Sunday, September 30, 2012


[First published in the Brazos Valley Farmers' Market newsletter, September 15, 2012. The prose in The Lost Crops of Africa is sublime.]

A member of the mallow family, okra, inspires a perhaps muted allegience from vegetable lovers, and usually general disdain from vegetable nonlovers; however, it redeems itself in its potential for an astonishing array of uses beyond soups and stews: from its seeds can be extracted an oil comparable to olive oil or be processed into a protein source, and the stems and leaves could be animal feed.

But its uses don’t stop with edible products: the mucilage offers benefits of laxatives (owing to the soluble fat, and ranking with psyllium and flaxseed); the gums and pectin can lower serum cholesterol, and can be used as a substitute for aloe vera. Like its relative, kenaf, fibers from okra can be fashioned into high-quality paper. Jokingly, it has been said, “okra: a vegetable so slimy you don’t notice how hairy it is.” Indeed, the Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables leads off its surprisingly entertaining chapter on okra on a 1974 survey of least-liked vegetables.

In African dialects, the word for okra sounds similar to gumbo (, and indeed, it is regarded with reference in New Orleans, where it forms the basis of signature dishes, such as…gumbo.

Published by the National Academies Press, Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables offers a transcendent literary homage to okra. The sheer delightfulness of the language in this scientific volume will bring a smile to even the most mucilage-averse persons. For instance—

“In reality okra could have a future that will make people puzzle over why earlier generations failed to seize the opportunity before their eyes. In the Botanical Kingdom it may actually be a Cinderella, though still living on the hearth of neglect amid the ashes of scorn.” (National Research Council (2006-10-27). "Okra". Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables. Lost Crops of Africa. 2. National Academies Press. ISBN 978-0-309-10333-6)

And later—

“In America, where it appears almost exclusively in stews and soups, okra is usually seen in cross section, cut into disks that look like little cartwheels with a seed nestled between each pair of spokes. Okra is also the key ingredient in gumbo, the famous dish of the American South.”

A study in robustness, okra grows easily in tropical, subtropical, and temperate climates, but can adapt to dry climates also.

Okra and tomatoes
Southern Living’s 10 best okra recipes
Curried okra

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Water dogs

Two or three times per week, Oliver and Canela go for a swim in a pond about a mile from my home. Adjacent to the railroad track, this pond boasts a notable history. My historian friend, Texas native Jimmy Klechka, said that pond was first impounded in the early 20th century to provide steam engines with water. Later, the pond provided once-through cooling water for a small-ish electrical power plant. More recently, this beleaguered body of water and its downstream neighbors were badly polluted with arsenic by an adjacent pesticide manufacturer. Remediation has been ongoing for more than a decade.

Oliver, a yellow Lab mix and natural swimmer, flings himself into the water with abandon. On cue, using a modern plastic atl-atl (curved throwing stick), I launch rocks into the pond while standing on the railroad tracks. At the sound of the plunk, Oliver swims so fast to the ripple that he leaves a wake.

Canela, a little red hound mix, at first kept right behind Oliver. When he turned, she turned. Now that she has gained more confidence, she swims her own swim with her tail sticking out of the water like a flag. Today she jumped in before I was able to remove her leash. While about 40 feet from shore, Oliver grabbed the leash in his mouth, and led Canela back to shore.
Rarely, a freight train chugs by, and I have to scramble out of the way down a talus slope to the shoreline.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

One of those days


In the interest of forestalling any administrative problems that might stand between my graduate students and their graduation, I organized a short lunchtime meeting. Topics to be covered: deadlines,  application for graduation, final oral defense, thesis submission, tips for thesis preparation, etc.

With the idea of making the meeting more palatable, I ordered yummy sandwiches and chips. It was a relatively small order, maybe 14 sandwiches, packed in a box, 14 bags of chips, and a gallon of iced tea. Since I bicycled across the continent with everything needed to sustain me—including my knitting—and have brought entire brunches to work on my bicycle, I planned to bicycle to the sandwich shop (driving was difficult due to much construction), bungie everything to the rack, and ride back to the office.

First mistake: the one very long, flat bungie cord was not robust enough to lash down everything. I decided to push the bicycle, as the load was unstable. Twice the entire package slumped off the bike onto the pavement as I was pushing the bike. Finally got back to the office three minutes before the talk was to start.

I asked students to start eating while I changed from bicycle clothing to office attire. Two student fetched ice in a cooler.

Then, haha, I realized I hadn't printed the handout. For the first time ever in my two years here, the behemoth copier jammed. Fortunately, the unjamming instructions were easy to follow, and we were back in business.

The students are wonderful, but it seemed, in total, an exercise in futility, which I probably won't repeat.

Monday, July 9, 2012

My brother the car

Those readers wearing bifocals may get the joke implied in the title of this post: a reference to a 60s and 70s television series starring Jerry Van Dyke, in which his mother was reincarnated as a vintage car.

But I digress.

The elder of my two brothers, Marshall, is a lifelong "car guy," who owns a successful car repair garage in Scottsdale, Arizona, rated a top shop by AAA for the past ten years.

He seems to think of his body in terms of a car. For instance, Marshall, at the office of an orthopedic surgeon, wrote he was getting a shot of—
"some kind of goop/gel to cushion some of the factory stuff that's worn out. Its a three-shot series. Once a week for three weeks. Supposed to get some benefit for like a year."
Note: the reading material in the ortho's waiting room was all motorcycle magazines. I guess he knows his clientele.

Marsh probably makes the analogy between carburetion and metabolism. The list could go on.

In another case, a friend's brother, a mechanic, went to Germany to work. The German mechanics asked why Americans chew gum. His German limited mostly to automotive terms, he replied, "It gives you good exhaust [breath]."

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The textbook scam…and a radical idea from a college lecturer

Years ago, a colleague, an electrical engineer, was angered by the speciousness of his daughter’s elementary school textbooks. The textbook cited incorrect data about temperatures of various color stars. It was apparent, from a quick read, that the writers merely randomly assigned temperature ranges to the various star colors. Bad science, and he was justifiably angry.

Fast forward a few years. A fellow technical writer interviewed at a well known publisher of elementary school textbooks. She described the office as a sweatshop, saying, “Whoever was left standing at the end of the interview got the job.”

Now I work in higher education, as the coordinator and advisor in a graduate engineering program. Even at this rarefied level, the scam continues. Professors revise a textbook, making minor changes, and thereby rendering the previous edition obsolete. And thereby quashing the resale market. (Students cannot sell back their books at the end of the semester.) And thereby requiring students in the next semester to pay top dollar for the new edition.

Not insignificant. The average price of a new graduate-level engineering textbook is $230. And so it goes.

What a scam!

Sounding like a chapter that should be in Steven Leavitt’s Freakonomics, to make things work, textbook publishers escalate the ante by sending to professors—gratis— evaluation copies (also called desk copies), feeding the frenzy by enticing profs to prescribe the new drug…um, I mean specify the new textbook. (Leavitt himself is a professor of economics at University of Chicago.)
Stop the madness!

A lecturer (Ph.D., mechanical engineering) proposed a revolutionary idea: make his courses textbook-neutral.


In other words, it would be the student’s responsibility to learn the general principles, using whatever textbook or method they chose. Let’s face it: the concepts of thermodynamics and fluid dynamics have not changed much in the past 100 years. Even modern physics (quantum mechanics and physics of solid state) dates to the 1930s at the latest.

In all fairness, some faculty eschew textbooks altogether, instead preparing class notes for purchase.
And graduate students, at least, spend at much more time teaching themselves concepts in early morning or late evening study groups or alone as they spend in class. Even undergraduates are left to their own devices. (Several undergraduate computer science students lamented privately, “I did not spend all this money to go to [enormous state research university] to teach myself computer science.)

The plan—
  • Empower students to learn fundamental concepts by whatever method they choose, even an old textbook.
  • Reinforce the concepts in class
  • Give relevant homework
  • Administer fair examinations
  • Treat students fairly
  • Don’t treat students as cash cows.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Such inventivness!

Just finished reading Out of Time, by Deborah Truscott, a time-travel/romance novel, one of whose protagonists is a Tory soldier transported to the modern-day Pennsylvania countryside.

Aside: great dialog, well-developed characters, fascinating historical detail, punchy ending. Download this book on your Kindle and for a pleasurable read.

To purchase some clamps for the Friends of the Farmers' Market booth, I made a foray out to Harbor Freight. I felt a little like the Revolutionary War soldier who was awestruck by the lawnmower, can opener, car.

There was a knife disguised in a key (to thwart TSA scanners?), a key chain-size utility knife, ceramic kitchen knives, a gas-fired stove that appears to be targeted to survivalists, air compressors the size of water heaters, and just about every type of fastener, glue, adhesive, clamp, clip, bolt, on the planet.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

How ironic is this?

Under the heading of great irony, the Northern Arizona News reports that the Cheba Hut franchise in Flagstaff, Arizona, was disenfranchised by the Cheba Hut corporate office because their delivery driver was caught with marijuana in the vehicle. The irony is that Cheba Hut's entire branding is "stoner themed," according to the Flagstaff Cheba Hut owner. The first Cheba Hut was inspired by the founders' observation that late-night deliveries were prompted by tobacco-induced munchies. The names of their sandwich sizes, even, are identical to designators for various sizes of marijuana joints.

Kingston Trio

In 1957, two high school chums from Hawaii, Bob Shane and Dave Guard, joined with Navy brat Nick Reynolds to form the Kinston Trio while all three were enrolled in California universities in the San Francisco Bay area. From beginnings at the Mad I and Purple Onion (where a one-week booking turned into a sold-out run for the next few months) in San Francisco, the trio rode the folk music wave to become the most popular group in the world at the height of its popularity in the mid-1960s.
A popular misconception is the association of the name Kingston with Kingston, New York; Kingston, Massachusetts; or Kingston, Jamaica. Actually, the trio's agent suggested Kingston for a few calypso pieces in the trio's repertoire, but more for the universal—and somewhat preppie—appeal of the name, as the trio was playing the college circuit at the time.

The trademark striped shirts were chosen as a convenience—they were readily available off the rack in sizes to fit the trio members—and again, for their collegiate appeal.

They are best known for re-arranged public domain tunes such as Tom Dooley, M.T.A. and Greenback Dollar, ballads such as and Scotch and Soda, Early Morning Rain, and the war critique, written by Pete Seeger, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, and the raucous Wherever We May Go, which is also the title of a documentary about the trio.

In 1960, the trio won a Grammy for  the newly created Best Ethnic or Original Folk recording.

In 1963, the trio parlayed its success to a television pilot, Three Men in a Hurry, portraying three recent college graduates living in Phoenix and playing music through their connections to the Junior Chamber of Commerce.

As it was part of the musical lexicon in the 1960s, of course I knew of the Kingston Trio, but only vaguely as a kid growing up in New York. Later, a classmate in freshman English at Northern Arizona University wrote an essay on singer-songwriter John Stewart, who replaced Dave Guard as the bass voice in the trio and stayed with the group until its dissolution in 1967 with a final concert at the Hungry i.

The trio was parodied as the Kingsmen in the folk music mockumentary, A Mighty Wind.

There have been several replacements of Stewart and Reynolds over the years, with Bob Shane being the constant. The Trio holds an annual fantasy camp in Scottsdale, Arizona (my home town), home of the surviving original member, Bob Shane. Participants meet the trio, are apparently issued matching shirts, and have the opportunity to play Kingston Trio music onstage with their musical heroes.

Both Stewart and Reynolds passed away in 2008; Shane still lives in Scottsdale.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The food (Ad)venture

Remember the good old days, when fat was the food villain? Or coffee (good in small quantities, though), carbs (the South Beach food imposter diet), salt, pickled foods, aged cheese? And let's not forget tuna, pork, beef (for a multitude of problems), chicken, eggs, any nonfarm-raised fish? Anything with preservatives? And then there was the spinach scare.

And, of course, there's high fructose corn syrup, responsible for the backlash of soft drinks touting their throwback to the very special...real sugar, which was the evil white powder of the 1970s which returned for a repeat performance in the late 1990s. And the artificial sweeteners: cyclamates, saccharine, aspartame. There's the reverse chirality sugar now that wreaks havoc on some digestive systems. And on the good side is stevia.

Now it's gluten, a protein found in wheat and some other grains, that many people are allergic to. Carbs, the staple of my diet during my avid cycling days, cause weight gain. What? No more bagels and pasta?

In my opinion, the concurrent problems of obesity and malnutrition are: processed foods, soft drinks, and the computer replacing active playtime (adult and children).

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Cell phones: boon and bane

Cell phones: Yeah, I know, they are a necessary evil. A few years ago, it seemed so surprising that normal, mortgage-paying 8-to-5ers would every give up the safety net of the landline and go wireless, but now wireless has become the norm. My young neighbor remarked, after watching me use the landline, "Do you have a regular [cell] phone?"

I still maintain my landline and DSL, but for seven years, I had a bare-bones prepay phone as a matter of necessity: you know, one pre-buys a finite number of "minutes" and airtime. Not a smartphone. But it fulfilled my limited needs: got great reception, the minutes were relatively inexpensive when bought in bulk, it sent and received text messages. I use my iPod Touch for data and apps.

But for a few months, I had no bars, no reception. Incoming calls were routed directly to voicemail, or sometimes, lost altogether. Text messages failed. This is not good.  If I go incommunicado, I want it to be on my own terms.

Frustration converged with opportunity, and on a whim, I turned into the first cell phone vendor I passed on the main drag: a shop catering mostly the Spanish-speaking community.

The phone and plan I ended up with was exactly what I wanted. How often does an impulsive decision work out for the best? Once the owner understood that I did not want or need an unlimited plan for a fixed amount per month, he found a prepay per minute plan (Total Call Mobile) and a Sanyo Katana phone. the ultimate cost per minute is less than that of the previous phone, the plan does not require purchasing airtime in addition to minutes, the Katana phone (for which he discounted the price) is packed with features that I'm still learning about, the contacts database is more user-friendly, the screen is easy to read, and never has the phone been out of service.

These hallowed halls

I earn part of my daily bread as a graduate academic advisor in the College of Engineering. In other words, the students under my watch are all earning master of science or doctorate degrees in engineering. By definition then, they are organized, directed, analytical, methodical, intelligent, persistent.

One student's experience, though, encapsulates the essence of why I love advising. An self-descrubed lackadaisical American undergraduate in chemical engineering, he found himself at the point of singular dissatisfaction with his job in the oil service industry. He quit that lucrative job to return for an MS, with an idea of specializing in energy-generating materials, earning an MS without benefit of an assistantship. More gregarious than the typical engineering student, he shared with me his ideas and disappointments and hopes. I offered suggestions and contacts, but mostly listened.

He took the initiative to study internationally at the acknowledged world-leading university in his particular field of energy materials.

After successfully completing the physics course well acknowledged to be the most difficult in our curriculum, and also holding his own in the ad hoc study group, the student admitted to me, proudly and almost incredulously, "Maybe I am capable of doing graduate-level engineering coursework." He entered the program with trepidation and bravado and probably a some fear, but persevered and overcame, proving his engineering proficiency and resourcefulness, mostly to himself.

The is the reason I love advising.

He is the only MS student, to my knowledge, to be offered a position with a famous semiconductor manufacturer and developer.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The primary and caucus system explained

Any questions, view C.G.P. Gray's primary primer.

When you've digested that, give a listen to How the Electoral College Works.

Just for fun, it's Coffee: The Greatest Addition Ever.

And before spring forward Sunday: Daylight Savings Time Explained.

Sardonic (maybe unintentionally so), entertaining, and educational.

Sunday, January 8, 2012


I am overwhelmed.

I still don't have a kitchen. I made do with three slow cookers, a rice cooker, a propane-fired camping stove, and a coffee maker. I wash dishes in a large plastic storage box. The refrigerator is in my outbuilding.

Robisel, a fine craftman and hard worker, built a tin-roofed dog house, finished the crown molding in my house, did some touch-up painting, repaired flawlessly two large holes in my drywall, and laid and secured the cement backer board for my tile floor. He is a Renaissance man; I'm fortunate to have him working for me.

I rescued a hound dog and her six pups. Now, the two remaining pups; the mom dog, Paloma; and my orginal dog, Oliver, are under my care. I am seeking a home for Brutus, the large white male hound-mix pup, who will be neutered and trained in a month or so.

My electrical panel lost one leg of the two 120V in parallel (no 240V), so no hot water for more than two weeks. A local electrical company installed a new panel the next day, but it will be expensive. Fortunately, a kind ex-boyfriend, an electrician, diagnosed it for me.

At work, a very large, critically important report is due this week. I worked on it all (my boss, also) all Christmas break while my brethern were mostly off on their holiday.

This week and next week are also some of the busiest of the semester for a graduate advisor, as school starts the third week of January.

I also have a large editing job to finish, but between illness and all these other things, I have not finished it. I haven't even billed my clients for for work I've already done.

I have not even had time to acknowledge the birthdays of my nieces and nephews. I'm always running and never getting anywhere.

I am president of the Friends of the Brazos Valley Farmers' Market. I don't want to let these people down. The vendors are very appreciative. In fact, I can't remember any volunteer or service position in which the people involved were this appreciative. The volunteer coordinator quit; other volunteers tell me they can count on me for small jobs, then leave me in the lurch, so that I'm scrambling to put out a newsletter (and having to learn the software) at the very last minute. I've been staffing the booth five hours (from set-up to tear-down) almost every Saturday for months. A while ago, just trying to make pleasant conversation wtih another sometime volunteer, I asked if she would like to staff the booth for maybe a two-hour stint every once in a while.

"No," she huffed. "I have better things to do with my Saturdays."(This is after my staffing the booth for months.) It hurt then. It still stings now. I also have important things to do, but I honor my commitments. And I don't making stinging comments about those who honor theirs. But everyone else at the farmers' market is salt of the earth, and I'm glad to be a part of it.

(Another volunteer has since stepped up for a two-hour stint the first Saturday of the month. Thanks, Michaela.)

I have not been to the gym in more than 18 months; before, it was five or six times per week. I no longer have time to commute to work by bicycle. For the past 25 years, I have commuted to work by bicycle, but even this short 20-minute commute does not seem to work into my schedule.

Except for my father's funeral last December, I have not been able to take any vacation time at all, except for one glorious Friday in June for a quick weekend trip to Galveston with a girlfriend. Taking more than one day in succession has been verboten the entire 2011.

Remembering how uncannily insightful the rudimentary Eliza AI diagnostic program seemed been a generation ago, one lunch break I tried a mini-counseling session with an on-line Eliza, but the "doctor" was not picking up on my vibe.