Wednesday, October 29, 2008

wonders of the modern world

Yesterday, I took Jascha over to the hellhole of west LA to get Lasik surgery. Little did I know that I was going to get to witness the entire amazing operation via video monitor. It took longer to get through traffic than it did for the entire process. I also learned that they don't even bother to suture the corneal flap afterward because the negative osmotic pressure holds it in place.


I was recently introduced to the world of ball jointed dolls (BJDs) in a recent LA Weekly write-up on Artmaze, a Korean-based company that produces a line of ultra realistic, ultra creepy BJDs called Elfdolls. Not surprisingly collectors include many fans of anime and cosplay. Den of Angels, one of the BJD forums hosts 9000+ active members on its forum. There is a thriving cottage industry in BJD photography, clothing, and something called faceups (the painstaking hand application of facial coloring). This isn't exactly a kids hobby, as larger dolls (55-60 cm in height) retail for $500+. BJD aficianados stage elaborate scenes with their dolls, like deaths, weddings, and yaoi encounters, granted with the latter it's a bit difficult to tell sometimes with the prevalent androgynous J-rock theme going. Personally, I'd find it a bit disconcerting to have dolls this realistic staring at me in my house, but to each its own.

Note: I was kindly corrected by the owner of The Lost Boys blog, which I had previously referenced for death scenes. The dolls appearing in his blog are Living Dead Dolls and not considered BJDs.

Monday, October 27, 2008

hidden l.a.

A few weeks ago, on one of our night hikes in the Verdugos we stumbled upon a small cemetery and series of hand-constructed damns in a canyon near Jascha's place. The canyon closed off at one point and we ended up scrambling up a crumbly dirt bank for several hundred feet before bushwhacking back to the dirt road. At one point we passed a trail heading off left back down the canyon, so we knew that there was likely a better way to go. When we got home (after washing off the poison oak) we went online and found out that the cemetery belonged to the Brand family. On this same blog we pulled up information on the abandoned zoo at Griffith Park and it immediately went on our "must see" list.

We woke up Saturday morning feeling unmotivated to follow through on our usual weekend activities of climbing or embarking on some death march, so we decided to use the opportunity to do some local exploration. First we headed over to the old zoo, which we had read had been fenced off after the 2007 Griffith Park fire. We arrived to find a surreal scene, with families picnicking on green lawns adjacent to easily accessible cages. We crawled inside one of the largest ones through an opening in the fence. The cage was a maze of steep staircases, narrow passageways, and small rooms. Graffiti and poster artists had decorated the walls and the floors were covered with broken beer bottles, but amazingly, it didn't smell like an outhouse. We exited the cage through the roof, walked around a bit more, then headed down to Cafe Tropical for pumpkin pie and guava cheese puff pastry. Outside the cafe the Silverlake Obama volunteers were hard at work reminding folks to vote and offering rides to the poll. Thanks guys.

Next we returned to Glendale for an encore visit to Brand Canyon. Before long we were back at the Brand family cemetery, which is dominated by a large pyramid. Graves were as recent as the late 80s and per the city of Glendale website, include the family dogs. Photographs of the individual graves are cataloged here. We continued up the canyon, amazed at the amount of work that went into building the series of rock dams, some as high as 25 feet. When we reached the point where we had previously gone up the sketchy dirt chute we instead went left up the canyon. We encountered a series of class 4ish water polished solid granite falls (now dry) interspersed with sandy stream bed. The canyon became more brushy as we continued up and we turned back after Jascha ended up with a face full of poison oak.

That night we went to see the Swedish film, Let the Right One in (Lat den ratte komma in), a satisfyingly dark tale about a pale, spindly misfit boy that falls for his undead neighbor. The frigid Blackeberg, a suburb of Stockholm, is the perfect backdrop for this bleak story.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

robo boot camp

I have a weakness for engineers, and one of things that initially attracted me to Jascha was his robotics background, notably his participation in robot fighting competitions like BattleBots. So when an invitation to compete at the Maker's Faire came around I agreed to help out. We lucked out that the event was in Austin because it meant we had access to his dad's incredible shop, a major luxury in a world where traveling to events means working with whatever tools portable you can fit in your storage container.

We caught an early flight into Austin the day before the event. Armed with 3.5 hours of sleep from the night before we set to work on Jascha's robot, The Judge, repairing a leaky pneumatics valve and damage sustained by an overzealous robotsitter. At 2am after ~8 hours of shop time we called it a day.

We arose wearily at 10am and headed over to the event.
There were four other competitors in the the 340 lb category and the event was set up as a round robin. The Judge is notorious for its vicious, pneumatically-controlled hammer with interchangeable tool steel tips and many of the competitors came prepared with reinforcements to shield against internal damage. The pit was pretty much what I expected - almost exclusively nerdy guys frantically tinkering with the fruits of their savings and many hours of sleepless nights. My hat goes off to Wendy, one of the few female drivers in the sport. We had a bit of time to kill before the first round so we headed out into the fair in search of food. We were pleasantly surprised to find amazing banh mi (Chinese BBQ pork highly recommended) from Lulu B's amongst the typical carnival fare and gluten/soy/dairy/taste free food.

The first round of the day was against the Vladiator, a lifter type robot. Things went well until the pneumatic system failed, leaving the hammer stuck in the fully released position. It was disappointing to see a loss so early. We had less than three hours until the next round so we quickly removed the armor and took the robot outside for diagnostics. Frustratingly, the culprit was a second valve in the custom pneumatics valve assembly that we had so carefully disassembled and cleaned the night before. We didn't
have time to do a full disassembly so Jascha rotated the poppet valve repeatedly in its seat, hoping that it would reseal. Getting the batteries recharged and the armor back on in time for the next round was stressful, and it didn't help that the irritating Tesla coil exhibitors across the hall were blasting sci-fi movie and video game themes as accompaniment. Finally we were ready to go.

Our next round was against Steel Reign. The hammer appeared to be functioning again, but we knew from experience that it might take a few blows to show symptoms of valve leakage. Shortly after the battle began Steel Reign stopped working completely and its owner tapped out. This turned out to be a temporary problem, and Jascha gave the OK to start up the round again. This time the hammer appeared to be working better although now it wouldn't retract fully. Fortunately, we still won the match. We pulled off the armor and didn't see anything obvious hindering the rack and pinion system that actuates the hammer. When we turned it over and pulled off the dented bottom plate, however, we found the problem. Blows from below had put a large tear in the frame, but more importantly, had dented the large piston and housing cylinder that drive the hammer arm. This looked bad as we couldn't exactly pick up a replacement cylinder or piston at an auto parts store. We knew that we had another long night of repairs ahead of us.

After a quick dinner of Thai food, Jascha and I removed and disassembled the piston assembly. We worked on the frame repair, while Jascha's dad attempted to smooth out the dented cylinder with a press. The piston was easily bent back into shape, but the cylinder was more stubborn. After several hours of lathe work and sanding Jascha's dad was able to get the piston to run somewhat smoothly through the cylinder. Jascha and I reinforced the damaged frame by adding an additional armor plate, which had the added benefit of protecting the regulator. We turned in around 3am.

The first round of the day was against Ziggy, which The Judge had lost to in its previous encounter. Ziggy has a pneumatically-driven flipper arm that can easily send 300+ lb robots into the air. We crossed our fingers that the hammer was functioning properly, as it is also used to right the robot after being turned over. The round was close with Ziggy repeatedly throwing the Judge into the air and The Judge fighting back with heavy blows. In the end it came down to the judges' decision and the round went to Jascha.

For once there wasn't any debilitating damage, so we recharged The Judge's batteries, refilled the nitrogen cylinder, and relaxed. We were visited by a number of spectators of all ages and Jascha answered questions about the inner workings of The Judge and offered advice about breaking into the sport. Our next round was against Gerald and Emily, two robots that fight together. I learned that a team can have as many robots as they want in one round as long as their cumulative weight meets the class specifications. As the round got closer, however, we saw that Gerald had been modified with a huge steel plate as protection against The Judge. This meant that Gerald would be fighting alone. As an added advantage to us we found out that the plate partially obstructed the spinning drum and blade on the front of Gerald. The battle started and sparks flew as Gerald's blades scraped The Judge's titanium armor. Jascha got in a number of substantial blows and Gerald eventually stopped moving. The titanium was gouged and some of the welds were sheared, but there wasn't any new internal damage.

We waited around for a while to see if we would have to do a final round to decide the winner, but because we had just beaten the competitor with whom we were tied for number of wins/losses the organizers declared The Judge the overall heavyweight winner.

We postponed our final repairs in order to get in a few hours of climbing, dinner prep (we made nam khao tod, or rather nam tofu, tod and prik khing for Jascha's parents), and blacksmithing lessons for me. I was worked from lack of sleep and helping to lift the robot repeatedly, and I got frustrated on not being able to clip the last bolt from a sharp finger numbing crack on what I thought was a 5.9. I later learned this was a 10c. Fortunately, we moved down to an easier part of the cliff and I redeemed myself on some 10a routes. My blacksmithing lessons were fun, but a bit challenging because my forearms were tired from climbing on overhanging limestone. Jascha's dad was most patient and I managed to produce a slightly lopsided hook. The following evening we patched the armor and repaired the sheared welds, leaving The Judge packed up and ready for the next event. I had a great weekend, picked up some new skills, and fully enjoyed the event and shop time.

Lessons Learned:
  • If the idea of blowing away countless hours and dollars with a few minutes in the ring doesn't seem very appealing to you, then robot fighting is not your sport.
  • Helping to lift a 320 lb robot repeatedly with minimal sleep for 2.5 days will not improve your climbing.
  • Don't always believe locals without guidebooks who tell you a route is a 5.9.
  • Learning to blacksmith is not compatible with climbing overhung routes.
  • Metal is incredibly forgiving to the repeated correction of mistakes made by inexperienced forgers.

Monday, October 13, 2008

easy like sunday...

I decided to the hinder the decline of my alpine conditioning by embarking on an 18+ mile run/hike in the San Gabriels. I found a loop on my Mt Wilson topo leaving from Switzers trailhead with minimal pavement and dirt road. I hadn't been on those trails before, but I could see it had a satisfying amount of elevation gain. After some deliberation Jascha decided to join me.

Sunday rolled around and we detoured to Saigon's Sandwiches and Bakery first for bahn mi and to for the San Gabriel Superstore for mochi, then headed back up north to the trailhead. We parked on the road to avoid getting locked in the gate, which supposedly closed daily at 4:30p. The trailhead was packed with picnickers and day hikers. I would soon regret leaving my camera at home. We headed in a counterclockwise direction, heading SW down the Bear Canyon trail. The canyon was lovely, shady with water-worn rock walls, and the trail zigzagged through the river bed.

At the Tom Sloane Saddle we encountered a four-way intersection. Only three of these trails were depicted on our topo and we weren't sure which of the two trails leading to the Mt Lowe road was the one shown on the map. We chose the right-most trail, which we later learned added 1.5-2 miles. The trail was precipitous with bushwhacky sections and washouts, but also with extensive views all the way to the ocean. When we finally reached the road we realized that we were quite a ways in the wrong direction from where we wanted to go. As we looked over the edge of the road down the canyon we could see the more direct trail we chose not to take. We stopped for a mochi break and map consultation. We had several options for getting back, one requiring ~3 miles of pavement and one which was longer, but trail. The later sounded more appealing.

As we approaced Markham Saddle we started seeing hikers again. After passing through the tunnel we were surprised to see signs for the now defunct Mt Lowe railway. I remembered seeing the old trestles around Echo Mountain, but I didn't realize it once extended up to a huge tavern on Mt Lowe. We left Mt Lowe for our next trip and ran down the twisty Valley Forge trail. Before long we were back down in the Arroyo Seco River Canyon at the Red Box trail junction. The trail was fairly flat until we reached Camp Hi-Hill Outdoor Education Center, which I initially thought was Red Box. The 0.7 (or 0.9 depending who you believe) miles from Hi-Hill climbed about 600 ft and seemed to take much longer than it should have. The temperatures were also starting to drop and the winds were picking up. We took our minds off of our suffering by discussing our dinner plans.

We took our last mochi break and after a bit of searching found the Switzers trailhead. The long switchbacks were frustrating, but at least it was mostly downhill. We initially planned to cut up to Angeles Crest Highway to avoid having to walk up the paved road from the picnic area to my car, but we never found the trail junction that we were using as a landmark. The Switzers picnic area came into view and we trudged up the paved road to find the gate wide open. Oh well. In total we had gone ~20 miles. On the way home we stopped at El Hurache Azteca for their tasty asada huaraches and melon aquas.


I don't normally rant about politics in my blog, but I am disgusted (although not surprised) with conservative spewings about Obama's comment regarding not wanting his daughters to be burdened with a baby at age 16. I commend any politician, let alone one running for President, to speak so candidly about this issue.

The Quote:

I've got two daughters, 9 years old and 6 years old. I'm going to teach them first of all about values and morals but if they make a mistake, I don't want them punished with a baby. I don't want them punished with an STD at the age of 16, you know.

How selfish and irresponsible is it to encourage your pregnant 17 year old daughter to keep the baby and marry her boyfriend? A multitude of studies have shown teen motherhood is associated with lower levels of education, lower socioeconomic status, higher rates of abuse/neglect, higher rates of negative child health outcomes, and higher rates of daughters who become pregnant in their teens. Few women, even those with valid and applicable work experience and educational backgrounds, are lucky enough to have as many opportunities as Sarah Palin. It's pathetic that publicity from a pending election is sufficient justification for someone to encourage their daughter to follow a path guaranteed to create barriers to her educational and career development. Raising a baby before one is mature enough and financially capable of supporting it in a healthy, stable environment is akin to child abuse. If you don't believe in abortion, then put the baby up for adoption.

Friday, October 10, 2008


OK, so I'm a closeted cook, which means I can appreciate a good appliance almost as much as a cam or accessory for my F650GS. Consequently, I was thrilled when Jascha presented me with a Zojirushi, the Cadillac of rice cookers. I had been battling with my stylish, but functionally challenged, Krups stainless rice cooker all summer to make the perfect sticky rice, compounded by the fact I was living at 4600 ft. I think Jascha heard me mutter under my breath, "What do the Germans know about cooking rice? I need to break down and buy a J cooker."

The Zoji actually has settings for different types of rice, including rice porridge, brown rice, and sticky rice. The sticky rice came out perfect on the first try. I also tried out the timer setting and woke up to the odor of freshly prepared congee.

pilgrimage to LoS

Jascha's birthday rolled around and I admit that I pushed for a trip to Vegas out of slightly selfish interests to climb at Red Rocks and to try out Lotus of Siam, supposedly the "best Thai restaurant in the North America," so says the almighty L.A. Weekly food critic, Jonathan Gold. I figured that I could compensate by booking a room at the ultra hip & Dwell-esque Palms Place and taking him out to dinner at Rosemary's.

We ended up getting in late on Friday night so we had an easy day of sport climbing in Calico Basin on Saturday. We found some routes that weren't in the guid
e book, one of which was a thin 5.11+ or 5.12- crimpfest that we toproped. As I was setting up a precarious TR Jascha was questioned by some family struggling down the class 2-3 descent as to whether he had taught me how to rig a TR. He politely told them that I was the experienced climber.

The main attraction of the day, however, was a trip to LoS. We were somewhat versed in Isan cuisine from our trips to our local Thai restaurants Renu Nakorn and Khun Dom. Isan is relatively hard to come by even in a city with a huge Thai population like L.A. We arrived at LoS at peak dinner time and were told that there was a 30 minute wait. We decided to take a stroll around the aging strip mall to kill time. The strip mall contained multiple Asian restaurants/clubs, two wig stores, a 420 cafe, a roller hockey rink, pentecostal and evalgelical churches, an Alcoholics Together meeting space, two gay bathhouses (a.k.a. health clubs/spas), a BDSM clothing/supplies store, and a swingers' club, all seemingly harmoniously coexisting. Only in Las Vegas. Sadly, the nam kao tod and kang hoh at LoS were both lackluster. Both appeared on our table too fast to not be prepared in advance of our order. The rice on the nam kao tod was slightly soggy and the dish contained cubed store-bought pork sausage, not the seasoned ground pork and pork skin we get at khun dom. We ordered the nam kao tod "medium spicey", but received a completely farangified bland version. The kang hoh, however, was less vinegary than Renu Nakorn (a good thing). I am anxious to try the real deal in Thailand in a few months.

The next day we headed back to Red Rocks to climb the classic, Frogland (5.8), Jascha's choice. Thankfully, Jascha agreed to drive because there is no way my Mini would have made it through the washes. Fall was in full swing and the desert temperatures were perfect. We noticed a party on the first pitch as we approached. It was remarkably uncrowded for a weekend day this time of year and this popular of a route, likely because the weather report was iffy about precipitation. We decided to carry our packs to avoid having to contour back around to the start of the route after the descent.

By the time I started up the party above us had reached the first belay. Frogland is one of the more continuous routes I have climbed and even on the second run in a year it did not disappoint. The amount of abandoned gear (no less than 4 cams) in the committing 5.7 lieback on the second pitch was both entertaining and slightly disconcerting. At the second brushy belay alcove we caught up with the other party, one member, Samantha, I recognized as a friend of my
other climbing partner, Miguel. I mentioned that I had seen her climbing with Miguel before at Malibu Creek and she said, "Aren't you the one that climbs fast and solos everything." I laughed. I set up a belay just below Samantha to stay out of the way. When Jascha arrived we climbed up to a higher ledge. I knew that the rope drag was bad on the next pitch (last time I lead some unprotectable slab with potential for a major pendulum fall due to my shoddy belay placement) so I decided not to wait for Samantha's partner to finish the pitch and I headed up to set up an intermediate belay below the roof where Samantha's partner was somewhat struggling.

The belay above the roof proved to be a bottleneck so we waited it out. I decided to try and bypass the next belay and go all the way up to the end of the technical section. I wasn't sure if the rope drag would be unbearable, given that the route weaves behind a chockstone, then around a roof/arete. Fortunately, it was fine. Supertopo calls the last class 5 section 5.4R. I find this hard to believe; it's at least 5.7. I was amazed at how quickly Jascha maneuvered through the chockstone section (with his pack) given that I'm ~2/3 his size and I found it grovely. We packed up our ropes and rack for the final class 4 jaunt to the top. On the summit we snacked on pineapple coconut pecan muffins, then we scrambled down the canyon to the car. We were looking forward to our dinner at Rosemary's.

Before heading to dinner we checked into the Palms Place, which was much more tasteful than I expected, plus it had an added bonus of being in a building detached from the casino
accessible by a separate entrance. The mix of dark wood/textiles and industrial materials were right up my alley. At Rosemary's we ordered our old standby, twice-baked parmesan souffle, plus panko-crusted crab boulettes, grilled flat iron steak, and baked Japanese sea bass. Something happened with our order to cause a major delay, so we were given another appetizer. We chose wisely, the daily special of squash risotto with basil pesto and goat cheese cream sauce. This turned out to be the highlight of the dinner, along with the pecan pie. The entrees and souffle were better on our prior visit.

All in all we had a great weekend and it was with great reluctance that we headed back to L.A.

Friday, October 3, 2008

bishop send off

It's hard to believe how fast the summer flew by. This week I bid a fond farewell to Bishop by helping Tricia and Lesley celebrate their 40th and 38th b-days, respectively, in classic E Side style (read potluck + high flutin' alcoholic beverages minus Tricia's 40 ouncer). We had a great turnout with our Bad Ass Chick theme, and I finally got a chance to use my mobile theater with a screening of Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Jascha helped me make a fairly successful chicken version of nam kao tod (modified from Pim's recipe). Special thanks to Karen, AT, Mixologist Michelle, Matt, and Janet for helping me pull it all together in just a week's time.