Wednesday, December 09, 2015

"Hamilton" and my kids

My latest missive is a love letter to a Broadway Musical on behalf of me and my kids:
The New York Times recently reported that the Rockefeller Foundation would be paying for 20,000 eleventh graders to see the musical “Hamilton,” the Broadway phenomenon that tells the story of the founding father Alexander Hamilton. Perhaps they should consider buying tickets for younger kids, too. 
For the past couple of weeks, my house of tweens has been booming with the original Broadway cast recording of the show. “Hamilton” has become the soundtrack to breakfast, homework time, dinner, and every car ride where the kids have control over the radio.
Read the rest on The Public Humanist Blog

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A Khaki Life: Cleaning out the dryer

If we define "green" as environmentally aware and proper and "brown" as the opposite, most people probably are living a "khaki life." I know I am.

I also know that I should try to do better. I'm not going off the grid, or buying carbon offsets for my every car ride, but I try to do a little bit in my every day life. And, honestly, I have more time than money so whatever I do to get greener will probably involve more sweat than cents.

Take this weekend. I've noticed our clothes dryer -- a GE model we bought 5 years ago -- was estimating cycles at longer and longer intervals. Used to be it would weigh the clothes and check the humidity (or whatever it does) and suggest it would take 62 minutes to dry a load of laundry. But that time was creeping up until last month each load was taking 73 minutes.

About the same time, the washing machine overflowed and I checked the manual and saw that I was supposed to clean out the filter every six months. Oops. At least I didn't wait six years.

When I was done with the washer, I checked the dryer manual for maintenance tips. There was nothing listed.

Then, on social media, one of my neighbors was asking about dryer vent clean out services. Aha!

Our dryer is positioned in our basement so that there is a fairly long vent to the exterior -- six feet up and then 20 feet out -- because of an addition the previous owners had made to the house. The output vent on the side of the house had plenty of dust and lint around it which was a good clue that there was probably a lot of lint in the venting.

Dryer lint brush
Turns out, dryer vents are just tubes stuck into one another like the extending attachments on a vacuum cleaner, with one crimped end that fits snugly into the wider opposite end of the next piece. So, armed with a lint brush I bought from Sears, a stick, a bucket and a vacuum, I cleaned out my dryer vent.

Each section of the vent is less than 2 feet long so after taking the sections apart, I stood a section up inside the bucket, scrubbed the sides with the brush and then scraped at any loose bits with the stick. I even stuck my arm in to flail my fingers about a bit, but that was not very effective and I was afraid the metal edges might cut me. I tried to get most of the dust and lint I removed to fall into the bucket, but anything I missed was vacuumed up.

The last step was to disconnect the vent hose from the back of the dryer. Have you ever tried to move a dryer? Surprisingly light!

There was a ring securing the hose to the dryer and I should have loosened the ring with a screwdriver (lefty loose-y) but instead, when I pulled the dryer away from the wall the hose popped off by mistake.

Well, it was off anyway, so I cleaned out the lint from the back of the dryer and from the hose. That was a satisfying job. I then pushed the dryer half way back, deposited a skinny 11 year old girl behind the dryer and made her affix the hose back to the dryer (right-y tight-y) before I would pull her back out.

Daughter retrieved, dryer back in position, I set the machine to a short "fluff" cycle just to make sure there weren't major leaks in the venting system. It all checked out!

Then I did some laundry. When the load went into the dryer, I set it up and the machine estimated drying time to be: 43 minutes. That's quite a bit of difference!

Now, not everyone has an extra long dryer vent that has not been cleaned out in 5 or more years, but the point is that regularly maintaining our appliances will improve their efficiency. Which reminds me: those coils under the fridge need to be vacuumed, the radiators need to be cleaned... there's lots to do.

Let me know if you have any regular maintenance routines that help you live greener by tweeting me @jakcheng

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Visiting Los Angeles

Great guacamole at Tito's Tacos
This summer, my daughter (age 10) and I took a trip to Los Angeles. We were there to visit my sister, and also just to explore the city; my daughter had never been to L.A. and I hadn't been since she was born (!).

We had a great time and here are some non-chronological thoughts and memories:

Great tacos! Our first stop was Tito's Tacos and it was terrific. Best crunchy taco I've ever had, packed so full of rice, beans and meat that when it fractured, it basically held it's shape. Excellent flavor and texture. Our last stop was Taco Beach Cantina at the Long Beach airport (what a great little airport with no franchises, easy security and just a friendly, relaxed atmosphere).

Not a performer, just a guy practicing his hobby
Venice Beach! Skateboarders! A giant hoop! There was plenty of entertaining people watching on the beach, and the water was warm (compared to the Atlantic) with good waves for body surfing.

Having a drink in a Hobbit house, Warner Bros
Studio Tours! We saw the Warner Bros. lot and Universal Studios. If you have only time for one? Well, for myself, I was interested in the movie making process and history and Warner's is more focused on that, driving you through a working backlot, walking through sound stages and then ending at a cool interactive museum with hands on exhibits and trick photography.

Velociraptor training at Universal
At Universal, it's more of a theme park and the "studio tour" is a ride -- they do point out sound stages but it's less informative and more entertaining. As for the rest of the park, Universal has a few cool "rides" -- the Minion adventure was a fun 3-D thing where the seats rock back and forth to simulate movement -- and the shows are great (Waterworld stunt show, trained animals, Special Effects) but are also designed more to entertain than inform. For what it's worth, my daughter loved the Universal Tour.

Just a regular guy trying to make a buck
Santa Monica! The famous pier and beach are great, and the promenade had fun street performers. Coming from Boston, it's strangely difficult to find ice cream (i.e. not on every corner). The coolest thing in Santa Monica for me was the Camera Obscura. It's a neat optical effect and there's something great about how it seems like a secret hidden in plain sight -- most people just walk right by the building.

Griffith Observatory
Griffith Observatory! Established by the wealthy Griffith J. Griffith to bring astronomy to the public, the Griffith Observatory is cool just by existing. Some nice exhibits and a memorable presentation on comets and the search for life (you need the elements CHNOPS); all the tour guides, presenters and waiters we met in the city were clearly born entertainers.

Levitated Mass
LACMA! The museum inspired my daughter to make some art. There are lots of great pieces in the museum but my favorites were Chris Burden's Metropolis, Michael Heizer's Levitated Mass and James Turrell's Breathing Light.

Malls! I suddenly discovered the whole southern California mall culture. True, you need to drive to most destinations, but the malls provide communal pedestrian areas with lots of people watching.

We had a great trip and looking forward to visiting again.

Friday, June 19, 2015

National Geographic Raw

Last fall, El Kurru, the archaeological site where I work in Sudan was featured in a National Geographic/PBS film called "Rise of the Black Pharaohs."

National Geographic recently posted some video of the drone footage with narration by the camera operator in their online National Geographic Raw series. It's fun to see and you can see the video on their Voices blog here:

Just FYI, Alan Turchik, the operator, calls his tool a helicopter, which it is. But it's also the same machine that others call a drone -- they just use the term copter because it's less controversial. Also, he talks about El Kurru in the video and that site is seen, most notably where workmen are shown. There is also footage from the pyramids of Meroe, and the temple with stone lions at Jebel Barkal, and possibly also pyramids from Nuri. Just so you know.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

How to give a wedding toast

Did your best friend ask you to give a toast at their wedding? Are you getting married and want to give your maid of honor some advice on making a toast? This guide is for you, a step-by-step guide to writing and giving a wedding toast whether you are the Best Man, Maid of Honor, an ex-girlfriend or favorite uncle. This is not advice, this is a flow chart.

Step 1: Get a piece of paper.
You are writing a toast. Do not wing it. Write it out. You don’t need to (and shouldn’t) read it off a piece of paper, but you should have thought of something beforehand and written it out so you have a sense of where you are going. And don’t procrastinate! Start this process up to 3 months before the wedding, and let it marinate.

Step 2: Brainstorm stories.
Come up with 4-5 favorite stories about your beloved friend, niece, brother.

Step 3: Edit your ideas.
Throw out the most embarrassing story of the 5; it may seem funny to embarrass your friend but half the people in the room don’t know you and they will think you are a jackass.

Then throw out the one story that you love the most, the story about how you first met/first bonded/declared yourself BFF to the bride or groom; you love this story the most because this story is actually about you. Take it out. This sounds mean, I know, but the wedding is not about you. Here’s the kicker, though: polish that story because you are going to give a kick-ass toast and then all the wedding guests will come up to you during the reception and ask how you met/bonded/became BFFs with the bride/groom and you will get to tell that story individually to people all through the night as they shower you with adulation.

Step 4: Put the stories in context.
Now that you have 2-3 stories, figure out how each story relates to the bride, groom or their relationship. For example, “after we changed the tire, I knew that Paul would make a great husband for someone one day” or “...because that’s the kind of person Pam is, she sets her mind to something and gets it done.” Explain what each story reveals about your friend.

Step 5: Introduce yourself.
Write your own one sentence introduction. “Hi, I’m Peter and I’ve known Paul since we were freshman roommates at college.” “I’m the Maid of Honor, Patty, and I’m Pam’s sister.” Do not use more than one sentence; do not use an inside joke that only the bride or groom would know. Be simple enough that the grandmas can turn to their husbands and explain, “THAT’s HER SISTER.”

Step 6: Practice.
Out loud. Don’t read the words over in your head; speak the words out loud. Then do it again. If you’re stumbling over a word, find another way to express your thought.

When you’re feeling good, time your speech. If you are over five minutes long, cut out one of the stories. If you go over five minutes, no one will speak to you at the reception because they will think that a) you are long-winded and b) they’ve already heard all of your best stories. If you go under five minutes, everyone will want to talk to you, compliment your toast and hear more from you.

Step 7: Deliver.
Stand tall, save your alcohol for after you speak (okay, have a sip for courage). You’ve left the written toast in your pocket or purse and you stand up, move to a central spot and give your one sentence introduction. Then talk to the entire room, smiling to the back of the room and glancing back at the bride and groom. Don’t worry about using the exact words from the page. Tell your first story and what it reveals about the groom, tell a second story and what it reveals about how the groom would be as a husband, and maybe the third story about the first time the groom told you about the bride.

Step 8: End the toast.
This is important, your audience wants to know when it’s over and okay to laugh or cry or applaud. Raise your glass and officially end your toast. Let people know it’s over with an announcement, something like: “On that note, please raise your glass and join me in wishing the couple a long and happy marriage.”

Step 9: Acknowledge.

Stand for a moment and smile. No need to hide yet; you did a great job and people want to look at you. Then, go over and kiss or hug your friend and his or her new spouse.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

No Longer 100% White

The New York Times Motherlode blog published my latest essay on April 15, 2015:
Former Gov. Jeb Bush made news recently because he checked “Hispanic” on a voter registration form. This is obviously ridiculous from a scion of the Bush family (and Mr. Bush has said he made a mistake). Yet, I understand, because the family he raised is not unlike mine... READ MORE
I was grateful for all the thoughtful comments I received through Twitter and on the NYTimes page. Although not everyone agreed, it was generally a civil discourse on a subject -- race -- that seems supercharged lately.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Digging Out: What an archaeologist thinks about while shoveling snow

There's been a record amount of snowfall in Boston this February and we might break the seasonal snowfall record by this weekend.

That means a lot of time shoveling snow, and that means a lot of time getting lost in thought.

My latest essay was published in the Good Men Project.

An archeologist shovels through the Boston snow and his memories while preparing for a dig in Sudan. 

It’s been a snowy winter in New England and I don’t have a snow blower. As I toss shovelfuls of snow over my head, or carry them to a lower snowbank, I think about August days gone by on the Anatolian plain, and anticipate flying to the eastern Sahara desert at the end of this week.

I am an archaeologist. Archaeology is both fun and tedious. The fun involves seeing things that no other human has seen in centuries, accumulating data to make conjectures about how ancient people lived, and literally re-writing history books.

The tedium involves moving dirt.

But moving dirt doesn’t have to be tedious. That’s what I learned from T. Cuyler Young, Jr.

Read more 

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Dig Libraries

As I prepare for another dig later this month (i.e. ignore clothes and such but trying to find the perfect book for the airplane), I was reminded of an essay I wrote for That website is no longer available so I guess the rights reverted back to me.

Dig libraries can be described in a manner analogous to how Borges’ Chinese encyclopedia described the animal kingdom: the books can be divided into (a) books once read long ago, (b) books that never get read, (c) books that resolve arguments, (d) books of mysteries, (e) books by Patrick O’Brien, (f) books that are passed around so much their spines are broken, (g) books in multiple copies, (h) books about academia, and (i) books of mysteries that are written as thrillers, (j) books about places that are cold, (k) classics, (l) books you would never have read at home and (m) books about the dig.

Digs -- archaeological excavations--build up libraries in an organic manner. An archaeologist in Michigan packs a couple of books with her before she heads to Syria or Turkey and when she’s done with them, she leaves them behind, leaving more room to bring back an oriental carpet or two. Sometimes, if she’s in the middle of reading something she found on the shelf, one of the books returns to America (or gets left in Damascus, or Heathrow, or the seat pocket of a 737).

Archaeology (at least in the Middle East, where I work) is not practiced, for the most part, by swashbuckling Indiana Jones types. (If you must, think boring Professor Jones lecturing in a drone -- but without the girls flirting with him.) Archaeologists tend to be a bookish, not to say nerdy, lot from anthropology and ancient history departments of big universities. Academics, in other words. After a hot day trying do communicate with workers in a foreign language, an adequate dinner, and a couple of beers, we often find ourselves enjoying our books around the dinner table, or reading in bed by flashlight.

The dig libraries I’m familiar with vary in size from a couple of crates of books to a dining room lined with bookshelves, one of which is filled with archaeological reports and two of which are filled completely with mysteries. The latter was at a dig house used for over four decades—and one long time archaeologist there claimed he had read all the books in that library, some of them twice. I write this sitting in the dining room of a dig in Syria and looking at our library: two planks, each about six feet long, filled mostly with paperbacks and one or two hardcovers (who was the fool who brought those out?).

To look at the library is to recall the Chinese encyclopedia, and to remember previous seasons on site: there’s the two copies of John Fowles’ The Magus (Jean took the third one home with her), there’s the Time Magazine Almanac we brought to settle arguments of various kinds (“Who was Prime Minister of Canada when Nixon was in office?” [this was before accessible internet]), there’s the picture book left behind by the camera crew who were documenting a Japanese doctor’s quest to bicycle across Asia and Africa (and through our site last year).

There are two copies of Agatha Christie’s autobiography here, as well as Come, Tell Me How You Live and Murder in Mesopotamia. The biography just mentions this site briefly but Come, Tell Me is a memoir of her travels and work in Syria with her archaeologist second husband, Max Mallowan. An interesting contrast is found reading her account of how a workman died tunneling under the Eye Temple here and then reading Max’s official excavation report that no workmen were injured in all the months they dug here. (The workman was tunneling on his lunch break, and not anywhere he was supposed to be, so Max took no responsibility for it.) Murder in Mesopotamia is a fictionalized account of how the obnoxious wife of Max’s former boss might come to an appropriately archaeological end (someone drops a big pot on her head).

I had a hard time getting into Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues whenever I tried to read it in America, and I thought that bringing it to a dig would force me to read it, given the lack of selection there. It was the perfect dig book, and I recommended it highly, earning it a place as one of the books that gets passed around and read by four or five people over the season. What makes it a perfect dig book? Well, out here, without television, telephones, e-mail and the general bombardment of information, there is more time to contemplate (as Agatha might put it) how we live, and so Robbins’ philosophical ramblings had a receptive audience. Plus, it gets lonely out here and the sex scenes are appreciated.

There are always books that I bring that I don’t read. Some of them were meant to be improving—Madame Bovary, Plutarch’s Lives of the Romans—others are just paperbacks that I didn’t need to carry back across the ocean. And there are books, like Lolita, that I enjoyed so much I had to bring them home for re-reading.

By far the most popular genre in dig libraries is the mystery. Clearly, that’s how many archaeologists see themselves. Our lives are filled with clues. A footprint, a broken pot, a piece of flint. How do these tell a story of the past? Was this room used for the manufacture of bowls, was it attacked by invaders? Grab a trowel Watson, and when we’re done digging for the day, we’ll sit back with Ed McBain, or P.D. James, or Ellis Peters, or Agatha herself.

Last year, when it was still cold at the beginning of the season and our canvas tents weren’t providing much insulation, I was reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Antarctica and could empathize with the characters. This year, I’m reading John McPhee’s Coming Into the Country, about the Alaskan wilderness. When it gets really hot, books about cold climates are welcome.

There are certain books that I would never read in America, but I read out here. Sometimes it’s just a book I never got around to reading when they were “hot,” like A Thousand Acres, or The Mosquito Coast. Sometimes it’s a genre issue. I don’t like horror much, but I was encouraged to read Hannibal by someone who wanted to talk about it. The complaints about the ending have now spanned multiple seasons.
A limited book supply results in an instant book club. In fact, when browsing a dig library for a book to read, you can be almost certain to find someone who’s read it and can critique any given tome.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not out here at the dig just to read; I do, in fact, get quite a lot of work done while I’m here. But I’ve been here for four seasons—about 8 months total—and 12 feet of books isn’t that much for that amount of time. I may finally get to the Plutarch. And then I’ll start re-reading the top shelf.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Turtle Acupuncture in Orion Magazine Sept/Oct 2014

For a while now, I've been fascinated by the work of Claire McManus, an acupuncturist whose patients have included dogs, bongos and warthogs. I spent an afternoon with her at the New England Aquarium's Rescue and Rehabilitation center to watch her treat sea turtles.

In the Sept/Oct 2014 issue, Orion Magazine published my story about turtle acupuncture. I'm pretty flattered to be published in Orion -- it's a beautifully produced magazine focused on nature and environmental issues with some heavy hitting contributors and advisors. It first caught my eye when I read an article by Sy Montgomery about octopi.

My own article is not available on Orion's website, but I'm posting it here:

Reptile Recovery

his shoulder. He lies on a table, his belly
placed on a clean white towel, while Claire
McManus, a specialist working with Dexter’s
primary care-giver, Dr. Charlie Innis,
palpates his limbs, pressing her fingers
gently along his skin to locate the bones
and muscles underneath. The lights in
the room are turned down to relax the patient,
and McManus pulls a small needle,
the width of a human hair, from its sterile
package. Carefully, she taps one into Dexter.
A dozen more will be placed into his
head and limbs.

“Unfortunately, we can’t get to his
back,” McManus says.

Dexter’s shell makes that impossible.

Claire McManus is an acupuncturist,
and today she is working at the New
England Aquarium’s rescue and rehabilitation
center, where Dr. Innis is the
aquarium’s head of veterinary medicine
and a specialist on sea turtles. Innis
doesn’t believe that Dexter’s occasional
movements are signs that the needles
cause him any pain. “Even if you’re not
[performing acupuncture],” he says,
“they’re as active as he’s being now. They
definitely don’t withdraw their flipper
like they would if it was a larger needle.”

McManus emphasizes that her practice
is not “alternative medicine,” because
it is not mutually exclusive with Western
medicine. In this case, the procedure is
a complementary therapy, working alongside
science to aid in healing. Or, as Dr.
Innis puts it, “Doesn’t matter what works
as long as the animals improve and can
be released to the wild.”

Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese
medical practice based on the regulation
of the flow of qi through the body.
In humans, pressure points have been
mapped out, each corresponding to a
specific area of the body. “A lot of them
overlap with muscle bundles and when
these pathways are blocked, there’s some
sort of imbalance or pain,” says McManus.
“It could be difficulty moving a limb,
depression, anxiety—it could be a whole
range of things from something physical
to something emotional.”

Dexter can’t tell us if his trauma is
mental as well as physiological—for all
we know, it might be both. Members of
Dexter’s species, the Kemp’s ridley sea
turtle, are born on beaches in Mexico
and travel up and down the East Coast of
North America following warm currents.
Unfortunately, Cape Cod juts east into the
Atlantic and acts like a giant barrier, confusing
and trapping southbound turtles in
Massachusetts Bay. Most years, anywhere
from 30 to 80 of these endangered turtles
are found stranded on New England
beaches and tended to by the aquarium’s
rescue and rehab department. The winter
of 2012 to 2013 was a particularly bad season,
with 242 turtles brought to the aquarium
and more than 100 others found
dead on shore. Many rescued turtles are
treated by the aquarium staff and released
within weeks, while others stay as long as
a year and a half. When regular veterinary
medicines are not working, the aquarium
sometimes calls in outside help.

“When they called me, I did a little
online research and found a rehab place
in Israel, where a vet had treated turtles,”
McManus says. “I talked to them about
styles of needling, gauges of the needles
they would use. There is a small community
of researchers and vets out there who
are doing this kind of work.”

The first time she treated a turtle, McManus
asked one of the veterinary assistants
how she would know if the turtle
was going to bite her. “He said, ‘He’ll
do this,’” and then mimed a slow motion
turn of the head and opening of the
jaw. If a turtle tries to bite, she was told,
“You’ve got a lot of reaction time.”

More and more animals—both wild
and domestic—are seeing acupuncturists.
Numbers are hard to come by, but
major veterinary schools like those at
Tufts and Cornell offer some acupuncture
training to students who request it.
Anatomical maps of acupuncture points,
like those used for the human body, are
being created for animals too, especially
domestic livestock. Chinese practitioners
have made charts for dogs, horses, camels,
and elephants. “You and I aren’t all
that different, structurally, from a dog,”
McManus explains. “We all have femurs,
tibia, all the same bones and a lot of the
same muscles.”

After about twenty minutes, McManus
removes the needles from Dexter,
five from each limb and two from his
head. Since his treatment started a
week ago his appetite has increased; the
acupuncture seems to be working. Following
the procedure, Dexter returns to
his tank, where Dr. Innis will monitor
his progress and, eventually, release
him back into the ocean. With luck, he
will live a long life and never set foot on
land again.

This article originally appeared in Orion.

Proper Citation:
Cheng, Jack "Reptile Recovery," Orion Magazine 33:4, Sept/Oct 2014, p. 12-13