Sunday, July 20, 2008

Short Stories, Life

I've read a few collections of short stories lately (You Are Not A Stranger Here and Flights Of Love, and re-reading The Palace Thief). I've been drawn to short story anthologies as long as I can remember, at least as far back as our assignment to read Hemingway's in high school. Given the choice, I usually prefer a book of short stories to a novel-- a fact I've generally attributed either to a short attention span, or to the increased intensity that is often inherent in the short-story format. But I've had a nagging feeling that there was something else.

I think I have an explanation, after all these years. The hint was a realization, the other day, that I religiously avoid looking ahead to see how long each story is. It might be three pages long. It might be sixty. I never know how much life the story has left in it. Each page might be the last, or it might be just a prelude. I don't know until, suddenly, I flip a page and, with the warning of only a few lines or a paragraph, it's over. This is very different from reading a novel, where you can measure the thickness of the characters' remaining life with your eye and thumb, where in fact you can't avoid knowing how much time is left. And, it seems to me, this is much more like real life. You never know how long or short your story, or those of the other characters in your life, will be. You know that so long as you're still breathing, the plot keeps thickening. But where it ends, that's a secret.

Thursday, July 17, 2008


One of the attractions, theoretically, of going into private practice was that I could take time off whenever I pleased. In my latter years at Green Acres, on short-term contracts, I had succeeded in carving out as much as 8 weeks of vacation each year (I am a big believer in the "Euro-style" vacation allowance). That was super. But still, mundane little errands would come up between weeks off (getting a sick cat to the vet, getting the car to the mechanic, getting a cracked filling replaced) which were nearly impossible to accomplish-- partly because I was an hour's drive from home, and partly because there was very little leeway for disappearing in the middle of the day. (In fact, that's generally true of doctoring-- it just isn't the ethic. I remember in residency one of my colleagues, a senior resident, had gone home for an hour mid-day to check on a new puppy. When this was discovered it became a HUGE deal, with much discussion, analysis, disciplinary talk from the higher-ups, and snickering among the lower-downs. It just was NOT done. Looking back on it now, the reaction seems absurd.)

Anyway, working for myself-- and moving my office within a mile of home-- has definitely solved the problem of scheduling errands. And I've even played hooky for a day at a time, here and there, for one reason or another. But I recently realized that I've only had one actual week off since last August. How did that happen?? I've given it some thought, with these observations:

1) My income has been about cut in half, with this career move/mistake, and if I'm not in the office I'm definitely not getting paid. So it has felt fiscally irresponsible to go away.
2) Objectively, I'm not actually working all that hard. Trying to figure out how to run all the aspects of my practice has consumed a lot of energy and time and worry, but in terms of actual hours seeing clients, it's not very impressive yet (this leads to (1), above.) So I have this sense that I don't really deserve time off.
3) Weeks off may not really be weeks off. During my one vacation this year, I had a brand-new patient who was in a crisis. I was at the beach, but he kept calling, I kept trying to help, we kept revising medications. It didn't take much time, per se, but it was stressful. "Don't you arrange someone to cover for you?", you're asking. Well, yes, I did. But when you're reachable by by cell phone, it's hard not to allow it. If I told people they absolutely couldn't call me, I would worry almost as much that something bad was going on and I didn't know about it. But, I have learned this lesson: don't take on any new patients in the week or two before a vacation.

In short, my new boss, as I keep telling people, seems to be a real a-hole. But I've decided that one week off a year is not enough, regardless. So week after next I'm not coming to the office. I might take Sandra Lee up the coast, along with Brushfire, who will be on Dasein. And maybe I'll even take a vacation in the fall, too.

[Postscript: Shortly after my vacation, the patient who had been in crisis disappeared, leaving me with a bounced check for $250, which I never managed to recoup. Lesson #2: Don't take any wooden nickels.]

Monday, July 14, 2008

Sailboat Icebox Ice: The Definitive Post

I know you folks count on May Shrink Or Fade to raise, and answer, the tough, controversial questions that most people can't be bothered to think of, let alone think about. And I am not going to let you down. And by the time you finish reading this post, most of you are going to be saying to yourselves "O... M... G. That guy really is whacko." No matter. This must be written.

So, for years now I have been pottering up & down the coast of the Smallish State in sailboats with iceboxes. In case you are too young to remember how an icebox works, it's fairly simple: you put ice in the box, and then you put things that you want to stay cold in the box, and for a while the things stay cold. Eventually the ice melts and you need to put in more or the cold things get warm again. Luckily, though, the Smallish State is relatively cold to begin with, especially the parts of it that are below the waterline of a sailboat, so 20 or so pounds of ice can hold you nicely for week. (Also, you can chill a beer just by tying a line around it and dangling it 10 or so feet under water.)

Nonetheless, the perennial sailboat ice-user starts to ask himself some questions. Questions such as:

1) Is all ice created equal? Isn't it likely that one ice-vendors' freezer is colder than another's, thus providing colder ice? Cold ice will obviously not melt as fast as warmer ice, right? So how much better is colder ice than warmer ice?

2) Is it worth buying ice at all? How much does it cost to make ice in the freezer at home, compared to buying it?

3) As the ice melts, the cold water drains out of the icebox. But you could keep the ice instead in a container within the icebox, and thus hold on to the ice-cold melt water. That would be sort of a pain-- but would it be beneficial, or not?

I have given these questions a lot of ill-deserved thought. Here's what I've come up with for answers:

1) A: All ice is not created equal, but the differences are trivial. Discussion: The thermal value of ice, I came to realize, lies not in its coldness-- it lies in its solidity. Raising the temperature of liquid water absorbs relatively little heat: one calorie per gram per degree (centigrade). Raising the temperature of ice absorbs even less heat: half a calorie per gram per degree. But melting 0 degree ice to 0 degree water absorbs a great deal of heat: 80 calories per gram. So, the temperature the ice starts at is relatively irrelevant. It's the final melting moment that does most of the cooling work. In fact, to get just 10% more cooling than about-to-melt 0C ice, you have to get the ice wicked cold first: -16C (3F) So, it's not worth looking for cold ice. Just make sure it's solid.

2) A: It costs very little to make ice. If you have the freezer space, you should home-freeze. Discussion: A 5lb block of ice sells for, what, $2.50? And we learned above that turning 5lbs of water into ice absorbs 181,136 calories*, or 181 kcal. So to freeze 5lbs of water into ice, you need to cool your freezer by the same amount. 181 kcal is the same as 0.21 killowatt hours. Making a wild guess that a freezer is about 33% efficient, you would use 0.63 kwh of electricity to make a block of ice. And doing a little division with my latest electricity bill shows I'm paying about $0.16 per kwh. So that works out to roughly $0.10 per block. Such a deal!

3) A: Keep the meltwater if you're expecting to run out of ice. Drain it if you aren't. Discussion: Ice-cold water has the potential to absorb some additional heat as it warms to room temperature-- about 41 kcal for 5 lbs of water ("room temperature" around here being 65F). But what's really going on in the ice box? Theoretically, once things have stabilized, and as long as there is any solid ice in the box, everything in there exists at an equilibrium: the ice, the meltwater, and the food all sit at 0C. Heat gradually seeps in through the sides of the box; the ice gradually melts to absorb it. The meltwater is pretty much a passive zero-degree bystander-- it is neither absorbs heat from the food, nor from the ice, both of which are also at 0C. So at this phase, keeping the meltwater in the icebox is neither useful nor deleterious. However, once the last shred of ice melts, the story changes: now the temperature of the icebox will start to rise above 0C. The heat which creeps in will be evenly divided by the fridge contents, all rising in temperature together. And here is where having a large mass of cold water will be briefly useful, because it absorb some heat, will slow the overall temperature rise, and will help keep your food a little less warm, a little bit longer.

Next up for pointless thermodynamic consideration: the old question of whether you should empty your bladder to stay warmer when you're winter camping.

[* 1 block = 5lbs = (5lb) / (2.2lb/kg) *1000 = 2,274 grams. For melting ice, (80cal/g) * (2,274g/block) = 181,136cal/block.]

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

First Minute FREE!

Now this is just weird. It's like phone sex for hypochondriacs.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Feeding The Beast

When I was a kid, I remember seeing a snake for sale in a pet shop for $19.99... and the mice to feed it, in a nearby cage, selling for $1 each. I figured it wouldn't take long for the mouse expenses to exceed the snake cost. I thought that a wise pet shop would give away snakes for free. (This was in the days before a thrifty customer could go and order low-cost mice via the internet.)

So lately I've been thinking about a similar question: at what price of gas does the cost of "feeding" the average vehicle, over its lifetime, exceed the cost of the average vehicle itself?

Average cost of a new car in the U.S., 2006: $22.651
Average fuel economy of new cars in U.S., 2006: 24.6mpg*
Average life span of a new car: This is harder data to find. I'm going to guess 125,000 miles before junking.

With these numbers, the magic gas price is: $4.64 per gallon. And it seems like that's coming 'round the bend pretty soon.

(* This is, alas, down from the peak average fuel economy of 26.2mpg-- which was reached 20 years ago and not seen since. What was I saying about time warps?)

Conspicuously Outlying

Have a look at this intriguing graph, from The Atlantic Monthly. Assuming that outliers will tend to regress towards the mean, what predictions can we make about the coming years?

1) Bulgaria, Russia, and Ukraine will either reach a higher GDP, or will become more religious.
2) The USA will either become more secular, or will face a falling GDP.

Care to make predictions?

(P.S. I have no idea what to make of Kuwait's situation.)

Monday, July 07, 2008

It's Just A Jump To The Left, And Then A Step To The Right

So my house is back down to being worth about what I paid for it in 2002, the stock market is back to where it was in 1998*, there's a used vinyl LP store opening down the street, and the nearby used book store just expanded. Can anyone provide any positive evidence that we are not caught in a time warp?

(* and looking ever more like a cat's face, just as predicted)

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


It's been a while since we had a cat post.  Max says "hi".  He has started his own blog, by the way, but it is "anonymous" and I'm not supposed to reveal the URL.  Sorry.