August 28, 2013 0

On being a beginner.

By in uncategorized

Today I had a rough day. Third year of medical school can be scary because you’re always feeling like a novice, and this was made especially clear to me today on my anesthesiology rotation. Today, without going into too much detail, I found that if the attending physician didn’t constantly give me explicit instructions for doing things — administering a drug, the angle at which to insert a needle into the skin, making sure to place EKG leads correctly — I felt utterly imcompetent and incapable of performing seemingly simple procedures.

I keep expecting there will be one day where I cross this magic threshold and I’ll suddenly feel competent and self-assured, and I’ll be able to take on any medical challenge or emergency that comes my way. So it was comforting to come across this video of Ira Glass explaining how it’s frustrating to be a beginner at something (he refers mainly to beginners in creative fields, but I think it applies to many different pursuits) because you have “good taste” (i.e. you know what would be considered “good” or “skillful”) but your actual work does not meet those standards.

In the video, Ira Glass plays a radio story that he recorded after 8 years of working in public radio (8 years! that was already a long time!), which was admittedly not the greatest story, and which gives us all hope that one can come far with some effort and dedication, since he is a well-respected, amazing giant in radio today. The key is perserverance and practice, and in the creative world it seems that continuing to produce work — a steady, constant, large volume of work — will help one refine one’s skills.

I think this also applies to my desire to start blogging, writing, and dabbling in radio journalism again, when I get the chance. I’ve been thinking about this since high school, really, but never really have given it enough effort because all my previous attempts have fallen somewhat short of what I wanted to achieve. But perhaps this blog, used as a testing ground, will be my way of increasing my volume of writing and help me improve my skills and gain confidence.

The great thing about being a beginner, on the other hand, is that when you make mistakes, it’s okay because not much is expected of you. (At least that is how it is in medical school.) Medicine is very hierarchical, and while I’m currently at the bottom of the totem pole on the ladder and basically am told what to do by residents, attendings, and housestaff, I also am freed from taking primary responsibility for patients’ well-being and therefore can go through the motions of being a doctor without fear of causing harm. I can practice with the safety of knowing that no one will let me do anything that might hurt a patient.

But it still really sucks when I make a mistake. Today was still rough. I just hope that I learn from all mistakes and that I don’t make the same mistake twice. However, there are so many mistakes out there waiting to be made…I guess that it’s just important to be as prepared as possible, stay calm in the face of unexpected challenges, and learn from past experiences.

February 22, 2013 0

On climbing anchors

By in climbing

As a relatively new sport climber, I’m interested in learning more about the theory behind basic climbing safety techniques, including climbing anchors. To this end, I acquired a copy of Climbing Anchors by John Long and this, combined with Google searches, has helped me better understand the differences between commonly-used top rope anchor systems, and how to assess safety of an anchor. This post is solely meant for my own note-taking as I do research; it’s not meant as a source of  advice for climbing safety.

A useful mnemonic for assessing the quality of an anchor system is SRENE:

  • Solid: the components of the system must all be “bombproof” (in John Long’s words).
  • Redundant: there should be redundancies in the system so that failure of any single point in the system won’t cause the entire system to fail.
  • Equalized: the load borne by the different anchor points should be equal so that any one anchor is not excessively stressed
  • No Extension: there shouldn’t be extension of the runner if one of the top anchors were to fail (since extension would increase the shock put on the remaining anchor and could cause failure as a result).

With this mnemonic in mind, the two main types of climbing anchors, the sliding X and the figure 8, can be assessed. The sliding X is advantageous over the figure 8 in the category of Equalization: it can adjust for shifts in the load and equalize stress put on each top anchor. The figure 8, however, is better in the category of No Extension: if one of the top anchors fails, the runner is tied and therefore will not extend. It’s important to take context into consideration when choosing the ideal anchor system.

The QC Lab post on sling strength showed that in the lab (obviously different from outside conditions, so the results need to be taken with a grain of salt), a 48″ runner performed best with the sliding X setup (no failure of the system at the machine’s peak load of 35.6 kN), followed by the figure 8 (failure at 23.5 kN), and the sliding X with knots (who uses this one and why? Failed at peak load of 21.2 kN). Of course, when outside it’s important to take a variety of factors into consideration when choosing which anchor system to use. For example, if one bolt looks especially sketchy, it may be good to use the figure 8 because this would handle failure of one of the anchors better (no extension). On the other hand, if the top rope route tends to wander around, it would be better to use the sliding X so that the load will be distributed more evenly between the two top anchors.

Further Reading:

December 27, 2012 0

On coffee grinders and smartphones

By in environment

My dad showed me his coffee brewing equipment today. I was surprised to see that he has a Krups drip coffee machine and Krups blade grinder that are both over 25 years old (bought in Salt Lake City and brought over to Ohio before I was born).


My dad’s old Krups drip coffee brewing machine.

He brewed me some coffee and showed me how the grinder works. He then told me about how the lowly residents and interns were tasked with making the coffee in the break room back at the University of Utah, where he was a fellow.

It’s amazing that the design of the Krups grinder hasn’t obviously changed in over 2 decades. (The production, of course, has changed: whereas my dad’s grinder was made in France, they’re now manufactured in China according to That’s not surprising.) Thinking of my dad as a medical fellow not much older than me, and the fact that he has hung on to such possessions for so long, was also rather mind-boggling. In today’s disposable world, it’s hard to imagine possessing something for more than even 5 years. Especially something like his coffee maker which is made almost entirely out of plastic and he admitted was quite cheap back when he bought it. But it’s lasted.

1980s Krups grinder, made in France.

1980s Krups grinder, made in France.

Contrast this with my experience in consumerism today. My parents and I went to the AT&T store today because it’s been over 2 years since I signed a 2-year contract and got an iPhone 4. My phone was working just fine except I had dropped it too many times in the past two years and it sported a prominent crack in the glass across the front, and the side volume buttons no longer worked. It turned out that if I turned in my iPhone 4, I would receive enough store credit back that I could purchase a new iPhone 4S with additional credit left over. So, I went for it: a new iPhone 4S. It was a debate, however, between the 4S and 5, given that both models have come out since I got my last phone. By the time my renewed 2-year contract is up, my phone will be positively ancient by today’s technological standards.

My dad was advocating for my mom to upgrade her iPhone 3G (positively prehistoric, right?!) to a newer model, but she resisted, saying that it was working just fine and she barely uses its more advanced features anyway. Which is true. My dad seems to have fully embraced the pace at which technology advances, and he’s always looking to get the newest model of anything, even if he doesn’t actually need it. It’s funny that he’s adopted this mentality, even though at the same time he’s been using the same coffee brewer for almost 30 years.

The fact that I’m careless with my stuff (I drop my phone all the time and I lose my glasses, keys, and wallet frequently) and that my phone barely survived 2 years is indicative of my casual attitude towards my material possessions. Phone cracked? Not to worry, it’s getting old anyway — just replace it, it’s super cheap! I pride myself on being relatively environmentally aware, but I’m definitely a product of today’s disposable culture. My mom still wears some clothes from the 90′s, but I’d be hard-pressed to find anything in my wardrobe that’s more than 5 years old. (Especially socks: those have a lifespan of about a year, it seems.) Perhaps it’s not entirely my fault that I have this attitude — it could also be a consequence of the emphasis on cheapness, rather than quality, of manufacturing. To use the clothing example again, fast-fashion stores like H&M and Forever 21 are successful because their clothing is super cheap, but usually not very durable — yes, tank tops are $3 apiece, but often they wear out within a year or two. It’s a great business model, though, since this keeps customers returning to stores every few months to buy the newest styles and replace their wardrobes.

The growing popularity of “vintage”-ness seems to be a reaction to this disposable culture, and this could be a positive thing: it’s better to put more emphasis on recycling old but usable items rather than unnecessarily producing new ones. But again, I wonder if vintage items may not be sought out with the intention of using them for a long time. The patina of coolness that develops on an old sweater from grandma’s attic is transient, and before long the average hipster may once again be hitting up the thrift store in search of more cheap vintage items. (Cue Macklemore, of course.)

In the new year, I’m hoping to take better care of my stuff, eliminate buying what I don’t need, and if I really need something I don’t have, get something used when possible. It’s great to see retail companies like Patagonia embrace the 4 R’s — reduce, repair, reuse, recycle — through campaigns like the Common Threads Initiative. (I’m sure Patagonia can afford to do this despite the theoretical risk of reducing their sales because people will still cough up major $$$ for their brand name and perceived quality, but that’s a topic for another time.) Also, there are organizations like with the same overall mission. One danger, at least for me, will be to not simply continue to buy lots of things just because they’re “old” or “used,” but to actually reduce consumption. With any luck, like my dad I’ll also be able to hang on to my coffee brewing equipment for 25+ years. Actually, I’ll just be happy if my new phone survives the span of my 2-year contract, but, you know…baby steps.


Dad: “Yeah, I never mailed in that warranty form…”

December 26, 2012 0

On being (mostly) vegetarian

By in food

My family went for Christmas hot pot at a family friend’s house tonight. Taiwanese hot pot is a cozy communal affair, like Japanese sukiyaki or shabu shabu. It’s a perfect meal for a gathering of friends and family on a winter evening. Everyone is grouped around a hot pot simmering with water in the center of the table that, over time, gets filled with raw vegetables, meats, tofu, and other tasty morsels. Everything gets cooked together in the water, and food is fished out as it is cooked, directly into people’s bowls, which are pre-seasoned with condiments — my family favors soy sauce, sha cha, and a raw egg. The broth itself in the hot pot becomes savory and rich and delicious as time passes. When everyone’s stomachs are reaching capacity and the meal is drawing to a close, glass noodles are added to the hot pot, and they absorb the leftover broth as they soften and cook.

Hot pot

Photo by joyosity/Flickr

It was a satisfying meal, as hot pots always are. I managed to successfully avoid the meat in the hot pot, instead filling my bowl with tofu, spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes, noodles, and other non-meat items in the pot. Mr. L, the kindly host of the dinner and my right-hand neighbor at the table, repeatedly offered me the choicest bits of meat in the hot pot: “Take some shrimp!” or “The scallops look like they’re cooked now — have a piece!” I would thank him and take the proffered serving spoon but would discreetly take some non-meat items instead when he wasn’t looking. It was working just fine — he didn’t notice I wasn’t taking the meat — until my dad let drop during the conversation that I was trying to avoid meat. “Oh! Sorry, I didn’t know!” Mr. L said. “Next time we’ll make a separate hot pot for you!” I protested, saying that I wasn’t picky and I wasn’t strictly vegetarian, anyway, which I think rather confused Mr. L.

Such encounters are frequent since I’ve become mostly vegetarian since March of 2011. It’s hard to define this “vegetarianism” succinctly to others in a way that makes clear that I try to avoid meat whenever possible, but I’m not picky about it — if my food touches something with meat or is cooked with meat broth, I will still eat it. Given the circumstance, I’ll still eat meat, as if someone I know has prepared it and offers it to me — it feels wrong to turn down food that has been prepared and/or offered out of love, generosity, or other positive sentiments.

In addition, I will eat meat if it’s leftover, like if a friend at a restaurant doesn’t finish her entire steak and would otherwise have let it be thrown away. In other words, I’m a scavenger. This is meant to help reduce waste, as my vegetarianism stems from a desire to be more environmentally conscious. Of course, friends trying to mess with me tend to take advantage of this fact and purposely leave leftover meat on their plate. I’m also teased occasionally by those who remember the time that I had a cold chicken McNugget at a birthday party — even I’ll admit that it’s kind of crazy that I ate it, and it’s not one of my prouder moments. (But hey, it was early on in my vegetarian career and I was craving meat of any kind, and no one was going to eat it anyway since it had been sitting there for hours…so technically, it was in line with my principles. Though it was still kind of gross.)

So there you have it. I’m a vegetarian except in certain circumstances and I’m not hardcore about it. It’s easier to say that I’m “mostly vegetarian,” which is rather vague. I wouldn’t even give it a label except it’s easier to describe one’s eating habits in a 2-word phrase rather than going into a long, possibly preachy, speech about why I try to avoid meat. I sometimes think that I should take a harder line and refuse to eat all meat just because it’s simpler, despite the fact that it would no longer allow me to make use of otherwise-wasted leftover food and also that I might come across as rude in certain social situations if I were to refuse meat. I’ll have to think about it some more, but in the meantime, however messy my brand of mostly-vegetarianism may be, it’s the closest I’ve come to aligning my dietary decisions with my ethical principles.

September 23, 2012 0

Cities and Ambition

By in travel

Grace sent me this article, and I really like it.  I’ve been thinking a lot over these past 2 months about Seattle and what its message is to me.  More to come.