Making Spheres From Cubes

TAMU_prototype
Realization through visualization

The silvery thing in the photo above looks like a Christmas ornament. It is, in fact, a scale model of a sculpture now gracing the Engineering Quad at Texas A&M University. The sculpture, in gleaming stainless steel, is a repeating geometric pattern that makes a sphere from cubes. That’s clever. But also buried in the myriad of shapes along the way is a Texas star. Very clever.

I don’t go around photographing scale models. I took this photo because I helped get this project built. But before we got to that point somebody had to make heads or tails of just what the artist was trying to do. I have been reading fabrication blueprints for over 40 years. Yet, I could only look at the prints from our customer and say, “Well, isn’t that nice.” So it fell on our company’s Vice President of Design, a guy who has forgotten more about custom metal fabrication than I will ever know, to come up with the above scale model. I’m going to let how he came up with this be his little secret and move on to my small contribution to this project.

Most of my projects go into private industry. Private competitive industry. Our customers don’t want mug shots of their tanks, vessels, gantries, mix trucks and process piping in the wild. It’s not secret stuff; it’s just proprietary stuff. But I sometimes land a project that goes into the public domain. This is one of those.

I avoid art projects like the plague. But this one was different. Unlike other art projects, it wasn’t a fabrication problem. A wizened, bespectacled welder in a leather apron wasn’t going to solve this one. It was a manufacturing problem.

It was a manufacturing problem for the very reason that the sculpture was an array of regular shapes. This was the goal of the artist, Olafur Eliasson of Studio Olafur Eliasson. He wanted five geometric shapes in the sculpture. He began with a cube—as far from a sphere as you can get. Cutting the cube into a diamond gave triangles and hexagons. Arranging five diamonds around an axis yielded circles and pentagons—and the Texas star. Assembling the stars gets you a sphere. The sphere, I might add, needed to be twenty feet in diameter. And it needed to be open to reveal triangular mirror panels inside. (Olafur Eliasson loves putting mirrors in public art.) That is to say that the sculpture was the framework of those geometric shapes—not the solids. Here is a picture of our framework prototypes:

TAMU_Parts2
Getting the basics right. It starts with parts.

On to the manufacturing problem. You might not have enough psilocybin on hand to know how to transform a cube into a sphere. But, tripped out or not, you do know how a dozen small mistakes can add up to one big mistake. So I’ll begin there. We needed to start with the smallest plane geometry feature in the sculpture and build all the other shapes from it. That was the triangle. From there we needed to make the smallest, most logical assembly component possible. That was a diamond. These needed to go into the largest shipping piece possible. (Assuming you are shipping by truck.) That’s your star.

Our mantra became “Triangles make diamonds. Diamonds makes stars.” So we began with 360 pesky triangles. Pesky? Pesky because they all needed to be almost identical. That’s the problem. You can never make two things identical. Any two things you try to make identical will vary just a bit from each other. It doesn’t matter why, they just will. So our triangles were going to vary. The trick is managing variance enough to keep it from adding up. In manufacturing you set up a means to check your parameters. Any number of gages and fixtures tell you that your parts are right. Other fixtures and jigs ensure your assemblies go together.

Now… this is easy in a world that comes together in right angles. If you are sitting in a room right now, look around. It’s all right angles. The planar floor is horizontal. The planar walls are vertical. Those two things come together at a right angle. The corners where the walls come together? Right angles. The four corners of the doors and doorframe? Right angles. It is no accident that we’ve built our world on this theme. Euclid made it easy for us. And that was the problem. Diamonds have no right angles. A prototype of ours looked like this:

TAMU_diamond
Our diamond-in-the-rough prototype

So how do you fixture it? I puzzled over that for awhile. A few of us did. We hatched three or four schemes—all bad. And it looked for awhile like this was going to end up a fabrication issue after all. But plumb bobs and levels and chalk lines on the floor were not going to let us meet our schedule. We needed to build diamonds fast and without variables.

Of course, you clever kids in the front row are already on this. (Well done!) And that’s the answer I crawled to. The artist had started with a cube. A cube! You know, a special geometric solid in which all of the corners are right angles and all the sides are the same length. And that was the key to the project. So after we all banged our heads together for awhile, I finally managed to come up with this fixture:

TAMU_Fixture
A diamond inside of a cube

Of course, the fixture doesn’t matter. What matters is that it ensures that the assembly goes together. In our case, we had to bring 180 mating surfaces together using almost 1100 screws. In most welded structures that involves a lot of prying and pounding. This assembly, though, went together in our shop like LEGOs® and looked like this:

TAMU_assy
Our final shop check

Exactly what are the details that make this work? Well, if I told you that you could build your own stainless steel sculpture, twenty feet in diameter, in your own backyard, replete with repeating patterns of cubes, triangles and circles. That would make Studio Olafur Eliasson unhappy. That would make my employer unhappy. And that would stop me from getting to share once in awhile. You wouldn’t want that, would you?

Anyway, our project manager was on the job site in College Station to make sure everything went well. He was kind enough to share this photo of the sculpture freshly installed on the university’s Engineering Quad:

TAMU_Sphere
Studio Olafur Eliasson sculpture installed at Texas A&M University. (Photo by Kevin Stout)

If you want more,  here is a link to TAMU’s web page for the finished quad: Zachary.TAMU.edu

And, here is a link to a great photo: iBeam Systems

(At the iBeam link, You can select a tab named Timelapse. From there you can set up a timelapse from July 21 through August 14 to see our part of the project being erected. Or, there is link to the righthand side of the timelapse page that let’s you download that timeframe.)

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Shed Happens

ShedPerspective
The shed as a SolidWorks model

The universe is expanding. So we should soon all have more room. But it should come as no surprise this does not apply to sheds. Our family has outgrown two of them. Outgrowing them is easy; replacing them is the trick. What’s a family with too much stuff to do?

Tapping into the hive mind reveals building your own shed to be one popular solution. Yeah. Uh-huh. When it comes to do-it-yourself projects I’ll paraphrase Dr. Ian Malcolm: You were so preoccupied asking yourself if you could, you didn’t ask yourself if you should. Should you build your shed?

After 12 straight weekends up to my elbows in my shed project, plus a full vacation spent building the bulk of it, I have the definitive answer: I’m not sure.

There are lots of other ways to get a storage building onto your property. There are plastic sheds. We had a Keter that we just loved. There are metal sheds. We had an Arrow that we did not love. You could buy a shipping container. Built watertight, dust tight, and vermin proof, these are surprisingly cost effective. Throw a cammo net over it so your neighbors can’t marvel over its utilitarian beauty and you’re good to go. But our property has no alley. A container would have to be dropped in with a big crane. That’s a non-starter. Big cranes are expensive. Likewise, you can buy a prebuilt shed. That’s the shipping container problem, just with a smaller crane.

Then there are shed kits. These range from some pretty questionable offerings from Lowes, to some pretty spiffy offerings from not-from-Lowes. Spiffy means expensive features I didn’t need. At the next level, you can buy a shed, built by professionals, from a company like Tuff Shed or Home Depot. Pick your basic design, pick your options, level your lot. Tuff Shed comes in with prebuilt panels and finishes the construction on site. Or… you can be a dumbass and design and build your own shed. That gets you what you want. And it saves you some money. Reluctant to forgo being a dumbass, I followed the hive mind down that rabbit hole.

So the Keter and the Arrow are gone to recycling. I now own a real shed. No, correction. I own a 10X14 storage building. I also now own a miter saw and three 1 nail guns. I also have a sore back, a very tiny portion of a fingertip missing, a few bruises, and a tan to make George Hamilton jealous. The process saved me—using Tuff Shed prices as a guide—about $3000.

That looks good on paper. But, I put about 50 hours into designing it. I put another 150 hours into building it. So, that means I paid myself about $15 an hour to design and, singlehandedly, build the thing. Sometimes I really question just how smart I am.

Then again, huge swaths of this project had intangible benefits. One such is that weird thing called a sense of accomplishment. A sense of accomplishment and $3 gets you a coffee at Starbucks. It’s worthless. That is, until you accomplish something. Real accomplishment is harder and harder to come by these days. Or, to knap that flint to a finer point, our accomplishments are more artificial. Sure, we fine-tuned that spreadsheet. Yes, we closed the circles on our health app. Yep, we checked ‘balance the bank account’ off of our to-do list. But are these accomplishments? At the end of last year’s Grand Canyon trip, stepping out of the raft at Diamond Creek was one of the great moments of my life. But the water in the river is dam controlled. The highly regulated Canyon backcountry is routinely patrolled. The entire run is well mapped, well documented; there are few surprises waiting. In the end, I’m not sure what I accomplished. Hell, I didn’t even row a boat for more than an hour. Real accomplishments are hard to come by, for sure. But putting up my own storage building sure felt like one.

Then there is doing actual work. Words are elastic. They stretch and shift, taking on new meaning over time. Work is one such word. I’ve met any number of fat-asses, gussied up in suits, garroted in neckties, who sally off to their desk job in the financial sector each day. To a man, each one has proclaimed how hard they work. Work? I suppose. I suppose some explanation is in order for just what makes skimming off the top so lucrative. I go to a desk job everyday too. I get that it is stressful. I get that it requires a certain skill. I get that I dedicate a lot of time to it. But it’s tough to truly call it work. Work can be measured. Pick your term—horsepower, calories, watts—we can define work being done. Put me in a metabolic chamber, a calorimeter, let me use my brain as hard as I can. I will never raise the needle above my basal metabolism. That’s because, frankly, no work is being done.

During nine straight days of shed building I lost five pounds. Not in water weight. Not in muscle mass. I dropped five pounds of fat. Losing a pound of fat requires burning 3500 calories. So in nine days, I burned through a 17500 calorie deficit. This despite eating anything that I wanted and drinking about six gallons of sugary lemonade. In short, work was being done. The output is measurable. A storage building now stands where there was dirt. And I literally worked my ass off. Admittedly, I enjoy not working for a living. But with projects like these, I truly enjoy the work.

And then there is the club I now claim membership in.

Dad used to quip that you only need four woodworking tools: a saw, a hammer, a drill and a slotted screwdriver. (Because the screwdriver could also be used as a chisel.) He was kidding of course. Dad came from a family that just seemed to know how to build things out of wood. Not a single one of them ever had a minute of training. They just did it. My grandfather built, first a log cabin; then a two story house—skinned from slabs from his sawmill to look like a log cabin. My uncle built the house in Glade City he still lives in today—with its, not paneling, but actual wood plank walls. Knotty pine and wormy chestnut.

My dad worked the other two ends of the precision spectrum. He built a pole barn for my sister’s horses. He converted an outbuilding into a garage. But he would also create the most amazing small things out of wood. I still have a model he made of the 1940’s Batmobile. And I have a cradle he made for my daughters’ first baby dolls. It wasn’t really the things themselves that were amazing. What was amazing is that he seemed to conjure them from memory and thin air. He could draw as well as anybody. (I used to dig though his completed assignments from The Famous Artists School.) But I never saw him put a plan to paper. The objects just appeared out of wood as if an unseen hand were guiding his planer, router or table saw.

Mom also has an uncanny ability to just do things. She is an accomplished cook and baker. She can knit and crochet. She can sew. And not just A-line dresses. One winter, she made my brother and I coats from surplus WWII wool army blankets. She made a full-on wedding dress for one of my younger sisters. She can decoupage, macramé, and refinish furniture. She can hang wall paper. She can butcher chickens and rabbits. She is an expert gardener. She was doing organic gardening in the sixties. Not from some hippie notion of revolutionizing the world. But because it just made sense. I could go on and on.

Between the both of them, I never realized that there were things that people did not know how to do. This has sort of worked against me because my wife believes that I know how to do all of these things she ever saw them do. Believe me, I cannot sew a wedding dress.

While we were pricing Tuff Sheds one Saturday, my wife decided we needed to look at a 10X14 Tall Ranch. Her voice echoed inside it. That echo confirmed two things: one, that was the size shed we needed; two, I would simply build ours. I had made the same decision, fueled partly from the misplaced confidence that if Mom and Dad and Grandpa and Uncle Bob could do those things, so could I.

There was also the fact that I got to spend a summer watching Olle work. Olle was a Swede and he was an actual carpenter. By actual carpenter, I mean that he was not just a two-bit framer. There are lots of guys, like me, who can cut a 2X4 to length; who can end nail them in place, maybe even toe nail them, without splitting any wood, on a lucky day. And sure, we can layout one length of a single story wall and pop it upright. Carpenters, on the other hand, can be amazing. For Olle, king studs, jack studs, cripples, blocking & braces and top & bottom plates were not just words. He understood them and how to use them counter to each other to take the twist out of a stud, or the bow out of a wall. I watched him frame a staircase using nothing more than a tape measure, pencil, framing square, hand saw and hammer. You could almost see the trigonometry equations circling above his head. Watching Olle was like watching a moving meditation. Like my dad, he was slow and deliberate. Like my dad, I never saw him pull out a set of plans for the guest house he was building. But as he worked tools floated in and out of his hands like they were willed by the cosmos.

Olle’s wife owned Swiss Heights Kennels. I was working for her that summer repainting the kennels. I spent most of my time curled up inside pens—which had been just recently used as poodle pissoirs—applying fresh latex paint. Twice a day I would stop to feed the dogs. This is where I developed my love for working dogs. Feeding time at the Poodle House was a frenzy. The entire time I doled out kibble the little Jheri-curled pricks would jump and yap. Seeing that wall of leaping sub-canines always made me think it should be part of a carnival shooting gallery. But the big dogs—the Siberian Huskies, the German Shepherds, the Labrador retrievers—would calmly sit, sure of themselves, waiting for me to fill their dishes. I still remember one of the Huskies, as patient as a monk, its ice blue eyes looking at me from some faraway place. But while I was peddling Purina, I would pause to watch Olle complete another piece of the guest house. From him, I learned an appreciation for folks, confident of their skills, masters of their work, who could move from task to task with a transcendent surety.

And I have been on a roof before. During my days as a Watchtower Society adherent, a brother offered to help re-roof my house. It was built-up roofing. And I did little more than carry buckets of molten tar. But I learned a thing or two. Later, I worked beside Brother Bealer re-shingling our Kingdom Hall. Don could lay a shingle in the amount of time it would take you to say, swoosh, tap bam tap bam tap bam tap bam. Don was old school. The swoosh was him sliding the shingle into place. Tap was when he would set the nail by tapping it with a hammer while it was pinched between his fingers. Then bam actually drove the nail. He did not use pneumatic tools. His parents had crossed the plains into the Dakotas in a covered wagon. His mother was tough enough to still be around to talk about it. No, Don used the classic method. And his shingles were placed quickly, neatly and accurately. Let me assure you that, unlike some of these new-fangled nail gun speed demons, every nail Don placed would meet code.

So with sawdust in my genetic code, with a few tips picked up from watching the masters, and from a semester of architectural drafting at technical school, I felt I could knock together what amounted to a miniature house. And I did. For the first time, I felt I could stand with my parents as someone willing to tackle anything.

So I saved some money. On a per-hour basis it wasn’t much. But, being honest, it was the difference between having a shed or not. I have not gotten far from my hillbilly roots: I still belong to a socioeconomic class where sweat equity counts. So that was something. The sense of accomplishment is huge; I might brag about this for awhile. I have always said if money is being made and no work is being done you should ask why. It was nice having a reality check about what work really means. And then there is being able to stand with my parents as someone who can simply do things.

So, yeah, if I were to get a little uppity, if I were to brag on myself a little bit, I would say: Yup. A shed is a great DIY project. You should definitely build yours yourself.

The Shed — A Pictoral History

Shed_Plan_small
My original sketch
SHED_start
Start at the very beginning…
SHED_frame
Framing up. Roof joists in foreground.
SHED_shelf
Heavy duty shelves inside.
SHED_almost
Nearly done. Waiting for trim and hardware.

1 Actually, two nail guns and a palm nailer. ↩︎

My Friend Dave

One afternoon in late December I was standing in a swirling snowfall thinking about the afterlife. I don’t spend a lot of time contemplating the hereafter. It’s a fuzzy concept. That day, though, I was in Madera Canyon. Every year, on whatever Saturday fell closest to his birthday, my friend Dave would go to Madera Canyon to gather mistletoe. This wasn’t for Christmas kisses. Mistletoe is a parasitic plant, actually a hemi-parasite, that sinks its roots into the host’s vascular system, eventually killing it. Dave would go there with family and friends to help relieve the high desert oaks of their parasitic load.

This particular Saturday actually was Dave’s birthday. But Dave wasn’t there. Dave had died in late October from cancer, another evil growth that kills its host.

The mountains rising above Madera Canyon were in rare form that December afternoon. Old Baldy, the craggy main peak in the Santa Rita Mountains, was standing like a referee in a dual between the pale late-December sunshine and an unsettled snowstorm. Driving into Madera Canyon from the north, the duel was a spectacular display of light and weather.

But by the time Dave’s family and friends had gathered at a picnic pavilion near the open mouth of the canyon the snowstorm had cast the world in twilight and sent icy flakes to melt in our eyes. Everyone nodded knowingly. “Dave,” they said, “this is Dave’s doing.” And they may have been right. I’ve spent a lot of days on that mountain. And in some marginal weather. But I’d never seen a spectacular display of sun and snow like it put on that morning. And, being from old-school Iowa, Dave would have been quick to tell you that he had walked to school, uphill both ways, in the snow, with barbed wire wrapped around his bare feet for traction. So, sure, why not depart leaving us a little taste of the same?

So was Dave off in an afterlife somewhere? Was he in good with a cosmic weather wizard? Had he arranged this for some sardonic combination of our discomfort and delight? If so, he was safely beyond the range of human senses. What was in the range of things we could feel and know, though, was a life lived.

You can’t exactly swing a cat and hit a hillbilly philosopher. If you could find one, they might sum up that life this way: Be useful; Be reliable; Be honest; Don’t think too much of yourself. Good advice. The question is how to hang on to those ideals when you leave the enclave of the hills. And this is especially true for me. I get distracted by shiny objects. So when we left Pennsylvania for Tucson I spent time wondering what the people here would be like. Or, more to the point, how I might change.

Happily, one of the first people I ran across was Dave. Dave was practical, sensible, honest—almost to a fault, just a little sardonic, and more than a little bit stoic. You could have dropped him into any holler in the hills and he would never have made a ripple. But he was from Iowa. He was the first of many people from Iowa I would meet.

Waves of refugees have come to Arizona. It was once a spa. You came here for tuberculosis. Or anything else that dry air and sunshine might cure. Then retirees filtered in. They still come. A huge wave came escaping the oppression of housing inflation in California. Dave had come with the Rust Belt wave. Long before the leakage of manufacturing jobs was derailed into the thin air of political platitudes, Bruce Springsteen had penned the words: “These jobs are leaving, boys, and they ain’t coming back.” He was talking about the Rust Belt; about the simple jobs being done by simple people. They were happy to do the work, asking in return only to be able to feed their family, own a basic home, and fund a modest savings account. But Wall Street isn’t run by people who wanted the same for them. So the jobs drained into maquiladoras and drifted into Shenzhen. Until then, had you flipped over a tool or crawled under some farm equipment, you would have seen that it was made in places like DeMoines, Ames, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids or Davenport. The jobs left. And the people, like they had done during the Dust Bowl, followed the Mother Road west.

So Dave was the first Iowan I met, but not the last. He came to represent what I began to think of as Midwest sensibility. And it hewed closely to the ideals of: Be useful; Be reliable; Be honest; Don’t think too much of yourself. Dave—unwittingly—became a bit of a lodestar for me, helping me to see when I was drifting.

Dave introduced me to the song catalogs of John Prine and John Hartford. And for a bit of the cultural touchstones that people bond over, we both enjoyed A Prairie Home Companion.

Life is life. It is rarely constant. And, naturally, through all the changes, Dave and I often wound up on different paths. But at one point I ended up again at a company Dave had never left. So we began chewing on the intervening years. Dave summed it up with a favorite tidbit of ours from the Lake Woebegone stories. He said, “Gerry, what do you do when you were raised to be a stoic and life turns out good?” That was a heartwarming moment. And it is one I will always remember and treasure. But for you folks who didn’t tune in to A Prairie Home Companion, I’d like to quote from a longer version of Garrison Keillor’s words:

They raised him to bear up under hardship and sadness and disappointment and disaster, but what if you’re brought up to be stoic and your life turns out lucky—you’re in love with your wife, you’re lucky in your children, and life is lovely to you—what then? You’re ready to endure trouble and pain, and instead God sends you love—what do you do?

What Dave said was just a shorthand for the above. He had a wife that he loved; a child that he adored. He had steady work, and a roof over his head. He was happy.

So, no, I wasn’t standing in the swirling snow thinking a lot about the afterlife. I was huddled in a picnic pavilion with the woman he loved, the daughter he adored, the son-in-law he thought of as a son, the grandchildren that warmed his Sunday afternoons, and the friends that thought Dave was a pretty okay guy. I was huddled with the core of Dave’s good life. If that doesn’t focus you on the here and now, well, then I don’t know what to say.

I hope that Dave was playing a weather joke on us that day. More than that, though, I hope that I always remember the value of living simply. And I hope I will always value people who do the same.

So long, Dave. Thanks for the snowflakes. And thanks for reminding me that life did turn out good.

The Pycnogenol Report

I’m not sure I trust medicine. I don’t mean the amber pill bottles lined up by the height of their childproof caps in my rusted medicine cabinet. I mean the practice of medicine. Specifically, the practice of it here in the old republic. I’m told we’re the best in world. The guidon bearers. I’m told that people swarm across the planet, like bees to a hive, for access to our doctors, or, more to the myth, our gleaming medical technology. I’m even told that they forgo socialized medicine in their particular god-forsaken hell-hole to come to ours to pay tens of thousands of dollars for treatments they cannot get elsewhere. Like any jagged little pill, be careful swallowing that whole.

In the hillbilly haven I hail from people say “the proof is in the pudding.” The truth is that our enormous per capita spending on health care doesn’t yield significantly better results than some other god-forsaken hell-holes. We’re still sickos. Worse, my prostate cancer was discovered by accident; my enlarged aorta was discovered by accident. And a recently discovered vestibular problem apparently has no fix. My wife’s first lumbar laminectomy was botched by our town’s best neurosurgeon. So she needed another. The combination of the two landed her in a world of chronic pain. The both of us now have pre-existing conditions, which, at any moment, could render us uninsured. That’s the pudding. And that’s why I am not sure I trust medicine.

If I mistrust the medical industry, I trust the supplement industry even less. After the billions we spend on medicine, with questionable results, we drop hundreds of millions more on, well, I’m not sure what to call it: the holistic, the homeopathic, the natural.

Don’t get me wrong. We would benefit greatly from a change as simple as going on a whole plant diet. The prognosticators claiming that this would stave off the coming obesity/diabetes/heart disease pandemic can’t be far wrong. I agree that it would start to empty our hospitals and waiting rooms. And I am absolutely for getting something in a natural form rather than a chemical compound. But if the supplements we take now were having any effect, we should see lots of healthy people running around. I see the opposite. It’s almost like you can draw a straight line between the amount of supplements a person takes and their tendency toward depression, neuroticism, and general affliction.

My skepticism began in the 70’s with Vitamin C. Vitamin C supplements were the cure for the common cold. No, even better, Vitamin C prevented the common cold. All you need do was take enough of it. So people were swallowing ascorbic acid in record quantities. Several grams a day in some cases. But the common cold remained common. That’s when the up-and-coming General Nutrition Center revised their newsletter. Sure you need Vitamin C, but, you need to get it from rose hips. Okay. So we switched to rose hips. For a moment it seemed like there could not be enough English gardeners in the world to meet demand. And that’s when we learned the truth. You can shove as much Vitamin C down your gullet as you want. Your body can absorb only so much of it. And without bioflavonoids along you may not absorb it readily. Oh, and in excessive amounts, it interferes with absorbing other essential vitamins and minerals.

In short, the human body is amazingly complex. Just because it benefits from something doesn’t mean you can concentrate that thing and simply take more of it. It doesn’t matter if it was compounded by a pharmacy; or if you scrounged it from a primeval forest a la Euell Gibbons, concentrated it, and pressed it into a capsule.

The common cold remained what it was: thousands of rhinoviruses waiting for an opportunity. And, yes, healthier, low stress folks provide less opportunity. But in and of itself, Vitamin C was not a preventative silver bullet. Well, for scruvy maybe; but not the cold.

So if I’ve resisted lining my medicine cabinet with plastic amber bottles from CVS, I’ve resisted even more lining it with brown glass bottles from GNC.

Then along came prostate cancer and heart disease.

As I’ve mentioned, I elected to treat my prostate cancer with the gold standard: a nerve-sparing, robotically-assisted, laparoscopic radical prostatectomy done by a highly experienced urologist. I’ve talked about the resulting impotence. And how much sex meant to me. And my curiosity about things that might reduce the effects of my impotence. Oh, sorry, ED.

One thing that kept popping up was Pycnogenol. Humans have hit on a number of aphrodisiacs over the millenniums. Most are hogwash. Some, though, actually square up with how physiologists know our bodies work. One such thing was an extract from the bark of a Mediterranean pine tree. (Pinus pinaster) Of late, an extraction process for this has been licensed by a company called Horphag Research. Its founder, Charles Haimioff, has devoted his life to the idea of healthy aging. To that end, Horphag Research has funded or promoted any number of studies to show the benefits of Pycnoenol. Almost none of these are the epitome of research: a double-blind study of a large random population with a placebo and a control group. However some had a fair basis in science. A few others were suspect.

And what were the studies to prove? That Pycnogenol, like many bioflavonoids and antioxidants, promotes the health of human endothelial cells. That is to say, it should reduce blood pressure, increase oxygen uptake, and generally improve circulation. For sufferers of ED, it should act as a PDE5 inhibitor along the lines of sildenafil, improving the ability to get and hold an erection.

Does it really? Based on my Internet research, that was hard to determine. However, while I could not say it would help, I could also say it would not hurt. No one was getting worse on Pycnogenol.

So what I found was not enough to tip me in favor of trying it. I had my trusty pump. I had generic sildenafil from my urologist—which in the quantities I needed was cheap enough. Maybe what I need more than another pill was just acceptance, and the patience to wait for my body’s natural healing process. And that’s when I found out I had a bad heart.

Before you imagine a wrinkled, grey-haired old man dragging around an oxygen bottle, I should explain. I am just fine. I run, walk or hike some 90 miles a month. I can hike gradient that weeds out hikers younger and lighter than me. I still rock climb. I am still planning river trips. I built my own storage building, single-handedly. In 100 degree heat. True, I can’t run fast. Never have. Never will. I occasionally struggle at elevations above 10,000 feet. But I am not suffering from congestive heart failure. My heart muscles are not weak. I do not have arteriosclerosis or atherosclerosis. It is a simple mechanical deficiency. I have an enlarged thoracic aorta.

Eventually this could be a problem. To enlarge, the aortal wall must thin. Too thin a wall could result in a rupture. A rupture in the thoracic would almost certainly be instantly fatal. Picture blood pouring directly from your heart. So my cardiologist will monitor the enlargement. At a certain point (50 millimeters) he will replace my aorta with a Dacron sock. Meanwhile, he recommended what is apparently recommended to all patients with heart disease: statins.

That’s right. I have no have arteriosclerosis or atherosclerosis. My cholesterol and LDL are a bit high. But nothing in my lipid panel suggests anything a lifestyle change won’t fix. More to the point, no studies indicate that statins help in any way with an enlarged thoracic aorta. (They are helpful in the case of an enlarged femoral aorta.) Nope. You should take statins because statins are for people with heart disease and you have heart disease. To me it sounded like “this may not help, but it won’t hurt.”

You know, like Pycnogenol.

So now I had two reasons to take it. But I didn’t take it. Not right away. First I got a Siberian Husky puppy. A happy Husky is an exercised Husky. A happy Husky is a fabulous dog. I wanted a fabulous dog. So I started building my mileage up to the 90 miles a month I make today. And I went back to my gym. And I started the move toward a whole plant diet. Then to seal the deal, I bought enough Pycnogenol to give me 100 milligrams a day for four months.

In that time my weight dropped from 205 to 175 pounds. My resting pulse dropped from 88 to 63 BPM. I was clearly healthier and eating better. The Husky was relaxed and happy. In my stressed out, fat and happy days my blood pressure always bordered on hypertension—about 124/82. With everything else going on, it should have been an easy thing for the Pycnogenol to slip in and drop it those few points to normal. It did not. With better general health there should have been some improvement when my wife gave me the occasional come hither look. It didn’t happen.

Would it have worked in a bigger dose? Would it have worked if I had taken it longer? Was it doing things that were beneficial but not measurable by me? It’s hard to say. I am only one data point. But in this case I am the only data point that matters.

Holistic. Homeopathic. Natural. Those are great sounding words. They seem so much better than the chemicals and machines the billion-dollar medical industry throws at us with questionable results. But you can still count me among those who question the results. The proof is in the pudding.

A Poppy For Your Thoughts

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…
— Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, 1915

This is the 11th day of the 11th month of 2018. I might drag my lawn chair to the corner today and wait for Rick to drive by. I don’t know Rick’s real name. It might be Steve. It could be Gunther. Or Günther. The point is that Rick drives a green Jeep. Army green. Rick’s Jeep is equipped with a moron switch. If you haven’t seen these, the switch lets your vehicle spew dense black smoke for a while. ‘Cuz you know, freedom. Yes, you’re right, Rick’s Jeep is festooned with a large United States flag. Lucky guess.

Why would I sit on the curb waiting for Rick? Because I enjoy irony. Rick doesn’t know it but he is sending a mixed message. From the comfort of his hermetically sealed, air conditioned cab he doesn’t see what is happening on his ass-end. The flag is not bravely unfurled. The squared-off tail of his Jeep literally sucks. His flag hangs limp in the vacuum. And when he passes a Prius and hits his moron switch he adds another coat of oily soot to those abused colors.

And why would I expect Rick today? He would, undoubtedly, be heading out to a Veterans Day event, ready to remember all of our veterans, living and dead, who have made sacrifices for our freedom. Rick remembers. Except that he doesn’t.

Veterans Day was once called Armistice Day. In our allied countries, it is still called Remembrance Day. It commemorates the day that saw a hastily patched together armistice silence some of the most horrendous battlefields the world had ever seen. That armistice held and World War 1 ended 100 years ago today.

How long ago was 100 years? Do you remember, or know about, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy; the Tet Offensive and the Prague Spring; that Peggy Fleming spun her way to a gold medal in Grenoble and our astronaut’s first moon orbit? Those all happened in 1968, the mid-point of the past 100 years. It was fifty years from when World War 1 ended to when those things happened. And it has been fifty years since. Put another way, there were still World War 1 vets around to see those things happen.

In the long view of history we get to distill things. Well distilled, World War 1 began with a violent act of wild-eyed populism. The world was shrinking. Steam ships, the Suez Canal, the Trans-Atlantic cable, had helped bring a wave of globalism. Oligarchy and imperialism had seen to it that the lion’s share went to the already well-heeled. The crumbs went to Lazarus. Oligarchy and imperialism also saw to it that the lid remained on that pressure cooker. But the deepening socioeconomic rift, particularly in class conscious Europe, left many ready to defy convention. The shot that killed Archduke Ferdinand and Sophie, meant to be a political statement from the disenfranchised Balkans, bloodied nearly the entire world.

Of course the United States got involved. We were a rising star in globalism. But it’s hard to inspire a nation to enter a foreign conflict where commanders are marching the rank-and-file into machine gun nests, where tanks and mustard gas add to the horror. And so you tell the plebes that it is about freedom. That this is the war to end all wars. That when this is over our rising economic star can outshine all others. After all, the Panama Canal was just completed. And in case they don’t believe you, you conscript them. And so we marched into Europe to George M. Cohan tunes.

The Great War ended. The troops climbed from the trenches and went home. But the strife caused by that bullet in Sarajevo didn’t end when the clocks in Paris struck eleven. The war unleashed a global pandemic. It left the European economy in shambles. We shored it up until Black Tuesday in October 1929 and then the world collapsed into the Great Depression. Societal turmoil gave rise to crime syndicates. And, of course, the ghosts of Versailles haunted Europe until it, and nearly the entire world, boiled into war again. It’s hard to believe that a simple assassination caused millions of deaths and decades of turmoil. But it happened just that way.

Why would you want to remember all of that? You wouldn’t. Pesky Armistice Day becomes Veterans Day. Now we get to wave flags and cheer our troops just like Memorial Day, July 4th, Flag Day, and every nationally televised sport event. But we don’t have to spend a moment thinking about our past.

And maybe it’s just as well. The Great War’s dead still remain under the poppies in Flanders fields. The horrifically wounded are themselves long dead, replaced by the horrifically wounded of WWII, Korea, Vietnam. And they will soon be gone and replaced by the next wave. But nothing’s changed. Our current crop of plutocrats and oligarchs have kept the lid on this pressure cooker too long. Our mettle is stretched. Vote, they say, things will get better. And we did. In record numbers. And we woke up to Wednesday’s child. Globalism is rampant. Populism rises. It remains tamped for now because Rick believes in his man in office. But the veneer won’t hold. President Everyman is a plutocrat dressed in an emperor’s new clothes. In short, things sit now pretty much as they sat in Sarajevo in June 1914.

If you were in Britain or France today someone might hand you a poppy. In John McCrae’s home country someone surely would. No one will here. We don’t remember. We don’t want to. So I will sit in my lawn chair and wonder. Rick has a 100% American-made machine equipped with a flag and a moron switch. I wonder, does he have a gun?