Saturday, January 31, 2009

Famous Amy

One of my former engineering students, now a friend of our family and all-around great person, is working with wind turbines at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado. She was recently mentioned in a story by Diversity/Careers in Engineering and Information Technology.

"... Focusing on energy allows Bowen to work on another passion: energy systems for developing countries. As a student she worked in Africa twice when a professor invited her to work on a project there. During the first year, her group designed a system using solar panels and LED lights at a school for the deaf. The second year, they redesigned the lights and the system using a wind turbine with a solar panel backup. “I learned how valuable this technology is for countries without reliable utilities,” she says."

That was me that she went to Africa with, Kenya to be specific. After our second trip, I wrote a rather long article on the wind turbine project we did in the Nairobi slum known as Kibera. You can read the whole story here if you have insomnia or are stalking me.

Wind Turbine Proejct, Part 417 and counting...

The World Hunger Relief wind generator project took a major step forward today. David, Brian, and Jonathan were able to make the needed adjustments and modifications to the guy wires and then they raised the 40 foot tower! AND it didn't fall down! Bonus!

Great job, guys!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

We All Use Math Everyday

For you non-techies, my apologies. Posting a math joke on the blog is a little like telling an inside joke at a party - some people will inevitably be left out. But this was too good to pass up! Thanks to Bob Marks for the great cartoon!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Indoor "Rock" Climbing

No, this is not a four-story block of cheese. It is an indoor climbing tower and the center piece of our latest Boy Scout adventure.  About 20 adults and scouts spent Saturday night locked into this facility climbing, rappelling, and learning knots, verbal signals, and safety guidelines.  My arms are killing me. 

Here you can see David rappelling down from the fourth floor.  "Rappelling" means you are in control of your own descent, unlike when you climb belayed by a person on the ground.  We learned how to belay a person too.  I was surprised they let me belay someone after only five minutes training.  But the "grigri" (I am not making this stuff up, like usual) is a simple descent-control device and somewhat error proof.  I hope you are impressed with my new lingo.  I'm trying to use all my new words in one paragraph.  Superkalafragalisticexbialadocious.

You have to learn to speak good climbing if you want to be hip like the guys that work there. You can imagine.  Remember the laid-back turtle in Finding Nemo?  There you go.  To be safe (and cool) you use verbal calls to communicate between climber and belayer.  For example, when the climber begins his ascent he says "Climbing" and the belayer responds "Climb on", which means "I'm like, awake dude, and holding your rope so you don't die". 

I slept for about an hour, which is always delightful. We all went to Denny's for a 6:00 AM breakfast before coming home Sunday morning.  During breakfast I looked over from the adult table at David sitting with three of his friends.  They were mixing Splenda, salt, milk, syrup, and who knows what else into a glass of water.  Then, of course, David drank it to gasps of astonishment and roars of laughter.  Oh, the simple pleasures enjoyed by the sixth grade male species.  Climb on.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Poll Results

The people have spoken. The new look is preferred by an overwhelming majority. Even though I voted for "you are an aesthetic web-genius" like, three times, the winner is clear. Here are the results. You can't argue with science.

A Year End Family Photo

The ORANGEHOUSE family has traditionally sent out a year-end letter, photograph, and modest dividends checks. But this year we only got as far as having a photo taken in the backyard. And here it is.

I came home from work early today. I think David and I have come down with some kind of bug. We feel feverish, fatigued, and flippant. OK, not really flippant. I just put that one in on account of alliteration. Gotta keep the readers entertained.

juhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhujjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjjhhhhhh - that part was "typed" by Henry the bad kitty as he walked across my laptop keyboard in an obvious ploy for attention. Oh yes, he's sick too. He threw up on my bedroom floor last night around 2:00 AM. Thanks for that, boy. Maybe he's annoyed at not being included in the family photo.

And one last piece of news, today is our wedding anniversary. Sixteen years today! We celebrated with a nice lunch out together sans offspring. Gotta have that time alone together. She continues to be my very best friend. I love you, The M.

Monday, January 19, 2009


With the new year I have made some changes to my appearance. I am in the process of leaving my glasses in the past and switching to contacts. I have also grown tired of shaving my head, so I am letting my hair grow in for the first time in four years or so. I'm still kicking around those earings, and even an eyebrow ring, as one of my students suggested. The M says no.

With all these new looks, it seemed appropriate to refresh the look of the blog as well. I have been trying a few different photos and color schemes and getting feedback from you, the readers. In fact, a week or so back I created a survey for readers to vote by sending in text messages to cast their votes. This was, frankly, a remarkably cool and cutting-edge thing to do on a blog. But, alas, most of my readers are - how do I say this gently? - too old to know how to text. Of the four votes I received (and one was my own) the results were, at best, inconclusive. What I did get, however, was a few comments expressing a mild preference for the tropical look.

So I changed the blog again. The header photo was taken along a very rough and remote "road" en route to the Honduran village Pueblo Nuevo, where we did some work last summer. To evaluate this new look, I have created a new poll. This time you don't have to text your preference, you can simply click it. I look forward to your feedback, comments, wise cracks, and so on.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Tortilla Strip Chicken with Shrooms and Spinach

I cooked dinner again. Alert the press. Give me a medal.

Here's how I roll: I poured some olive oil in a skillet on medium heat. Next I plopped in some chicken tenders, added some salt, pepper, and garlic, and then squirted Grey Poupon (or any dijon mustard) all over them like this:

In a separate pan, I sautéed some mushrooms in butter. That means I put some butter and mushrooms in a pot and stirred them around until the mushrooms got soft. When the chicken is mostly done, add the mushrooms to it.

Slice up some flour tortillas into strips like this. They will absorb the excess moisture in the chicken/mushroom/sauce mix and give you something slightly chewy. I made this part up myself, and as such made quite an impression on The M. Oh yea.

After the tortillas get soft, toss in a couple of handfuls of baby spinach leaves.
Then stir it all together and serve. Don't let the spinach get too soft.

This is what it looks like when it's done. My boys liked it. The M liked it. Everybody's happy.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Derby Day

The Pinewood Derby is a time-honored Cub Scout tradition. Every January, rectangular blocks of American pine collide with pocket knives, Dremel tools, band saws, and electric sanders in a whirlwind of sawdust, plastic wheels, and water soluble paints. Simple, but creative masterpieces of boy-ingenuity (and varying levels of dad-consultancy) take the form of gravity-driven race cars, and compete in a venue of sportsmanship, laughter, and semi-chaos. And so the tradition continues...

Jono's den of Tiger Scouts poses with Tiger fierceness after their race. Jono got third place among them, enough to qualify for the finals. I was glad he won a few races - why am I so relieved when he is not disappointed?
Before the race we posed together in the front yard. While only the Cub Scout's (blue shirts) race, some Boy Scouts (olive shirts) volunteer to help rein in the wild horses, so to speak. David helped with the computer which kept track of which cars had raced, won, and lost. As the adult leader of Jono's Tiger den, I was also "in uniform".
For some of you, this may be the first time you have seen me with hair in several years. I got tired of shaving it. It came in considerably grayer than it used to be. Sheesh.

This is David doing computery things and enjoying a position of responsibility. He did well.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Coconut News

A friend of mine, Walter Bradley, who I credit for introducing me to the idea of appropriate technologies for developing countries, has spun off a new company with two of his graduate students. They recently have been getting a lot of press like this story on MSNBC.

What is appropriate technology? It is the idea of using technologies that are culturally, environmentally, and financially appropriate for the cultures in which they are used. They are often low tech, or medium tech by US standards. They must be locally repairable, locally affordable, and sensitive to other aspects of the culture.

I would give an example but I am too tired... maybe more tomorrow, maybe not.

A Cell Phone is a Cow

How is a cell phone a cow? You will have to watch this fantastic TED talk to find out. Here's a hint: both can be a "production tool" for the poor.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Squire, for my next joust I need an ambu-lance

The fainting happened again. I woke up with bad cramps and felt light headed and faint. Being wary from last time, I woke up The M and told her I felt dizzy. I thought I was going to be sick out of both ends (pardon the mental images here) so she got me a bucket and propped me on the pot. Then I fainted for about 20 seconds.

I woke up for a bit but fainted again, this time for a minute or so. She had trouble keeping me from falling (on account of my girth and stature) but managed to keep me from doing a face plant like last time. But as I was not showing signs of improvement, she called 911. I didn't faint anymore, but they took me out on a gurney to an ambulance in the street. I was still kinda fuzzy headed, but I can remember The M throwing a shirt over my legs since I was only wearing a tee shirt and underwear. (Thanks babe, you're like Moses's good son, what's his name.) I can remember The M was nervous looking and worried. It was my first ambulance ride.

Seven and a half hours in the ER later, they checked me into a room for overnight observation. They did several EKGs, lots of blood work, a CT scan (my first), and stuck me with many, many needles. They also decided I was too hairy and so pulled a few thousand hairs off my chest, legs, and arms, one piece of tape at a time. No extra cost.

In the end, they ruled out bowel obstruction, heart problems, alien abduction, and kidney stones. Looks like it's just good old vesovegal syncope, which means I fainted with nausea and intestinal cramps.

This runs in the family. My mother, grandmother, and two uncles all did this too. Perhaps I am becoming more susceptible to it with age. I'm not worried.

Backyard Biodigester, Batch 2

You know you have a tolerant wife when she lets you bring in a 55 gallon barrel into the kitchen. What's more, she let Jono and I fill it with food scraps as part of an experiment. I'm testing my backyard biodigester again.

A biodigester is a simple device: just a sealed chamber full of just about anything that was once alive (such as meat, vegetables, flour, leaves, or poop) and water. These ingredients are consumed by bacteria with a byproduct of methane gas (CH4).

Methane, of course, is combustible, and can be used for cooking, burned for light, or fed into an engine to produce electricity, pump water, or other useful purposes. The only hitch is the digestion process only works in an oxygen-free environment. And in case you haven't noticed, Earth has got oxygen, like, all over the place.

We were cleaning out the refrigerator, so I says to myself, self let's make some gas. The first thing to go in was a jar of pickle juice with a few bits of pickle afloat and seemingly unaware of their immanent sacrifice in the name of science. Then I put in some old raisins that were all stuck together, and some nuts. I chopped them all up in a blender first to liquefy the "feedstock" as much as possible. This is because bacteria don't have teeth.
Next to go were some stale hamburger buns, old baked potatoes, and a few hot dogs of questionable age.

Some muffin mix, cake mix, and cornbread mixes went in easily. A little baking soda helps reduce the acidity which makes the bacteria happy so that they smile little toothless smiles.

I poured in some crushed potato chips and old V8 juice that we bought out of nutritional guilt, a guilt that proved insufficient to actually make us drink it.
The blender made a good paste out of a bag of old peanuts.

Jono helped me with this project. He told me to take a picture of him pretending to eat it. All jocularity, that one.

The food scraps filled the barrel to about 5 gallons. I added equal parts of water for a total volume of 10 gallons. Ready to rot. The 40 gallons of air will not be a problem, as it will be consumed by the first stage of digestion. As long as no new oxygen source is available, we should be growing bacteria like no body's business.
Then I put on the air tight cap and lugged it out into the back yard. It would probably work better in the house because it is winter. The bacteria thrive best between 45-108 F, and lately it has been getting colder than that at night. But you really can't ask your wife to keep a thing like this in the house, no matter how tolerant she is.

More gas news as it passes...

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Jalapeño Chicken with Shredded Broccoli

José Cordoba Martinez Gutierez grew up illiterate in the mountains of Ecuador. Until age 23, he made a living raising Jalapeño peppers on three acres of hill top that his father carved out of virgin jungle with a machete. His hands were a continual shade of pink from the years of labor and chemical burns from the peppers. He smelled mildly of loamy earth.

One day José visited the city where he met a beautiful woman from Laos who was there buying spices at a convention for Asian restauranteers. The moment their eyes met, José knew he would marry her or die alone. He said in Spanish, "My name is José. I grow peppers."

She could only respond in Laotian that sounded, to him, like a prolonged pre-sneeze, but her voice was pleasant, and she smiled at him with her beautiful teeth.

José and Poa indeed married and, eventually, opened a restaurant in a small town near José's pepper farm. Years passed. His sons worked the farm and had some excellent success expanding their repertoire of vegetation to include broccoli and sesame (and some abysmal failures like rhubarb and microwave popcorn). The restaurant's only dish was a curious fusion of South American and Laotian flavors known simply as "the recipe".

Passed on with love an reverence for two generations, the recipe continued to delight many an Ecuadorian truck driver and itinerant school teacher. It was kept by the family with great secrecy, as all their livelihoods depended on it.

That is, until José's grandson Zack fell into an unfortunate gambling habit and, in with the desperation of a junkie, sold me the recipe for $37 and a points card from H-E-B passed off as a stolen Visa. What can I say?

Here is the recipe as both dictated and heard by a man: Pour some sesame oil in a pan and put some chicken tenders in it. Stir them around until they get all white with just a few brown places.

Pour in a bottle of red jalapeño dressing and a few splashes of soy sauce. Get out some butter and put it on the counter. Take a picture of it, but don't use it in the recipe.

Cook it all up until it looks like this. Note to men, don't use "high" heat on account of it burning everything.

It's OK to pretend the boiling broth is molten lava. Just don't tell anyone.

Then pour in a bag of broccoli cole slaw with carrots and purple cabbage. Personally, the words "cole slaw" make me mildly nauseous, but that's just some unresolved psychological baggage of my own, and shouldn't be an issue for most people. I prefer to call it shredded broccoli.

Then you stir it all up until it looks like this. Serve it under heat lamps with egg rolls and banana pudding with nilla waffers (just like at the Golden Palace Chinese buffet). It smells good and makes your wife really happy. I highly recommend it.