Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Choices that Matter

The LAT newsroom is so lean these days, they don't have much time to do real journalism.  Mostly, I just read the press releases sent out by PR agents masquerading as news reporting and shake my head in disgust.  This article about a new diaper merchandising trio was unintentionally funny.
On a recent Friday night, a very pregnant Sheila Dos Santos and her husband were two-thirds of the way through an hour and a half cloth diapering workshop, trying to wrap their heads around the myriad diapering options available to the modern parent.

Laid out on the large coffee table in front of them were dozens of types of diapers and covers and inserts, as well as a plastic baby doll to try them on.

"I'm so overwhelmed," said Dos Santos, looking down at the 11-page booklet she held in her hands.

The workshop was being given by Lena Hill, Lisa Hubbard and Jennifer Rodriguez, three new-ish moms who are planning to open Los Angeles' first cloth diapering store, Tush (, in early June.
For those moms who do plan to use cloth diapers, making the correct choice can be fraught with anxiety. Are hemp inserts a better bet than bamboo? What type of diaper cover breathes the best but will also eliminate leaks? Which ones are the most environmentally friendly? What is the most organic choice?

These decisions feel all the more important because, according to the Tush handout, a reasonable supply of newborn-size fitted diapers and covers can cost close to $700. And that just lasts for the first six months of the baby's life.
But the article redeemed itself by injecting a dose of credulity.
According to Sharon Hays, a professor of contemporary gender studies at USC, an hour and a half diapering workshop falls neatly into what she calls "the extraordinary pressure of intensive mothering."

"Intensive mothering" is a term she coined in 1997 in her book "The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood." She describes it as a "child-centered, expert guided, emotionally absorbing, labor intensive, financially expensive ideology in which mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture and development of the sacred child and in which children's needs take precedence over the individual needs of their mothers."
I would also like to add that most daycare centers require disposable diapers. Only stay at home moms or people with in-home nannies have the luxury to choose cloth diapers.

It's not clear that cloth diapers are the environmental choice in water-starved southern California. I fondly recall a Sierra magazine article doing the environmental impact study about "cloth or disposables". It was an environmental tossup EXCEPT in arid areas (such as LA) and places running out of landfill space.

In water-scarce areas, it was better to import disposable diapers than to import the water to wash them.

Cloth diapers using a diaper service were the better choice in a handful of densely populated cities (mainly in the northeast), where they had exhausted nearby landfill space.  Diaper services have economies of scale when washing tons of poop-filled diapers. But diaper trucks spew pollution and burn gas (or diesel).  They were not a good environmental choice unless there were large numbers of other diaper service users in your area. 

In no case was washing diapers at home with bleach a good use of water and energy.

If you bought specialty diapers from Tush, you wouldn't be able to use a diaper service. So you'd have to wash them at home, adding a hefty dose of bleach to your sewage.

This is a really long preamble to a mother's choice that really matters, and a damn fine piece of reporting in the LA Times by Joe Mozingo, In Haiti, aftershocks of a mother's wrenching decision.

This mother had to make a decision that matters.
Marie Lud's recollection of what followed that night of the earthquake comes in fragments: Running through the smoke and dust for half a mile to the National Palace. Seeing it collapsed like a smashed wedding cake. Standing all night with her children and tens of thousands of others in the open plaza of Champs de Mars. People clutching whatever random items they escaped their homes with. Chanting hymns. Swatting mosquitoes. Thinking that Bernard [her husband], who had been downtown on business, was dead. That ghostly scream with every aftershock.

The next morning, Marie Lud was desperate. It was as if all her points of reference had been wiped clean: no work, no school, no market, no home, no government. She didn't have food for her children, and was frantic about losing one of them in the crowd.

Just down the street all the inmates of the main prison had escaped. She had long had a fear that some thug would one day try to rape one of her daughters and Bernardo would be killed trying to protect her. 

She kept the three children within arm's reach. A woman noticed them all, and introduced herself as a social worker. She told her that she knew of a local orphanage that sometimes fed, schooled and sheltered children whose parents couldn't do it themselves.
They both started crying. "Where are they taking us?" Bernardo screamed. "I don't want to go!"

Marie Lud couldn't hold back her tears. Her eyes always betrayed her emotions.

"Cherie, things are going to be OK," she told them. "It's only for a short time and I'm going to pick you up."

They got in, sniffling and wiping their eyes, and the car pulled away. They stared at her as they drove off.

Marie Lud didn't sleep or eat that night. She just kept thinking of the betrayed look on those two faces that were as much a part of her as her bones.

Bernard appeared the next day, his face swollen and caked with dried blood and dust. He had been knocked unconscious by the falling blocks of a hotel, and then had wandered through the chaos in a daze.

When Bernard didn't see Bernardo or Barbara, he immediately panicked, thinking they were dead. She told him what she had done. He didn't understand.

"Why did you do that? he asked repeatedly. He was furious. He wanted his children.

Later that afternoon, some thugs started screaming that a tsunami was coming, setting off a stampede. Some children were separated from their parents in the chaos, and the thugs stole whatever valuables were left behind: pots, toys, radios, portable televisions, picture frames, shoes, Sunday clothes.

Bernard then understood her decision. 
Read the whole thing to find out what happens to this family.  It breaks my heart.

I initially read this story in the hard copy format.  But newspapers can't tell if people read ambitious stories like this.  It's all very nice to collect Pulitzers, as the reporters at LAT have done in the past, but the management cares about page clicks.

Click on that link.  Hit refresh several times.  Send it on to friends and family.  The LAT management spends a lot of time and energy analyzing page clicks. They are not going to do more meaningful stories like this unless you click on that link!

And I absolve you from enviro-guilt if you use disposable diapers in LA.

Related posts:

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Well, that was interesting!

I spent half of last week sequestered in a conference room (with windows this time!) with a diverse group of people.  When I walked back to my office after the workshop adjourned with a coworker, he told me it was the most interesting thing he has done on the job in a long time.  I also found it very interesting, even though it wasn't very technically challenging.

We were all invited to the workshop for our expertise. Many people wore more than one hat; I was invited for both my physical science and software background and experience on similar past projects.

We discussed a complex technical and legal issue and then came up with recommendations for decision makers.  We did not make any recommendations until everyone who wanted to speak was given a chance to speak and a general consensus emerged.  In fact, if the vote wasn't unanimous, we kept discussing and rewording the recommendation until all the nay votes agreed that they could support the recommendation, even if it wasn't their first choice.

Coincidentally, the July issue of the Atlantic Monthly arrived at home and I read Hanna Rosin's cover piece, The End of Men*. Ms. Rosin and I clearly live in parallel universes because I am not as optimistic about the future of women in our society.

In our discussions, I looked around the room.  Hanna Rosin is right, women are making strides into the workplace.  30% of our group were female, including one of the two workshop co-leaders.

But nearly all of the women were there for their legal and programmatic experience, and not for their technical expertise. 

There were only two female engineers plus myself and one of them is a systems engineer (which, along with civil engineering, is a female discipline).

Ms Rosin argues that the future belongs to women because, "Of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most in the next decade in the U.S., all but two are occupied primarily by women."

I think she was referring to Table 2 of the Bureau of Labor Statistics Overview of the 2008-18 Projections, Occupations with the largest numerical growth.

The Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor posts the median weekly earnings of those 15 occupations. The highest-earning fast-growing occupation is computer software engineer ($1529/wk), a job dominated by men.   Our sisters will dominate the lowest-earning categories such as home health care aides ($429/wk).

That does not make fill me with optimism.

Rosin continues, "Just about the only professions in which women still make up a relatively small minority of newly minted workers are engineering and those calling on a hard-science background, and even in those areas, women have made strong gains since the 1970s."

Actually, that is a subject of fierce debate.  The numbers of women in science is increasing primarily because of the growth of biological sciences in general.  The number of women in the 'hard sciences' the world in which I inhabit, does not appear to be growing.  If you remove foreigners, the number of American women studying engineering and the physical sciences might even be declining.  (I and one of the female engineers in the room are foreign-born immigrants.  The other woman engineer is near retirement age.)

And, if that wasn't heartbreaking enough, you should have seen the age breakdown of the room.  Just about all the people younger than 40 were NOT there for technical (science/engineering) reasons.  The young people were all there as experts in law, scheduling, budgeting and contracts.  For extra bonus points, guess how many blacks and latinos were there for their science and engineering expertise.

Oh, and why was it so interesting, despite the lack technical challenge?  Because I had never seen the other side of decision-making.  I can tell you if something is not possible because it defies the laws of physics or is not technologically feasible at this time.  But I have never before been privy to discussions where we weigh the cost of a system (based upon physics, technology and industrial readiness) against what will fly in Congress.  That was really interesting.

*  Net neutrality is a really hot news topic right now.  I was surprised to learn at a CS seminar that ISPs monitor their customers' applications so that they can dynamically allocate bandwidth.  OK, I wasn't surprised.  I was just surprised by what they did with the information.

Ironically, bandwidth hogs watching streaming video are actually given priority over users such as myself because the ISPs don't want them to view jerky movies.  So they reduce the data delivery rate to users that are not watching streaming video.

This is a rather long warm-up to rant about a total waste of internet bandwidth; the 5 minute video embedded into The End of Men, in which the Rosin/Plotz family debates which sex is better.  What makes a 13 year old girl, who has not entered the workplace yet, qualified to pronounce that girls are better suited for the modern workplace?  Honestly, I don't even think her mom is qualified to discuss that topic. 


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ocean-Friendly Gardening Workshop

Saturday, June 19, 2010 - 9am - 12 noon - City of Torrance Ocean Friendly Garden Workshop Location: George Nakano Theater, 3330 Civic Center Drive, Torrance
The City of Torrance invites you to join us and learn how to develop an ocean friendly garden or landscape using the latest sustainable materials and techniques.   Learn how to use native and other drought tolerant plants, water efficient irrigation systems and devices, permeable hardscape materials and on-site water retention techniques to reduce water usage, lower your costs for watering your landscape and reduce dry-weather run-off to our ocean. This workshop is free. Space is limited. Registration is required.
Register here.  The program will be repeated on Monday, June 28 in Hermosa Beach. The workshop will be led by Marilee Kuhlman, the designer responsible for the garden pictured here.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Space Day

I spent most of today in windowless cells conference rooms.

For this privilege, I had to get up early in order to drive through downtown traffic to get to JPL on time. There were so many visitors there today, they directed me to park out in Timbuktu (aka the annex parking lot). Then it took .forever. to get badged in this morning (vs. a normal day).

But, guess what I saw as soon as I stepped on campus?

Three generations of Mars rover explorers!  This is a full scale model of Curiosity, the one set to launch next year.

Watch this animation of the landing sequence.

Before I left to go home, our meeting hosts took us to the observation platform where we could see the real Curiosity being assembled. You can tell this is the real thing because it's sitting in a clean room; that's why the people are in all white suits.

Here's the outer shell that you saw first in the video.
 This is the thruster assembly.
This is the rover body.  The blue light shows that it is turned on.
The six wheels will be attached to these legs.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Another full day

Continuing the theme from yesterday...

We spent the morning at Tanaka Farms CSA day.  We had a grand time in the strawberry fields.  Notice the juice-stained hands.

Bad Dad couldn't join us; he was busy working at our company's 50th Birthday Bash.  We brought him some strawberries in a gigantic red onion skin.

The strawberries had such a delicious musky aroma today; we had hoped he could use his super-sensitive spectrometer to see what was off-gassing.  (My money was on alkenes, but Iris just asked me, "What's that?")  But, that spectrometer was not set up for the open house.

Iris hammed it up with the infrared camera.  Like her ice cube "lipstick"?
She's got the whole world on her shoulders.
And an aurora on her face.
The rocket-shaped red velvet cake at top and cupcakes (not pictured) were made by Erin.  She's not exaggerating.  Those cakes tasted as good as they looked.  We will be ordering our special event cakes from her in the future.  You can see the rocket cake before it was served here.

More later.  I deserve some rest after this day.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Vogue 1071 Refashion

It all started with the salesman's question, "What are you going to wear with that?" I had worked a couple of short stints in retail during college, so I could recognize the (soft) upsell. I used to do the same thing. But, though I can afford to buy nice clothes once in a while, I can't afford to dress in head to toe Issey Miyake.

Check out the texture on this Cauliflower jacket.

I remembered that I had some gray handkerchief linen in a similar color. It also works well with white, navy or black bottoms like the skirt shown below.  Serendipitously, I found this men's silk shirt at my neighborhood Goodwill. I like the contrast of matte and shiny, crinkled and smooth.

I used this out of print (OOP) Calvin Klein pattern from 1993.
It buttons up the back, and my "material" already had buttons and buttonholes!
So I cut the blouse back from the old shirt front,

and the blouse front from the shirt back,
and added bias bindings, cut from one sleeve, to the neck and arm openings.

It was a quick and gratifying project. The only pattern change I made was to deepen the front neck by 1/2" so it didn't feel like it was choking me.  There was no buttonhole at the top of the blouse (which was the bottom hem of the shirt), so I used a snap there.

Because of the width of the cut-on cap sleeves, the only way I could fit the back pattern pieces was to turn it upside down.  The pocket is not functional, but I left it on anyway. 

I wore it to work on Wednesday with the jacket.

I made another matching blouse with the gray handkerchief linen in Handmade Homemade (Vogue 8392).

It Stinks!

But that was the whole point.
If you missed tonight's special viewing hours, go tomorrow.  It only lasts about a day so don't delay.

When you enter, you get the first glimpse from above.  The male and female parts of the flower are actually at the base of the phallic-looking thing.  They are barely visible here.

Then you can take the path down to view it again.  Now that looks more iconic.

Here it is in its jungle context.

Then you descend further and pass by a leaf of the same species.  That is one single leaf.  Click here to see an illustration of the life-cycle of this rare and remarkable plant.

It was quite dim when we saw the flower from the lowest vantage point.  It was hard to get it in focus and with good color balance with such low light. 

This comes closest to the color my eyes saw.

More details at The Stinky Blog.
The Corpse Flower (Amorphophallus titanum) is currently on view inside The Huntington’s Rose Hills Foundation Conservatory for Botanical Science and the bloom is expected to last approximately two days.

Public hours at The Huntington are from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Extended evening hours will be offered for Huntington members tonight and Saturday night, from 5 to 7:30 p.m. For information, the public can call 626-405-2100.
Iris and her friend were more bothered by the smell than the adults. Bad Dad and I agreed that the smell resembled a strong odor of cooked cabbage. We saw it at 7:30 PM, about 5 hours after it opened. We were told that the flower will be at its most pungent ~12 hours after opening. If you go tomorrow at opening, let me know how much it stank.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Home Cooking

We got some gorgeous produce in our Tanaka Farms CSA box today.  It looks almost too pretty to eat.  Actually, we often put some of our carrot tops and greens in a vase with Trader Joe's flowers and call that a centerpiece.

At the annual CSA coordinator meeting last year, farmer Glenn Tanaka says that he was surprised by the low number of subscribers per school.  If you figure that a school of 400 students has about 200 families and 40-50 staff, then he expected about 50 subscribers per school.  Instead, there are about 10 per school.

Are so few families cooking?  Or are so few cooking for scratch?   Are the veggies too odd?  Not novel enough?  Leave a comment if you can explain the mystery to us.

I wonder if the art and craft of home cooking is not being transmitted via either family or schools.  That is, mothers went into the workplace about the same time that schools stopped offering home economics.  Like I mentioned in How to become a home cook, TV shows and cookbooks from celebrity restaurateurs are not a good way to learn home cooking.

I agree with Russ Parsons about weeknight suppers.  Don't take such an either or attitude to cooking from scratch.  Do what you can in the time available to you, with the ingredients you can easily obtain.  Improvise.

To me, home cooking is about the pleasure of creating and the pleasure of eating.  If it isn't, then it must be Bad Dad's turn to cook.  ;-)

Seriously, during Bad Dad's recent 6-week national tour*, I either put mostly pre-prepared dinners on the table on weeknights (cooked during the weekend) or Iris and I went out to eat.

Jennifer LaRue Huget links the growth of child obesity with the decline in home cooking.  I am not convinced.  Correlation does not imply causality.  There were many compounding factors over the same time period.

I am more inclined to agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates:
The greatest tool in the arsenal of weight loss was not running, it was not my gym membership. It wasn't buying low-fat foods, swearing off fried chicken or going low-carb. It was trying to understand, in as much detail as possible, exactly what I was putting in my body. It was closing the distance between preparation and consumption.
Cooking--and really cooking from scratch--creates a consciousness about food. It creates a respect, an understanding of what, exactly, you're putting in your body. It's not that cooking is magically healthier. I'm not convinced that, say, my fried chicken has less calories than KFCs. But that isn't the point. The point is doing the actual work of frying a great chicken. It's actually having to see all the oil and eggs (depending on your recipe) used in the process. For me at least, doing that, has made it unlikely that I'll fry chicken every day, or even every week.
* From the Monday after we got back from NYC, Bad Dad was scheduled to be home 8 of the following 35 days.  His last week-long trip was canceled, to my great relief.  But then he and the spectrometer were redeployed to the gulf to take measurements of the oil spill.  For two weeks.

He has often said something to the effect that the life a field scientist is not as glamorous as it sounds.  Well, that is doubly true for the spouse who stays behind.  While trying to hold down a job.  While dealing with all the end of year activities at your child's school.  While recovering from a medical setback.

Anyway, it was a 6-week slog for both of us, hence the blogging break.   But, tonight, we are all home and we had strawberries from our CSA box, picked fresh this morning.  We served it with chocolate ice cream, which Iris and I made last night.  Hat tip to Eric and his girls for sharing their home-made ice cream and telling me about this ice cream cookbook.

Bad Dad would like to tell his side of the story.  By his accounting, he was home for much of week 5 and 6.  He only had one trip, lasting from Friday through Wednesday.  But he then turned around and left for San Diego the next day to help deal with a family health crisis.  I stand by my assertion that I spent more time with his dirty laundry in the last month than with him.  And that is the secret to the longevity of our marriage (20 years).

Tie Dye is Patriotic

Dharma Trading makes the case that tie-dye is an American artform.  Don't miss this history of tie-dye article.  I learned so many things. 

Hey, even Captain Kangaroo does it!