem. It moves me every time I hear it. I think the lyrics are beautiful, though as a kid I didn't understand them. These girls hit it out of the park!

3-2-1 Contact!

Last week I attended a conference in Dallas and met a man who is originally from Honduras but is now teaching at MIT. We sat next to each other at a conference luncheon. Frankly, I was intimidated at first. In my imagination, he could probably bend my spoon with his mental prowess, and I would be doing good just to not spill food on myself. But he was interested in our project because it is located in Honduras, his home. He was very helpful.

His uncle has much experience setting up NGO's and for-profit businesses in Honduras, so he could be a tremendous help to us. That is the part of our project that is the cloudiest in my mind. Well, Uncle H., as I like to call him, is in the U.S. at the moment and we spoke on the phone yesterday. We are going to meet up soon and see what advice he might have.

In addition to having a helpful uncle, my new acquaintance from MIT told me of a group called Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group ( that is doing very similar work to what we are trying to do - only they are a few years ahead of us. They implement appropriate technologies to produce energy and water for developing parts of the world. They use hydroelectric as we intend to use, but also wind power, solar power, and biogas. They have an experimental business in Guatemala. Maybe I can swing by and see it while I am in Honduras next month. It's just next door, right?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Backyard Biodigester, Part I

If you recall from my earlier post, "Poop Power", I have been reading about the conversion of organic material into methane gas. As my wife, M, was not too keen on a barrel of sewage in the backyard, I looked for alternatives using food scraps. It turns out that in India, lots of urban digesters are being used in homes to turn food scraps into methane gas for cooking.

So I am experimenting with a simple digester using food scraps and yard waste. Let me explain...

This lovely mess is not a salad, but a five-gallon bucket full of wilted spinach leaves, left over Cheetos, stale hot dog buns, purple cabbage, and water.

I tossed these ingredients into the bucket and added some water.

In order for the methane-producing bacteria to thrive, they need carbon as well as nitrogen. The carbon is provided by the food scraps, the nitrogen comes from leaves and those "wormy" pollen pods from my Red Oak trees. They're all over the place at the moment on account of it being Spring.

Adding a couple of gallons of this stuff, and some discarded Easter egg shells, we now have a fine soup, reminiscent of the trash compactor scene in Star Wars Episode IV. "Shut down all the trash compactors on the detention unit!"

Now it goes in an air tight barrel. My homemade funnel didn't work very well, so I had to smoosh the stuff through the opening at the top. It made a mess big enough for me to be glad M talked me out of using sewage.

Next, we need to get a "culture" from the local sewer plant that contains the methane-producing bacteria. They go into the barrel and the lid closes it. As it sits in the sun, the bacteria eat the organic material and give off methane as a byproduct. One carbon atom from the food is joined with four hydrogen atoms from the water.

My hope is to learn "good recipes" for making methane in a third world environment. Methane can be used to cook, or even used as fuel in an electric generator. Anyone have any good recipes out there?

Happy Easter

Our Easter celebration was inspiring today. Someone close to us came to church with us. There was a moving play about Christ's resurrection and she responded by committing her life to Jesus. We had her over for lunch and she was full of peace. You could see it. I would say more, but it seems to cheapen it, somehow. Yet I couldn't post without mentioning it.

After she left we hid eggs in the back yard for the boys. They're getting older now, so it's more of a game to see how well we can hide them. D likes to eat them, but Jono's just in it for the hunt.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Snipe Patrol

I took D to a scout meeting tonight. It was the meeting when they organize themselves for the coming year. He and a handful of other young boys were put together in the "Snipe" patrol! They decided their patrol yell would be "Gotcha!" and they are working on a patrol flag. I suggested an empty net.

On the way home, I explained to him how snipes were not real, but rather a common joke played on new boy scouts. I was pleased to see that he found this funny, even though he and the other new guys were the butt of the joke. In fact, he is embracing it and learning to laugh at himself. I am impressed.

I find myself very involved with him and his scout activities. One of the reasons is I believe in the organization and want to see him grow in it. One of the reasons is it's a great excuse to spend time with (or near) him. And when I'm feeling introspective, I can't help but wonder if one of the reasons is to re-live, vicariously, a time of my life I would like to do over.

The fifth through seventh grade years were pretty hard for me, as they are for most people. When I look back on them I cringe. I would write more but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth...

Thursday, March 13, 2008

12 Years Ago

Flush with over confidence after successfully cleaning out the playroom, M and I attacked the garage. We forgot that the garage is bigger. We forgot that we used to have a back yard tool shed. We forgot that said toolshed had vomited its contents into the garage back in January. We underestimated the job.

For the last two days we have been hard at work. We got the boys to help. There is now a mountain of garbage bags at the curb, and Goodwill has been completely restocked. We may finish tomorrow.

Turns out I own four cans of WD-40. Who knew? And you know here at Orangehouse, there's never a screwdriver when you need one? Well now I have a small bucket full. Apparently they've been hiding in the nooks and cranies of the garage. Ditto for extension cords.

This spring cleaning, this archeological excavation of the Orangehouse tell, this colon cleanse of our domestic life, has unearthed a few treasures. One of which is the above photograph. Buried deep in a picture frame, behind two or three newer pictures, was this gem from 12 years ago. Back then M was pregnant with D. I had a hip goatee, just like I do now, only with less grey. M thought that my whiskers would irritate the baby's skin, so I shaved it off before he was born. Just for fun, I cut it into this biker style before shaving it off completely. I think the tortoiseshell glasses go particularly well with it, don't you?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Odd Things Found While Cleaning the Playroom Over Spring Break

Lots of dirty socks, three gloves, and a winter hat.
Instructions to the coffee maker.
Bionicles, Legos, K'Nex, and Jenga blocks, all mixed together.
One kids size 13 Crock.
A map of Uganda.
Plenty of spilled cat litter.
Dozens, or maybe hundreds, of unidentifiable plastic thingies.
One box of outgrown Disney movies on VHS.
One bottle of Phillips' Milk of Magnesia.
Three empty CD cases, Caedmon's Call, Jars of Clay, and Tchaikovsky (which got stepped on and broken).

Monday, March 10, 2008

Cats, Gnats, and Where You Ats?

This afternoon Henry the cat took a nap with me. Later this evening, he jumped up into the Foosball table at which Jono and I were playing. He laid down between the bars and batted the ball around like he was playing. And now, as I type this, he is sitting between me and the keyboard watching the mouse move and the cursor blink. Oh, just now he has run off to go smell something.

I am planning to take my family, except the cats, to Honduras for six or seven weeks this summer. I'm hoping one of my students can watch the house for me and take care of the cats. Arg. Sometimes when I think about all that has to be done, all that has to be prearranged and planned, I get overwhelmed. But it's funny, I do this every year. This year involves a bit more because of the duration and the fact that I'm taking the family, but about this time every year I start feeling this way. I feel like a swarm of gnats is buzzing around my head, each one is a detail that I must take care of between now and then.

Passports for the kids, buzz buzz. Order the generators, buzz buzz. Call the realtor in Honduras, buzz buzz. Clean the garage, buzz buzz. Loose weight, buzz buzz. Get in shape, buzz buzz.

I shall make a list. Making a list has the effect of capturing all these thoughts in my head and containing them within the bounds of the paper. It's as if I swatted the gnats with the paper, and their squashed bodies are now stains on my to-do list. That was gross. Over and out.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Boys, Fire, and Video Cameras

Tonight I got a glimpse of my own past so vividly that it nearly caused a rift in the space-time continuum. It was like looking at myself 30 years ago. You see, this week in school, D made a Revolutionary War Minuteman from a toilet paper tube and construction paper. He had a patch over one eye, presumably from his early days as a pirate, and a pitch fork in one hand to fight off the Red Coats. He was 6 inches tall.

With enthusiasm that I remember vividly from my own days as a preteen (as if I grew out of it) D told me of his plans to "line a bowl with aluminum foil and fill it with gasoline or cooking fuel or something" like a little incendiary Jacuzzi for his paper man. The aluminum foil was to protect the bowl, you see. It's safety first with that one. Then he wanted to throw a match on it and record the "fireball" with his video camera. Oh yes, and then upload it onto YouTube, presumably for the world of preteen boys to enjoy.

Now M and I have been married for 15 years. In that time she has learned to trust me about "boy things". Sometimes she looks at me and whispers under her breath "Is that normal?" in response to some play centered around guns or crashing cars or explosions. I think that young girls must seldom engage in such play, and therefore have no grid for it when they grow up and see their sons engage in behavior they consider pre-arsonist.

When I was about his age I made a very large Star Wars production and filmed it with a Super 8 film camera. My friend Bobby and I worked on it all summer. We had a script and props and special effects o' plenty. One of our best scenes centered around, get this, an X-wing fighter made of toilet paper tubes! We stuffed it full of Kleenex and firecrackers and sparklers. In the film, it crash landed on a jungle planet (Dad's backyard shrubs) and burst into flames. The firecrackers and sparklers went off perfectly and the scene was great. But Dad's shrubs suffered some fire damage and may have eventually died.

So you see, I couldn't exactly say no to D tonight when he wanted to burn and video his toilet paper man. I did veto the gasoline, however. We lit him in an empty flower pot full of dried leaves and he burned up swell. Unfortunately, the batteries in his camera went out and we lost the footage. But we're going to try again tomorrow night.

Snow Day

We woke up Friday morning to a lawn covered in snow. It was amazing how quickly the boys got dressed, not like normal mornings. They went outside to play with the neighbors who attend a private school and so are already on spring break. We decided to let them stay home from school for one hour so they could play in it. It would be melted by the time they got out of school.

The top picture is of me watching the kids play in the snow. Below is what it looked like out our front door.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Campout Numero Uno

Last weekend D and I went camping with our new Boy Scout troop. [What's that? Did he say "our" troop? Yes, you are looking the blog of the newest Assistant Scoutmaster, teacher of the Engineering merit badge, etc. etc.] D had loads of fun exploring, sleeping in tents, tying knots, throwing eggs, and learning how to be a boy scout. We even roasted a pig that one of the leaders shot the day before. To cook the pig, we built a tomb-like oven out of cinder blocks and filled it with lots of charcoal. We put an apple in it's mouth and danced around it naked with spears and facial paint. (Sorry, strike that last sentence.) I acted like I was having fun but I was secretly bemoaning the symbolic moving on of my eldest child.

I was not used to seeing him around the older boys - high school boys with muscles and facial hair and motor vehicles of their own; boys that had acne and spat and used sarcasm effectively. It was a bit of a shock to my paternal systems to see how big and how grown up he might be in just a handful of years.

So I started giving him cigarettes to stunt his growth. It's not much of a plan, but it was born out of desperation.

OK, not really. In truth, most of me is quite delighted with his growing up. He is turning out to be a fine young man. I see his character growing commensurate with his size 11 feet.

Responsibility is one virtue that scouting really seems to encourage. I won't bemoan any forward progress in that area! The boys are responsible for the camp, often for cooking and cleaning, and the adults are encouraged to sit back and let them learn leadership and responsibility. I am going to have to learn how to sit on my hands and let them do it "wrong" a few times until they learn.

There's more to share, and I'll post pictures as they become available, but for now I've got to get back to smoking cigarettes, dancing naked, and reading Lord of the Flies.