August 30, 2009

Stuff you should know about Muppets

Stuff You Should Know is one of my favorite regular podcasts. The latest one was especially good - How Muppets Work.

There are things you assume would have been discovered or invented eventually. If Bell didn't give us the phone, someone would have. But for the imagination and creativity of art, the vision may only have one conduit into this world. We wouldn't want to live in a world where Jim Henson had become an accountant instead of being the creator of the Muppets.

August 29, 2009

For the band geeks

Not sure why this video started auto-playing instead of waiting until you hit play. So to spare you from hearing it everytime you check in, the link to it is here.

August 28, 2009

More damage assessment

So after the rough experience with the Esophageal Manometry in my previous post, I followed the nurse down the hall to the next test. I would be sedated for this one, so I was looking forward to a little drug induced shut-eye.

While I was waiting for the doctor, they attached several sensors to my chest, hooked up the IV to the spigot in the back of my hand, and put a blood pressure cuff on my arm. They explained that I would be sedated, still responsive to the doctor's instructions, but that I probably wouldn't remember much of the procedure. Since I would be sedated, I had to wear a mouthpiece to keep my mouth open. This was to protect both my teeth and the instruments.

The doctor was running late, and the nurse stepped out for a while. I spent the time watching the my EKG and heart rate on the monitor. I tried to relax and get my heart rate in the 50s. Every few minutes or so, the blood pressure cuff would automatically inflate, ensuring I wouldn't drift off before they had a chance to sedate me.

The doctor and nurse arrived to start the test and turned on the IV drip. I was pretty sure I would pass out, and I was right. I think I was awake for all of three minutes while the doctor was in the room. There was actually two procedures going on at the same time. The first one was an upper endoscopy. A flexible tube with a light and video camera is passed through the mouth into the esophagus. This test would give the doctor a more direct view of the situation than the other tests. If necessary, he could also take a biopsy while he was at it.

The second procedure was something called a Bravo Probe. The Bravo Probe is a wireless capsule that is temporarily attached to the inside of the esophagus. It takes pH readings regularly and sends the data to a device the size of large pager.

I woke up in the recovery room an hour or so later. I didn't have the opportunity to speak with the doctor, so I'm not sure what all he found out. I have an appointment with him next week to go over the results. As the sedation wore off and I came around, the nurses gave me some apple juice and went over my marching orders.

For the next day and a half the Bravo Probe would be taking readings so I had to keep the pager within three feet of my body at all times. I had to keep a diary of every time I ate or drank anything, record when I lay down, and press a button on the pager if I felt any pain. The food restrictions were gone, and in fact my doctor encouraged me to eat and drink things that would set off my acid reflux. Plenty of coffee and sugar for breakfast; Mexican food, chips and salsa and a margarita for lunch; and wine and garlic laced food for dinner. Doctors orders!

The pager had a readout so I could watch the pH readings go up and down. I had to jump on the interweb to see if high or low pH was acidic (its low). Around 7 is neutral. After my Mexican lunch I was burping up acid breath and watched the readings plunge down to 2. I wasn't allowed to take any antacids, so it was a day of stirring up the pot and living with the consequences.

I dropped off the pager at the hospital this morning. I'm sure someone will plug all the readings into some nifty database/spreadsheet and match it up with my diary notes. My doctor should have plenty of information for our appointment next week. Hopefully the news will be good.

August 27, 2009

Further testing

Wednesday, I had my second battery of tests related to my acid reflux. One was really unpleasant, the other I slept through.

I arrived at the hospital at around 11:45am. I was instructed not to eat or drink anything after midnight the night before. As the tests were going to last until 3:00, I thought I'd be starving by that time, but skipping a few meals wasn't as much of a problem as I thought. It was mostly resisting the habit of reaching for a glass of water at my desk that morning.

After a few more rounds of paperwork, they took me into a prep/recovery room to clue me in to what the tests would entail. One of the nurses placed an IV tap into a vein in my right hand. She joked that she had just started, but was confident she knew what she was doing. Once the spigot was set up, they walked me through the procedures before walking me down the hall for the first test.

The first test is called an Esophageal Manometry. My understanding is it is a further test of the muscular action of the esophagus to see if it is properly moving food down toward the stomach. The nurse had me sniff some numbing gel in either nostril to help mute the discomfort. Apparently she had been through the procedure herself, so she knew what I was about to go through. She said the gel was important. It didn't end up being enough.

For the test, the nurse feeds a long tube shaped sensor into one of your nostrils, through your sinuses to the back of your throat, and down your esophagus. From what I have since read online, it may have gone as far as my stomach. After letting the gel do its magic, she tried feeding the sensor through my left nostril. She had it partway through my sinuses, but it was getting painful, so she tried the right nostril. She couldn't even get it started, so it was back to the left side.

It was a uncomfortable, stinging sensation as she made her way through. She kept asking if she had reached the back of my throat. Then it felt as though she had painfully broken through a barrier and the throat was reached. She then had me tilt my head down and start swallowing water repeatedly, using the swallowing motion to move the sensor down the esophagus. The procedure really engages the gag reflex, and I am sure this is why I had to abstain from eating. We were both dressed in smocks and her face was covered with a shield in case I tried to throw up what wasn't there.

Once the sensor was in, she had me lie on my back. I was then required to swallow small bits of water, and the probe would monitor the swallowing action. The stuff I have since read online says the patient eventually gets used to the probe, but I felt like I was trying not to choke for most of the procedure. Drinking while on your back only made the choking feeling veer toward the added feeling of drowning.

The first few attempts were invalid because I was swallowing twice, once to get the water to the back of my throat and the second to actually swallow. I finally did it correctly, and then I had to remain still for 30 seconds, breathing easily, as the water made its way down. Then she said "we only have to do that 11 more times!" Not what I wanted to hear. There were a few other misfires, but it seemed there were more than 12 successful attempts recorded. The test went on far too long.

As I mentioned, I haven't been sleeping well for a few weeks. I was physically and emotionally strung out, and the testing was pushing me to the brink. As the test progressed, my emotions rose and tears ran down my face. I was laying prone, hands by my side, and instructed to stay still, so there was nothing I could do but let them fall. Like most anyone else, when I get emotional I get a lump in my throat and it makes it a little harder to breathe. This on top of the probe in my throat made it extremely difficult to remain calm and still. I don't know how long the test took, but it seemed like an eternity. When they finally finished, and removed the probe (quickly and painfully), I broke down.

The poor nurses were left to try and console me, and I couldn't even explain what was going on. One of them stayed with me for ten minutes while I calmed down. Once I gathered my wits, I was taken to another room for the next test.

The rest of the day was much less dramatic. To be continued...

August 23, 2009

Achieving goals and surviving the weekend

Another semi-productive weekend. On Saturday I went through the shed and did some organizing and thinning of the piles of stuff we have stashed there. You can see the floor again and things are grouped in general sections. I plan to revisit each room of the house a few times to further cut back on what we keep. A clean work area and a fresh pair of eyes will help. Need to be more brutal on the toss/keep decision.

It was yard waste week, so tuned into Prairie Home Companion this morning and I trimmed a few trees and pulled lots of weeds. Another 120 gallons of yard waste is off the property. It sounds like a lot, but week by week it is hard to pick out the changes. Check back in a couple of months so you can be duly impressed.

I made the cut again on work "Survivor". They cut 5 people in the first and second rounds, and two more on Friday. We weren't supposed to know who was getting cut until the weekend, but someone was kind enough to let the secret out. We are down to just six of us, and assuming there are no more cuts, we will be working for another 6 days. Plenty of other folks in the building are being let go that same day, so it is a weird atmosphere. The two in our group weren't too broken up to be let go a week early.

And this weekend, I achieved a task few thought possible. Naysayers scoffed, saying "that boy doesn't know what he is up against. It is simply too much for one man to take on." But I believed and persevered. It would be months before I would see the finish line, but I kept my goal in sight and didn't back down.

Yes, that's right, I finished the six pound bag of Costco pretzels single-handedly, and before they went stale. And at $5.25, I went ahead and signed up for another round.

August 22, 2009

It is a fine line

Nice turns of phrase

"Easily distracted by controversial trivia"
-- describing Seattle residents, specifically about the recent vote on a 2o cent fee for disposable bags.

"Synthetically busy"
-- describing our increasing time spent on the computer without really accomplishing much.

"My soul clipped a hurdle in the nether world, like some small backfire of faith."
-- the other Sean describing hearing the meow of his recently departed cat in the middle of the night.

August 21, 2009

It burns

I have had acid reflux of and on for more than 10 years. It is more formally known as Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease, or GERD. What is GERD?

Your stomach is filled with acid. Its purpose is to help digest the food you eat. Believe it or not, this acid is the same acidity as battery acid. Your stomach is built to handle the acid it produces. However, your esophagus isn’t. So when acid backs up into your esophagus, it can cause the burning sensation known as heartburn.

Almost everyone has occasional heartburn. But if these symptoms occur two or more days a week for at least three months, you may have GERD, or acid reflux disease. Acid reflux occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter (the valve separating the esophagus and stomach) does not close properly, allowing acid to back up into the esophagus.

I do not have reflux constantly, but when I do, it is pretty painful. It seems to come in waves that last a few weeks to a few months, and then goes away for a period of time. There are several triggers that seem to make things worse. General triggers include: certain foods or drinks (especially alcohol), smoking, being overweight, eating too much, bending over after eating, and lying down less than 3 hours after meals. Foods that really seem to tear me up are citrus fruits and tomato sauce.

Things have been a bit better this year as I have lost some weight, avoided trigger foods, and made efforts to avoid late night snacking. Unfortunately lack of sleep and stress seem to crank up the pain for me as well, and these factors have increased of late.

Over time the acid can damage your esophagus and lead to several problems. In the spirit of this year's theme of 'taking care of things that have been ignored', I went to see my doctor about it. After listening to my symptoms, he referred me to a specialist. The specialist recommended we do some testing to find out my current condition, and then decide on a course of action going forward. If lifestyle changes are not sufficient to reduce GERD symptoms, other options include pills and surgery. I am of course hopeful that changes in my behavior will be enough, but at this point I am primarily concerned with finding out what kind of damage might have been done already.

There will be a total of four tests, and the first one was yesterday. I visited the radiology department and stepped on to an X-ray machine. The machine rotated from the horizontal bed to a standing position, and the X-ray was on a track that moved along your body from head to feet. They first had me swallow some crystals that they equated to Pop Rocks*. This was supposed to create some gas and expand the esophagus. No burping please.

With the esophagus properly inflated, they had me drink different thicknesses of barium solution while I was in various standing and prone positions. They shot film(?) as the lit-up barium passed through. Sometimes the camera was stationary as I swallowed several mouthfuls, and other times it moved to follow the barium down. They had a monitor that we both could look at, and it was pretty cool to watch. The last test was with some ground beef soaked in barium to add a little extra grit. Swallowing all that barium was in no way pleasant, but overall the test wasn't too bad.

The specialist will of course interpret the results later, but from what the tech saw, nothing horribly wrong showed up on the monitor. I have three more tests next week that will give a more detailed picture. The tests will include sending a probe down the esophagus, as well as planting a temporary sensor to take pH readings. I will be sedated for this round of tests, so no cool video, unless they send my home with a souvenir DVD.

*Growing up, there was an urban legend that if you swallowed Pop Rocks without letting them react in your mouth, that the resulting gas could cause your stomach to explode. The myth went further to say that the kid that played "Mikey" in the Life cereal commercials died this way. A survey taker actually called our house when I was a kid to ask what rumors I had heard about Pop Rocks. Exploding kidneys I said. Today of course we have Mentos and Diet Coke, but the exploding stomach was proven to be an urban legend by the Mythbusters.

August 20, 2009

It's not easy being chemical free

I can't sleep.

I have troubles with insomnia from time to time. It has been going on all week, and I can't seem to find the solution. During the day I am tired enough to feel sick to my stomach, but I still can't shut off the chatter in my head when I hit the sack. I generally resist turning to pills for the answer. I don't want to become dependent on chemicals to solve a problem that has a simpler solution.

I have pretty bad allergies, and I have relied on Allegra to get me through the worst months. When my insurance company stopped paying for the prescription (for a replacement that my doctor says works for 1% of the population), I looked to natural alternatives. I started rinsing my sinuses with saltwater. The theory is that you rinse away the irritants before your body has a chance to react. It isn't the most pleasant therapy, but it is pretty effective. I still had to turn to pills for a couple of weeks this year when the natural approach wasn't enough.

So back to sleep. I have turned to Tylenol PM the last couple of nights in hopes of a good night's sleep. I have used a half dose before, and it has been enough to muffle the chatter enough to drift off. Not this week. It is so frustrating to lie awake at night with random thoughts flying through your head, when you could so easily fall asleep at your desk during the day. If the chatter was worth listening to, it would be one thing. I'd get up and write down the solution to all the world's problems. But too often it is just bizarre segues between worry and random thoughts.

Then you turn to drugs, and it turns out drugs aren't the answer. So tonight - wine. No dependency problems there, right?

August 18, 2009

Summer reading list

Too many books, too little time.

I have been in a book club for over two years now. It has been pretty enjoyable meeting every other month to discuss the latest reads. We've read classics, chick lit, short stories, memoirs and even a couple clunkers. We've all been exposed to books we probably never would have picked up otherwise. We've spun off on other topics when we get together, and last month we were laughing 'til we cried.

But it is ironically cutting into my reading time. The stack of books I want to read is getting larger, not smaller. I have a physical pile of books sitting on top of the CD rack, an electronic stack of 40 books on, and a "Save or Later" file on the Kindle. Plus, several authors have been giving away free Kindle versions of their books as a promotion, and I have been snapping up lots of those as well. I don't know when I'll get to them all.

But I keep adding to the stack. Some are recommendations, books I've seen reviews on, but some just grab me with their titles. #40 and 41 are The Myth of the Rational Market:
The efficient market hypothesis—long part of academic folklore but codified in the 1960s at the University of Chicago—has evolved into a powerful myth. It has been the maker and loser of fortunes, the driver of trillions of dollars, the inspiration for index funds and vast new derivatives markets, and the guidepost for thousands of careers. The theory holds that the market is always right, and that the decisions of millions of rational investors, all acting on information to outsmart one another, always provide the best judge of a stock's value. That myth is crumbling.

and In Praise of Doubt.
The answer, according to world-renowned sociologists Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld, is doubt. Not the stupefying doubt of relativism where we become incapable of any decision because we are overwhelmed by options, but a virtuous use of doubt that allows us to move forward boldly with strong moral convictions without caving in to the fanatic's temptation of seeing everyone who disagrees with you as the enemy. How we as individuals and as a society can find this ideal balance is the subject of this deceptively simple but revolutionary work.

Both sound pretty interesting and topical. I'll let you know if they're any good, whenever I get to them.

August 17, 2009

Let the garbage be your guide

My friend Matt wrote/tweeted/posted the other day: "U know how sometimes U have so much to do that U just freeze up and don't do any of it and instead just sit there bored with nothing to do?"

Yes, yes I do. I have a very large list of things to do, and sometimes it is difficult to pick a place to start. It is easy to find a semi or non-productive distraction instead of tackling the stuff I should be doing. So on the weekends, I've been letting the garbage man be my guide.

The garbage man comes each Monday, and each week he alternates between yard waste and recycling pick up. And no, I'm not going to call him a sanitation engineer. Since there is such a backlog of things to get done, each weekend I need to make sure the bin is filled for the Monday pick up. So Sunday I spent a few hours in the garage going through boxes and making piles of: keep, give away, toss or recycle. By the end I had filled both the 30 gallon trash can and the 90 gallon recycling bin.

The list of thing to get done is still very large, but at least I have a no-brainer starting point each weekend. The rotating pickup schedule gives me some structure, and the 90 gallon bin gives me a nice target each weekend. A future target is how much crap I can fit in the truck for a trip to the dump.

August 14, 2009

My kind of offer

Luxury Resort Offers $19 room - sans bed

By Associated Press SAN DIEGO (AP) - A luxury resort in San Diego is offering rooms for $19 a night - if you don't mind sleeping in a tent.

The Rancho Bernardo Inn boasts three pools, a spa and golf course. It typically charges more than $200 a room. But business is down. So from Aug. 16 to 31, guests can get a "Survivor Package" that charges them less for each amenity they give up.

For $19, guests give up breakfast, air conditioning, lights, sheets and even the bed. Staff will remove the mattress and headboard and leave a small tent instead.

Oh, and bring your own toilet paper.

General manager John Gates says the hotel hopes people who try the promotion will return at full price.

Here is the graduated list of the savings you get with each thing you give up.

Camping in luxury, in San Diego...I'm on my way.

KOMO news story
Link to resort

August 12, 2009

Thanks Big Brother

I received a call from "Unknown" on my cell phone this afternoon. I don't typically answer my cell phone at work, and rarely answer calls from unknown numbers no matter where I am. I must have been itching for a distraction.

It turned out to be someone from my bank. Of course I was suspicious of someone telling me they were from my bank. I waited for the questions fishing for my personal information.

She said she was calling because there was some suspicious debit card activity, and she wanted to see if the charges were legitimate. She said someone had made charges yesterday to PayPal, Yahoo Personals, Skype and PC Shield. Not me. She said she would cancel the card, send me a new one, and remove the charges from my account. The only information I gave her was verifying the street address she had was correct.

After the call was over, I jumped online to check out my account. There were indeed seven bogus charges totaling about $210. Not sure how they got a hold of my information. The card they used isn't even the one I am currently using. For some reason I have two different debit card numbers. The numbers alternate with each new card I receive. It actually works pretty well because I get the new one before the old one expires, and the new one shows up about the time the magnetic strip gives out on the old one.

I'm not sure if it was the different card number that tipped them off, or if it was just the rapid online charges (four to the same company). Whatever it was, I'm glad someone (besides me) was paying attention.

August 10, 2009

A few updates

On the job front, I didn't hear from anyone this weekend. I headed into work hoping that my key card would still work and I had a desk to return to. No alarms went off, so Monday started pretty well. There were four less of us than on Friday, and it sounds like they were the only ones that got a phone call. Apparently no news is good news.

On the computer front, I spent the weekend reinstalling programs. It took several tries to get my Outlook files to install correctly. I initially imported e-mails separately so as not to tie things up for hours. When I imported the calendar later, two different profiles showed up, and every entry on the calendar was doubled. Several tries later (with a little bit of swearing) I finally had it working. I had to dig into the registry which is above my pay grade. It was a similar fight with the program that had all my workout information.

Tonight it was great to have everything running again. While I was checking e-mail, Windows update loaded a service pack for Office. After restarting, the computer is stuck once again. It boots up but all I get is wallpaper and a pointer. Nothing else.

I tried using system restore - no dice. Then I tried the repair tool from the Windows installation disc. I walked away while it was running, and when I came back it was reinstalling Windows. It is probably wiping out everything my brother and I did over the weekend.

And now after doing the reinstall, it is stuck again on a "please wait" screen. Is there a cash for clunkers program for computers?

And it is raining for the first time in 26 days. It is actually a refreshing change in this unusual summer. With this long of a break, it was wonderful to smell the air cleansed by rain again.

August 8, 2009

A fresh start

I finally pulled the trigger and wiped the laptop clean. The only way it would boot up was in safe mode, and I ended up barely using it for a month. I stopped putting anything new on the computer, since I would only be adding more things to back up or lose. I think I copied everything important, but there may be a few surprises down the road.

I was fortunate to have my own Geek Squad to help me - my brother. He even pulled up in a VW Bug to complete the package. He has done this sort of computer overhaul multiple times personally and for work, so I just stood back and read off the 25 digit product keys when needed. So far the thing is running just fine. Tonight will be about reinstalling programs and moving important documents back to the laptop. I am currently waiting on Service Pack 3 to install. When I get Outlook back up, there will be a flood of e-mail coming my way. Sorry about any month old responses you may receive.

With the fresh start, I am going to do my best to load only important things back on the computer. There was so much junk clogging up the system - programs I barely used, leftover parts of things I thought I uninstalled, and 7 or 8 years worth of pictures and music. When I bought the laptop three years ago, the 80gig hard drive was four times what I was used to, but it didn't take long to cram it full of important and trivial stuff.

I am about to go through a purge of household things as well. Stuff that has been piling up for decades, and has taken over the house. It will feel good when I'm done I'm sure, but the pile is intimidating. I'll be digging through 20 years worth of things and deciding what is still important enough to hang on to. I need to set the bar pretty high, so it may be a painful trip down memory lane.

The first step is always the most difficult. The laptop was a small one in the right direction. I just need to keep moving forward, one box at a time.

August 7, 2009

Wait, what?

At time the job has felt like shoveling dirt out of a pile while dump trucks kept making the pile bigger. Or maybe like the classic "I Love Lucy" episode where Lucy and Ethel were working the production line at the chocolate factory. No matter how fast you go, it is coming in faster than it is going out.

For much of the time, we were working on files that had come in 30 days ago. Then we had it down to two weeks. Then in a matter of a day we were begging for someone to send something in. We were all caught up and out of files to work on. Yesterday we were working on a different pile, but it was apparent there wasn't enough work for us through the end of the month. They'll be letting us go in groups to cut down on staff.

Companies often wait until Friday to let someone go. Somehow easier that way. This one is going one step further. We are supposed to get a call this weekend to find out if we made the cut to come in on Monday. Enjoy your weekend, and you should probably clear your desk just in case.

August 3, 2009

Again to the woods

I headed to Eastern Washington to go camping this past weekend. Some friends had headed over mid-week and staked out a prime spot shaded by trees and a short walk to a cold river. Just the thing after a week of record-breaking temperatures.

We went to a campground called Salmon-la-Sac on the Cle Elum River. It is in area we've been going to for 20-odd years. (always makes me feel odd/old to be able to say I've been doing something for 20 years). When we first started camping in this area, the roads weren't even paved. In the early 90's, nearby Roslyn was the filming location for Northern Exposure so we'd get to see The Brick and KBHR in person. The reader board advertising a snowmobile in the shows intro was an actual for-sale sign in Ronald the next town over.

When we started camping in the area, we wouldn't stay in the campgrounds. We just headed into the woods and found an open spot. As the area became more popular about 10 years ago, they started putting portapotties in the area and charging $10. As long as they didn't start installing picnic tables and concrete fire pits it still seemed like we were roughing it. Of course we were long past roasting hot dogs, so it wasn't so rough. Several lines have been crossed including bringing a blender for margaritas (Matt).

The area became more and more popular, and one of us would need to head up by Wednesday to get a good group spot. Then a few years ago they made it against the rules to have a camp fire outside the designated campgrounds. We figured that portapotties made them designated campsites, but a $70 ticket later, we found out we were wrong. Camping without fire is wrong, so now we're camping in sites with picnic tables, paved parking spaces and quiet hours.

It isn't quite the same, but I suppose we aren't either. Now we're keeping track of small children instead of dogs. I actually didn't bring the pooch since she would have to be on a leash the whole time, which also seems wrong. And the camping kitchen set up continues to grow. The latest addition is Andy's drip coffee maker that you put on top of the stove. I'm trying to stay retro, still using the camp stove my parents received as a wedding present 50 or so years ago.

It is a slippery slope though. I'm reading Walden again, and it seemed a perfect book for the weekend in the woods. Reading it on a Kindle kind of clashes with its message of living simply, though. Of course without cell service, I wasn't getting my Seattle Times delivered to the Kindle. Talk about roughing it.