Diving the Great Barrier Reef & learning about underwater photography: Cairns, Queensland, Australia

Earlier this week I am happy to say that I completed yet another one of my bucket list items; I went scuba diving/snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef along the eastern coast of Australia…. before it died completely. That said, I’m VERY sorry to say that, at least for the bits I was able to see up close, were already pretty much bleached/dead, when compared to pictures I have seen over the years of the explosion of color it once was…. very sad. Global climate change, it’s a thing.


My travel-buddy and I had went up to Cairns in northern Queensland, which is the town located closest to barrier reef, and stayed there for a week. Be warned! Once you get there you’ll be barraged with boat tour options because Cairns is about either diving the reef, or visiting the UNESCO world heritage area rainforests/wetlands that line this part of the Australian coast. We ultimately opted for a company a friend of ours had previously used and been very happy with, called Reef Experience, which advertises itself as the only one to offer “all-inclusive” tours… no “hidden fees”, etc.

This would be one of the photos they sell to you, taken by their photographer

What this translates to (per my understanding, which may be flawed)… is that while there are other companies that may seem cheaper… in reality they all pretty much cost the same or in fact more, while delivering essentially the same offerings. The major difference is other companies might not include various taxes and fees and what not (cost of the swim gear?) in the advertised price, and you’ll find you have to choose to add them in addition, or not dive… and by the time you do, those other guys are actually more expensive (unless you own all your own scuba gear, etc).

Our tour group, including me and my friend (can you spot me?). The company posted this to their Facebook page for us to download afterwards — a freebie photo

They do have an online website, but I, rather than make the reservation that way, dragged my ass into their offices (a short walk from our Airbnb) FIVE days in advance of our trip …  on the assumption that this would keep problems from developing … I paid for the two reservations, and they asked were there any food restrictions. I explained that my friend was a vegetarian who was allergic to mushrooms. So, all good, and was told what to bring with me, when we’d be picked up, etc… and went home.

TWO days later (on Sunday, when we were supposed to dive on Wednesday), and I might add AFTER it was already two late to cancel and get a refund!!!!! I get an email explaining that under Queensland law, not everyone is legally allowed to do scuba diving and that we had to both fill out a medical form and send them a list of all the medications that we were taking, dosage, and how often; They would then show the list to their dive doctor and he would say if we could dive; or he would say that we needed to go to a doctor to be certified in person as healthy enough to do scuba. WHY they could not have told me that when I was in the office, and given me the form then, I don’t know. …. AND this was no PDF that we could fill-in and then send back to them, or even a website to fill out, it was an image file (???!!!). Something you needed to print out and fax back. Now keep in mind, we’re tourists, and I’ve yet to find a really portable printer (and who the fuck brings those on a plane?) and the Airbnb we were renting didn’t have “business office” facilities … so we had to get REALLY creative to figure out how to fill this thing… my friend, who is a professional geek, luckily had an image editor on his laptop… I have no idea how other people might manage it





















Also, read the form REALLY carefully. [Have you EVER suffered from a cold? Our best guess was that was, what’s called in the legal profession, a gotcha question; i.e, IF anything bad happens that you might want to sue them over, odds are you answered “have you ever had the common cold” with “No” because you want to be allowed to go scuba diving, and they can then say “SEE they lied on the form! They can’t sue us!”

So… Early Monday morning, after finally figuring out how to fill this thing in, and before we left to do the tourist stuff we had come to Cairns to do — which was NOT filling out medical forms, we sent it to them. LATE Monday night — seriously I kept checking my emails for a response from them, it didn’t come till around 9pm…. we got an email saying that their doctor had OK’d me to dive, but my NOT my friend (who is WAY healthier than I am and not a month before had been scuba diving in the waters off of Bali). Do not pass go, do not collect $200…. He had be seen by an actual doctor to get OK’d to dive, and they suggested a 24 hour walk-in-clinic nearby. My friend (being too tired and grumpy to go that night) contacted them to make an actual appointment for the next morning, but was told he couldn’t get one, that he had to come in as a walk-in, and hope to be seen on a first come first seen basis starting 5pm. (We called the company, who started calling around to other clinics and NONE could see him.) So the next day, he went over at 4:30 …but the doctors on staff did NOT know of his medication, and could NOT ok him to dive! They told him he had to come back AGAIN the following morning at 6:00 AM, BEFORE our 7:30 am dive, when the doctor who actually knew his stuff would be there. So my friend did, and that doctor said it was no problem — the drug is a common one in the USA, but less commonly used in Australia — and thankfully my friend was able to go there and be back by 7am, in time for our 7:30 bus…. which came 10 minutes early…. and after all that rushing, we were dropped off and discovered we now had to stand and wait for the boat crew to be ready…. because they were not.


Talk about hurry up and wait!!! But back to the issue of pricing…. Essentially most of the one-day tours at this price point, about $150 USD/person, all seemed to last for about the same length. You should expect need to arrive at your ship at about 7:30 am and return to port at 4:30 pm. (Like I said, ours included pickup from and drop-off at our hotel — and thankfully the Airbnb was actually IN a hotel or they would not have — as part of the price… on the up side, they did call us when they were about to arrive. I STRONGLY suggest you find what the nearest hotel to you is, and set that as your pick up location if your airbnb is NOT so situated)


Finally the staff arrived to check us all in. We had to show either the print out of our ticket or an email confirming it. On their sheet I saw that they had my friend listed as vegetarian, but NOTHING about his mushroom allergy, so I reminded them…. they said “thank you” and wrote it down…..

This guy was traveling solo

Then every group of visitors (friends, families, etc) had their photo taken… like the one I posted at the top of the blog…. this is a photo you’ll be expected to buy later…


Before the boat got started they talked to us, and told us that motion sickness pills (both medicinal and ginger tablets) were available. The Medical ones were $3 AUD for two pills (one for BEFORE we got moving, the second to be taken after lunch), which I went straight over the purchased… and was SO glad I did. Even with, I had to focus on calm breathing and such during part of the rougher parts of the ride out. During the way out to the dive site they fed us breakfast, and lets just say some of the folk who had thought they didn’t need the pills had ‘spilled their cookies’. For my travel buddy…. they had a veggie burger, which he didn’t want because he wasn’t hungry… and for everyone else there were fried-egg and bacon sandwiches… I just had a fried egg which I patted down with paper towels, to remove the oil. While doing it I talked to the chef-female and asked her, “did they tell you my vegetarian friend is allergic to mushrooms?” and the answer was “NO they  had NOT.!”… Keep in mind I told them this TWICE…. AND she kind of freaked because the dish she was getting ready to make for his lunch, was FULL of mushrooms!!!! That’s a MAJOR screw up!!

There’s a top deck for those wanting to tan and rest, note the resort deck out in the distance (it just stays out there pretty much 24/7)

SO, that said… Along the way no matter which cruise you take, they’ll feed you breakfast, lunch, and a snack on the return trip (ours were all you can eat, and there was enough for seconds) — which is either included or you’ll need to pay extra. Ours was included, with water, tea and coffee for free…. pop or beer cost extra.

Taken using their underwater rental camera… notice the color difference between the shoe in or out of the water?

Once out there, you’ll be lent a blue “stinger suit’ to protect you from jelly fish stings, a pair of flippers, a snorkel and goggles. Our company also lent a wet suit to anyone who was a certified swimmer and didn’t have their own (again something that I think other companies might charge you for). They seemed to have all the gear at pretty much every size, so for instance my friend who wears a shoe size of 13 Australia /49 European & 15 US — huge feet, has trouble find socks and shoes, WAS able to borrow ones that fit… while my feet are at the other end of spectrum (unusually small for a white girl, although average for an Asian woman), and I was also able to find ones that fit snuggly.


They even had prescription goggles that they were lending out for free. I have particularly horrible eyesight, and doubted they’d have mine… but they had one that was close enough to allow me to see, and even had one that was for folks who were even worse than me… although they weren’t bifocals so I could see far but not near….

Me, with my borrowed prescription goggles — purchased pic

Once we got out to the reef and dropped anchor, everyone got one scuba dive with an instructor (if they weren’t already certified), where the staff helps you get into the gear, into the water, and then makes sure you can both breath properly using the tank and regulator, and are able to expel water from your goggles while under the water (because apparently the goggles have not yet been made where that won’t happen).

The rental camera is red filtered for underwater use, and is kind of lousy above it

And then you get led around by the instructor for about 20 minutes after that, after the photographer has had a chance to take pics of you while under the water. A second optional scuba dive was available for $65 AUD more (clearly advertised as such in advance), and you could make up your mind to add it after you’ve done the first depending on how you felt about it.

This platform (holding a mini motor boat for emergency pick ups) was lowered into the water, and we took off from it, see the 12 air tanks lined up?

The first dive was about half an 35 min and included instructions and making sure each diver UNDERSTOOD them and could demonstrate them (one on one testing), while the second scuba dive is 45 minutes with none of it wasted on instruction. IF you are a certified diver… you could spend the WHOLE time swimming alone, but if not you HAD to swim with a guide and HAD to go through the lesson, even if, like my travel buddy, it’s not your first time going scuba diving. In fact in my group of four swimmers,  I was the only virgin who had never done it before.

The red filter is simplistic, and makes everything look green

So the pic above — see how it’s very green? — That was one I took with their underwater rental camera which cost me about $99 to rent (but included my choice of 15 of the professional photographer shots … not great, … The pics below are that are blue, are by their photographer…. the very big fish is like the crew’s pet. Apparently this type of fish has a 5 year memory and is a bit like a dog in terms of his level of affection for the divers who come by daily

The professional photos were color adjusted using very expensive specialized software, I’m SURE of it, because I watched him doing it.

So again, compare the color palate of the pics by the professional (blue) with the one they rented me (green), which I used while scuba diving… i.e., going MUCH deeper into the water than I would experience while snorkeling… much higher water pressure.

The above were also passed through some basic color balancing attempts by me, using my Macbook’s photo program not complex algorithms for divers

Dealing with this pressure, and the fact that the goggles flood regularly is a big part of what they taught us before we went down. I felt ok for most of it; there were some initial problems my regulator which for some reason was set so tightly that I was having to REALLY force the air out while breathing, I could just breath out.

Multiple boats all sharing reef adjacent areas, and little platforms set up about midway between

I hand signaled the instructor as we’d been instructed… we went to the surface and I told him about it and he made some sort of adjustment to the thing…  and from then on it was fine. Also between the fat on my ass and my tits, there was too much buoyancy between me and the suit (which also has built-in air pockets) so that I wasn’t able to submerge like everybody else … again I asked to go up… explained it to him… he made some more adjustments and then I was fine.

A purchased pic of the diving staff, the blond guy front and center led my group of 4+him

After we finished the dive the instructor (blond guy wearing glasses above) told me that I had actually done unusually well and should feel proud of myself. He said that MOST virgins on the first dive freak out during the instruction section, because of problems breathing, or feeling like they were being water boarded, or whatever…. and MOST never actually manage to get past the initial instruction phase to do the scuba dive itself. I on the other hand had managed to do the whole thing, including pretty much the whole time allocated to the dive.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_213c.jpgBut at the very end of it my core muscles in my torso, and the muscles in my legs were just knackered. At that point, my friend, who is a strong swimmer, signed up not for the 2nd scuba dive (which he had intended to do) but rather for a snorkel dive with the ships marine biologist (I forget what the fee for that was, but it was less than the snorkel dive), which you could only sign up for if you were a strong swimmer. Since I was tired, he ‘informed’ me that he was borrowing my rental camera. 

Me, showing off my iPhone in it’s waterproof plastic case, $28 AUD/~$20 USD ($13 on amazon)

Before going on the trip I had found a camera store just near our Airbnb rental. The girl working there had convinced me that the rental underwater camera’s offered by these trips weren’t actually all that good, and intended more for video than photos. That a better option, was to use my own iPhone inside one of these clear, heavy plastic zip-lock bags designed for smart phones. She said that’s what she uses and has used for a few years, and if you’re NOT going to invest in a top of the line camera it’s really the best choice. Supposedly I COULD have used it for scuba diving but to be honest, I didn’t trust it to keep my iPhone dry more than a few feet down …. but I figured snorkeling it could manage…. and in addition to the scuba outing, which you HAD to do with a crew member unless you had certification to scuba solo (which takes a full three days minimum to complete in Australia) there were two chances to go snorkeling independently (about four hours total) — although you had to stay within a certain distance of the boat/life guards while doing it ….

Screen Shot 2019-01-20 at 5.28.47 PM.png
Googles maps

An image of an underwater reef taken from above the water, they’re easy to spot, and at points they come up so high that boats can’t pass over them… so snorkeling really is a viable option… at the right locations you don’t HAVE to go very deep to seem them. Our boat while it ultimately docked at two different locations, so we got to see some variation of the reef while limiting our snorkeling to within the ken of the lifeguards. Although, that said…. BOTH locations were on/at the bit of the barrier called the Norman reef — if you look at a map of the barrier reef, it looks like a line of underwater islands.


As the medical thing we had to go through earlier demonstrated, not everyone can scuba dive safely because of medical reasons— for instance people taking certain prescriptions aren’t allowed,  and not everyone feels comfortable scuba diving (even among those who want to, they freak out when first trying it as it can be claustrophobic and a bit like being water boarded). As such, even though scuba is included in the price, you can choose to just do snorkeling the whole time, if you’d rather


These were the photos I took during our first chance at snorkeling, before we did our scuba session, when I was still using their rented underwater go-pro type camera (i.e., everything is very green)

Photos from the rented camera, even after I futzed with the color balance on my computer, still not very good (but better)

… First thing I noticed when doing snorkeling was that MUCH bigger fish than I saw by the reefs seemed to like to hang out JUST under the boat. I think it has something to do with what was in the blue plastic bin they had hanging below the boat… it had these things that looked like transponders in it which I guess sent out sound-waves that attracts the fish to the boat… but that’s just an educated guess (after they pulled up the crate, no more big fish were hanging out down there). Anyway, once again… here was the photo I took of the photographer using the expensive to rent underwater rental camera … very very green


And by comparison, THIS is the image of the same guy only this time I was using my iPhone inside the plastic bag. See how BLUE everything is? And sort of monotone everything is?

Taken with my iPhone … really

DwdX1JAQSv+xgt9Rj8NcXg_thumb_c24e.jpgAfterwards, at the end of the trip while we were heading back to port, one of the staff members saw me flipping through images, and suggested try a free app for the smart phone, that she loves, which would automatically color correct my photos for me (it also allows you to modify that correction, less or more, etc) called Dive+ … which I did… and here’s what it looks like (before and after)


So it’s a sort of judgement call as to whether to use it or not to apply the correction… but I was actually REALLY happy with some of the photos I ultimately got with the iPhone/Dive+ combo

Love this one, it’s very other worldly




I keep wondering how far down the professional dive photographer had to go to find this shot (below) … because it was NOT up near the surface where we were snorkeling (images above), that’s for sure

Purchased image from our dive, also visible on their Facebook page

That said, its pretty clear from my images that the barrier reef, at least up at the top where a snorkelers could see it is already like 90% bleached out in these areas… which is very very sad.


bottom right is scuba and deep divers (folks who are experienced enough to hold their breaths and go deep)

OR of course, if you don’t TRUST the plastic pack to keep your smartphone dry, you could always still rent from one of those underwater cameras from the tour company … which I opted for — at the last-minute — as the thought of a water-logged smartphone popped into my brain before the scuba dive. I admit I did this AFTER a lecture by the photographer about how much better my photos would be if I had the right equipment…

purchased pic of me and my friend … I’m holding the rented phone (at the end of the yellow thing… which will make it float/bob in the water if you loose it) in my left hand

Actually I think that it was because  I decided to rent their go-pro-type underwater camera (the yellow thing in my left hand in the picture below) along with a package of 15 of the digital photos the professional photographer took……that they decided to put the above photo on their Facebook page… I’m GUESSING it was because … as far as I know, I was one of only TWO people who had opted to rent one of those underwater camera things, and as the camera is front and center in this photo, above, the photo helps to promote other people renting it


Computer History Museum: Mountain View, CA

Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, the Computer History Museum in Mountain View California, is a relatively new museum that’s still finding its legs. It is a work of love the houses donations not only from corporations, but from the individual movers and shakers of the bay area (the guys who actually invented the stuff you use today) who donated items from their garages and attics — as in some of them are friends of mine and I remember when this place first opened up.


One of my favorite people on the planet, I guy who I’ve known for over 20+ years (I knew him when was still an un-tenured professor in Chicago — we used to be dance partners at a country western bar in Chicago — he’s had four books on the New York Times best seller’s list since then), who I wanted to catch up with while I was in town (he’s become impossibly hard to contact since his success) suggested that we meet for lunch at a South American place called Voya located in Mountain View — we had ceviche which was ok, and a few other fish things… didn’t think it was anything to write home about and I was paying more attention to being with my friend than the food… so no review


(I got his Uber driver to take this photo of us before he took off — I think our last photo together was at his wedding) … ANYWAY… AS I got there a bit early … while waiting for him to arrive, I was walking around…

you know you’re in the Bay area when….

when I realized that the computer museum …. (one of the jewels of the bay area) was directly across the street …. A place I have not been to in about 16 years… So after he went back to work I went in for a visit.


By the time I had shopped the gift store, gone to the bathroom, took my purchases back to the car (in part out of fear that my windows had been smashed — see below), yadda yadda, yadda….


It was already was already 3:30 in the afternoon and instead of having to pay $17.50 to get in (YEESH, that’s EXPENSIVE) I only had to pay $10. You’ll notice this is NOT advertised on their sign. In fact I was utterly clueless to it and just got lucky … the guy who was working the front desk… who had seen me earlier while I was scoping out the gift store

Whole sections of the store are devoted to women in the sciences stuff, or stuff geek girls might want…  so I got very buy-happy/excited
Why yes I did get the bumper sticker, why do you ask?
And of course I got the geek girl jewelry (am now the proud owner of the hoop earrings with fuses hanging in them –these are the sort that are hidden in cars and appliances), and a few other pieces made from computer parts
That said, NOT ONE of the t-shirts for sale had a V-neck or scoop neck collar, so I didn’t get any of them (which made me very sad)

… HE assumed I had timed it intentionally, calling me a “smart woman” for doing it; but I swear, it was just dumb luck.

That said, there are two sections to the museum, the first one is to the left of the check in counter where you buy your tickets. The other is off to the right, between the counter and the gift shop. The first section, left of the counter, is mostly devoted to temporary exhibits (more than one) while the other is the permanent collection.

At the time I went one of the temporary ones was devoted to a brilliant woman who was not really awarded her just deserts in her lifetime due entirely to her gender… Ada Lovelace


Lovelace is considered by some to be the first person to fully recognize that the computing machine had applications beyond simply doing calculations, wrote a paper that included an algorithm on this topic, and is as such considered (by those who support her) as having been the first computer programmer (software engineer, versus hardware engineer… and “never the twain shall meet” (for those who don’t know, engineers tend to be one or the other, only VERY rarely are they both).


The other ‘temporary’ exhibit seemed to be more of a rotating one devoted to any and all of “newest” computer driven technology trends (well, the ones that are public anyway), everything from computer graphics, to texting, to medical technologies (like MRIs) to…


…the currently oh so sexy topic of fully automated cars. These would be the next step forward after my Subaru which has saved my life more than few times already by spotting potential accidents that I fully admit that I utterly would have missed (or not as the case might be) but for its warning me of them. My car, however, I still have to drive, in the future… a technology which is already visible (in its testing phases), at least on the streets of the Bay area…. is completely self driven cars.

Pics I took of the testing of “self driven cars” on Bay area streets

This exhibit talked about the not to distant future (hopefully) where they’ve managed to test all the bugs out and fully self driven cars are ready for prime time (a future that I for one look forward to, as I’ve never been one to drive for the fun of it).



This included side topics of how they are able to now utilize the computer graphics from the previous room create virtual car crashes. Virtual testing allows manufacturers a much cheaper way to test every conceivable sort of normally inconceivable crash, rather than actually smashing up a car. As some of you know, they used to only test two or three different sorts of common crashes; virtual testing allows them to reenact the uncommon ones, as well as test what might happen in those relatively unlikely cases with the newer cars, not yet on the roads.

IMG_0312Additionally, as self driving cars rely a great deal on computerized maps, they also had a small exhibit showing just how advanced this has become… presented by Google Maps


And there was also segment devoted to Wikipedia (which anyone reading my blog knows I’m a big fan of)


Indirectly the Museum was exhibiting something it never talked about directly, but which I’ve NEVER seen before and hence was VERY aware of… i.e., a new technology for use in museum presentations


Now that said, One of the things that impressed me was an innovative sound management system that I’ve not seen anywhere else.

If you look carefully at the picture below you’ll see a woman watching a video in the middle of wide open space… this is pretty unusual although you might not realize it… normally movies are presented in cordoned off areas where the acoustics can be easily controlled. What’s even more unusual is from where she’s sitting the sound is completely clear and distinct, almost to the extent that it was like wearing headphones … or as though it were the only sound in the room, like in a movie theater. YET, from where I took the picture, you can only barely hear what she’s listening to at all.


How you ask? Well… look above her head and you’ll see there is small white square hanging from the ceiling… That’s where the sound came from… Now, logic dictates that it’s some sort of directed speaker that produces very directed sound waves. As in, she can hear it loudly and distinctly without it annoying someone a few feet away (where I was standing). From there, it merges into a sort of white noise created by the various soundtracks all running simultaneously but without the effect of cacophony of sound, like you get in other museums.

You can’t see it, but right behind me was a different video, with the same set up, with its own sound track, that in no way interfered with the experience the woman in the above picture was having. Now let’s face it, I go to a LOT of museums and I’ve never seen this technology in use before. I have no idea how much it costs but I hope to see it a lot more regularly from now on. It rocked…


Returning to the museums itself: On this same side of the museum there they also have regular demonstrations of the OLD IBM mainframe computer systems that used to process things like company payrolls, first introduced back in 1959, which had been given the catchy name of the IBM CMH-1401

IMG_0305The demos are given every few hours by actual retired former IBM employees, whose jobs had been to keep the 1401 running in its heyday (read the signs below)IMG_0306

Interestingly, they do so to large throngs of very interested young programmers… keep in mind this was about 3:30 on a Wednesday, not one child or family unit in the room.

IMG_5202These all looked to be young programmers (most were between 23 and 35), new to the bay area (possibly)… and you could tell the older retired engineers were really happy to be so appreciated by the younger generation of engineersIMG_0304At the end of the demonstration you could create a punch card with your name… which I did, and receive a custom printed … on a HISTORIC printer … that says you visited the place (as you can see I was there on September 5th, 2018).


After this I went to check out the permanent exhibit: This is in fact my 2nd time coming to this museum. The first time was about 16 YEARS ago in 2002 (the year I finally completed my dissertation) while I was still living in the bay area and was invited to the grand opening event for this ‘new’ building for the collection… by friends who had donated various contents from their garage to be shown in here … in fact I knew more than few people at that event who were all there for the same reason (donating objects to the collection). I have to say that at that time the museum was HIGHLY UN-impressive… Since then, major upgrades have occurred and it’s clear they have hired a fairly decent curator to organize the thing, and while it’s still imperfect, it is now quite IMPRESSIVE, although imperfect.


It starts out logically enough with “ancient” tools for making calculations (as in ones my dad was using 50 years ago), like slide rules, abacuses and maritime tools… and then moves on to things like


Calculating tools that helped during World War II, back when women who typed in the all the data were called calculators, to innovations of the 1950’s



there’s discussion of stops and starts and lateral moves as various technologies came up and then quickly died as someone else came up with a more elegant solution




And there’s discussion of the problems women had entering the male dominated field… to techs that I remember using when I was in grad school (20 years ago)


I particularly got a kick out of the video game section which talked about these on-line Unix based games like rogue and dungeon crawls where if you got far enough in the game you were allowed to contribute a dungeon section that you had coded yourself to the larger game… but it meant you had to learn the language C++ in order to do it… which drove a lot of players to learn to code.

… and there were also the more passive games, where you just a customer, like Pac-Man (which my brother excelled at) and pong. IMG_0299IMG_0327


One of the things that I did NOT like was just how easy it is to get turned around and lost in the maze of exhibits.


Look at the map above, even there it’s like, “HUH” … unlike most museums there’s no clear path, it’s like a bit like a  giant fun house maze


… to the extent that there they have had to place massive markers on the floor to direct you around … markers that if the museum were well laid out shouldn’t exist. That said, I can SORT of see a justification for messy layout, in that innovation and the connections between technologies isn’t a straight forward thing. Innovation goes backwards and side-ways and every which way… but a museum really shouldn’t do that.


I mean look at the above space, really look at them, and tell me if can figure where you’re supposed to go next in terms of the layout of the exhibit. There seems to be little rhyme or reason to it… and seriously, I got kind of lost in it. I almost never get lost.

Cars & Books on Tape, the digital edition

I’ve been listening to a lot of books on tape during my long drives across the continent. Used to be I’d never have done this; I had tried listening to a book on tape many years ago while driving and realized that it distracted me from the task at hand, so I stopped. It is an oft neglected truth that driving is the single most dangerous thing any person is likely to do on any day; it is more likely to kill you than terrorism or cancer, or any other of the boogie-men of modern society. To quote Robert A. Heinlein‘s book Friday (one of my favorites — reread it countless times, and just refinished it a few days ago: “This rule is analogous to the fact that the person most likely to murder you is some member of your own family-and that grim statistic is ignored too; it has to be. Live in fear of your own family? Better to be dead!”) People are the same way about driving, and to their detriment. I’m more than half way through my life (I have no expectation of getting to 100), and I’ve already lost more friends and or loved ones to death by car than from anything else, so I don’t ever forget that fact. When I read books, I tend to get a sort of film playing inside my brain, like a half-awake dream, and I discovered the same thing happens when I listen to a book on tape when driving, and I find myself slipping into looking at that more so than the road … so for years I just wouldn’t do it — but things have changed.

About — come to think of it, it was almost an exact year ago (2015), after having spent about seven full hours at Universal’s Amusement park in Orlando, attending their annual Halloween Horror Nights event (I’ll write a review of it at some point, but let’s just say, “No, don’t go”) … I got into a horrible car accident on the I4 expressway while driving home that totaled my car. The park closed at 1:00 am, and by the time I got to my car and to driving home at about 2:00 am, I was seriously fatigued — enough so that my response time was just a fraction too slow, when the car in front of me slammed to a stop to avoid the car accident that had just happened in front of her. I braked hard enough to keep from killing myself, but was just a second too late to avoid a collision. The car crumpled, taking the majority of the impact, and the air bags and my safety-belt kept me from more than some impressive bruising. (The occupants of the car I hit were apparently fine, other than a good fright — this according to the teenage boy who came by my car to talk to me, and just dumped their rental car and grabbed a cab to the airport — which is where they had been heading).

I, on the other hand, was taken to the hospital (there was a worry that my ribs may have been cracked by the airbag, but were just bruised), and ended up in bed for over two solid weeks, because the impact not only sprained a few joints, but also set off a horrible case of positional vertigo that for days afterwards resulted in any slight movement of my head setting the room to spinning around me. And for those who have not had the pleasure, it’s like being on a roller coaster that spins you around, and not being able to get off. It is something I’ve been struggling with now for about 10 years, a side effect of an allergic reaction to penicillin that damaged my inner ear — according to the doctors; it can be, and was, brought on like gang busters by things like a car accident. It is also why I no longer will ride even the gentlest roller-coasters, or any amusement park rides that involves spinning. Firstly, those things are no longer fun for me, and more importantly, they can actually trigger the sensations so that I’m too dizzy to walk unassisted for at least the next hour or so.

After the accident, once I was healed fully and able to get back on the horse (so to speak), I had to do something that I’ve never before done alone, buy a new car. I suppose it’s a rite of passage, of a sort. Till then pretty much every car I had was a hand-me-down from my parents, or were used ones purchased with my father by my side, making sure his little girl didn’t get fleeced. (Side note: One year my new years resolutions included, ‘I will learn to drive a stick’ which meant us buying me a really old but reputed to be reliable Saab 900 with very little acceleration for $1,000 — with the expectation of my stripping the gears while learning; as luck would have it, it turned out to be so ridiculously reliable that it lasted me about four years, until its said lack of power finally got on my nerves, and I traded it in for a newer used Saab, which turned out to be a hell of lot less reliable.) But, like I said before, my dad had died, and I was now for the first time in my life having to learn to function without that sort of support.

I ended up posting my need to Facebook, and relying on the collective advise of friends — and cross correlating those with the most recent IIHS safety awards. From that, I only allowed myself to consider cars that were also on their TSP+ rated list (with “advanced or superior rating for front crash prevention”). My final considerations were: 1) sufficient power to keep a fully loaded car going up a steep hill at the speed limit, 2) enough trunk capacity for my three suitcases and other crap (a friend convinced me that loading anything that looked ‘potentially desirable’ into anyplace visible to thieves might result in break-ins), 4) a sunroof (highly useful in hot climates when you need to cool down a previously parked car), and finally, what I — as a single woman traveling alone — affectionately refer to as, 5) the “rape button” (a Telematics system, like OnStar, or any of the other equivalent ones, which automatically call for help when the airbag is deployed, or if you hit an emergency button — plus a host of other functions).

Ultimately, I bought a 6-cylinder Subaru Legacy (the brand all my female friends were pointing me towards) with “EyeSight” and all the other safety bells and whistles, which initially I bought because it was more ‘functional’ than sexy. (I only later discovered that it is considered the car of choice for Lesbians — that said, one thing you say for those gals, they’re practical, as is this car.) I however — having sort of been lured towards other sexier cars that were more fun to drive, but always lacked one or other of the full assortment of features I had decided I needed, had compared the Subaru to “a nice, honest, hard working, if slightly plain, girl who is also a very good cook” when describing it to the salesman. That said, I passed over the cheer leaders and got the Subaru, and I have since fallen very much in love with it.

In order to get “all the safety” stuff I wanted, I was also forced to buy the packages that included things like leather seats and all sorts of other things I didn’t necessarily want or need, but obviously didn’t mind (seat warmers, etc). My priority however was SAFETY! After having just had a head-on accident that could have killed me — and also been struck with the thought that, if I had, let’s say, run into a deer at night on a lonely road, “who would have called 911?”, that was first and foremost on my mind.  And, it extended all the way from wanting state of the art, high-tech, crash avoidance systems to the aforementioned “rape button” — which also necessitated buying a yearly subscription to the satellite system the telemetrics system communicates with. I will note however, when I called my insurance provider to tell them the Vin Number on my car, and to hear just how much of a hit to my insurance this new car would cost me, my agent typed in the number and started laughing.
“What?” I asked her, “what’s so funny?”
She answered: “Your old car was a ’97 Nissan Sentra, and you paid ‘$X’ — your brand new car with leather seats and everything else is going to cost you only $0.67 more. I’ve NEVER seen anything like this before… its considered SO MUCH SAFER than your old one that even though it’s brand new, and 20 years newer than your old car, the insurance costs are almost the same.”

So, returning to the topic at hand, books on tape; like I said before, because I found that listening to the books distracted me a little, and made me less of a safe driver… and considering that driving a car is the single most dangerous thing most of us do, I had long ago stopped listening to them when driving. But this car… it is a wonder of modern technology. The thing practically drives itself. It is not yet to the point where you can set the destination into the computer and climb into the back seat, like with the Tesla, but it’s not far from it. You still need to steer the thing, and it can’t see red lights or stop signs, but if you set it to cruise it can see the car in front of you and will slow down to keep a safe following distance between you and it. This is GREAT for long distance highway driving where road fatigue tends to make you a bit less safe, and even better for stop and go highway driving. If the car in front of you comes to a full stop, even if you never touch the break, so will your car. If the car in front of you than starts to move, and you neglect to notice, it tells you. If you have been driving for two hours without a break, the car starts beeping at you to turn off the engine and stretch your legs. Hit a different button, and it can usually see the lanes in the road, and keep you from crossing over them unintentionally. If for some reason the EyeSight system is NOT working (which can happen because of adverse conditions, like heavy rain or fog), the system warns you that you need to take over (or better yet, get the hell off the road). Once I got to the point where I realized I could in fact trust the car, that just as my insurance provider thought that it was hell-of-beans safer than driving a traditional car, a friend convinced me to give books on tape a try during my hours long cross country treks, so I did.

My downsizing of my life had actually begun a few years before my dad had died, when I moved to S. Korea to teach University. Clearly, schlepping my book collection across the ocean made no sense, and apartments in Asian cities are cramped, the way apartments in Manhattan are cramped. So, I had purchased two Kindles from Amazon (one for the home, one for at work — I would listen to books while proctoring exams, etc.), and loaded those up with e-books. In general, I only purchased books where the publishers allowed for text-to-speech, as audio-books at the time were very pricey (and you get used to computer voice the same way you might a friend’s heavy accent — for the most part, it does a decent job).

Then after dad died and I had decided to hit the road, I happened to notice that, and this was well AFTER they had purchased Audible in 2008, Amazon was offering deals; if you already owned the e-book Amazon would allow you to upgrade to the Audible version, sometimes for only a dollar or two more. I started off with one or two books that were cheap upgrades of eBooks I had not yet gotten around to reading, decided that the upgrade was worth the price, and did the same for more… and then once I got my new car, and realized that I could now listen to books while driving, I decided it was worth it to me to join their special club for audible users, which offers discounts on books I didn’t already own, etc. My new car’s entertainment system also came with all sorts of bells and whistles I was slow to discover, such as multiple sound ports, as well as a plethora of USB ports, all of which were hidden discreetly in closed compartments, away from prying eyes. And then after a while I stumbled upon the fact that the USB ports doubled as sound ports for the iPhone. After that I had the brain fart that since my car would also link any sound played from the iPhone into the stereo system, and since I was no longer using text-to-speech, I didn’t really NEED to be using the Kindles anymore while in the car.

At that point, let’s just say I got a bit ‘over excited’ by my audible purchases, and started to run up quite the bill. I happened to mention this on Facebook, and got a round ribbing from friends about, “why aren’t you borrowing them from the library instead of buying them?” And I was like, “I’m driving all around the country, I can’t borrow CD’s and then return them, I need digital.” And then was assured that the libraries now lend those out too… who knew? To be honest, I haven’t used a public library in years, so I was kind of behind the curve. Last time I had checked, maybe ten years ago, they had not yet gotten with the e-book program, and you know… time flies when you aren’t paying attention (that and there are all sorts of free sites for e-books these day, such as the Gutenberg project which has over 53,000 freely available books at this point). So last week, since I’m currently in the area anyway, I went to my local public library, checked into it… sure enough they do now lend audible books via a web site (although the selection is very limited, if its not a bestseller odds are you won’t find it there; even the selection of masterworks is kind of sketchy). Also, I learned that my library card, which had worked without need of any sort of update since I was in the 2nd grade (so over 40 years), was no longer any good. They have a new system now — possibly as a result of 9/11 and the Patriot Act, where its has to be renewed every three years, so I did that.

That said, when I compared what I owned, to what was available to borrow, I was much relieved to find only a small handful of overlap. MOST of my books that I had purchased tend to fall into the category of history books, or the sorts of things you would read for a University class, and only a handful of those were best sellers. In fact, when comparing the two collections I only found three history books (that I owned), and my Game of Thrones series to be duplicated (as in I could have borrowed instead of purchased). Huge sigh of relief. I then sat down and a fairly exhaustive search of the library collection of audible’s to borrow, and only found 93 books I was interested in. … I will take the 5th on how many others I already own. Let’s just say, between the two I’m set for books for a few years to come, and they don’t weigh anything, or cost me anything to shelp around.





A matter of health…

So, Chicago is my hometown, and it’s where most of my doctors are all located, and where my health insurance expects me to be if I need more than some sort of emergency care … which isn’t a bad thing considering that Chicago has some of the best doctors in the world. In fact when in Florida last year, during the Jewish high holidays — it’s again Yom Kippur tonight (the day where Jews repent their sins), and I’m not at shul as I should be because I’m suffering a bit of a cold *cough* –Anyway, last year at this time (by the Jewish Calendar)  I was talking with a surgeon who said ‘if you live the US and you’re sick, you really want to be in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago… and if your a geriatric, Florida’ (where apparently they put more of an effort into trying to keep their elderly customers alive).

So, the long and short of it is I’m back in Chicago, at least through the election, in order to deal with some fairly serious medical issues.

Let me start off by saying, I’m very much a yo-yo dieter in the extreme, and as of about a year ago (let’s say Dec. of 2015) I was about 100 lb over weight… I can’t be sure of the exact number because I stopped stepping on scales after I hit 190 lb.

To put this in context: In my early to mid 20’s I was too petite  — the inverse problem of where I ended up. I generally, if at a healthy weight, weighed in at between 110 and 115 lb. (I’m 5’4″ and have VERY light bones, bird like even). I wore a size 4, and the bra size was 28 DD – the smallest chest cavity circumference on the market, but big boobs, so I looked like a 34 C but with twice the weight to lug around (yes I slump my shoulders). If I was VERY skinny, say I had dropped down to 100 lb, I would reduce to D cup or sometimes even a C., could fit into size 27″ size women’s jeans … and would find myself in tears when shopping because there were no cloths in the women’s department small enough for me, with size zero being loose on me … Oh, and considered myself horribly fat if I had gained enough to wear a size 6 or 8, … Oh those were the days!!

In my mid 30’s I started to get a bit heavier. I started wear a 6 or an 8 more regularly, (and increased to an H cup bra, but still with a 28 circumference). About then was when the doctors started to talk to me about needing to watch my cholesterol, and by my early 40’s they were talking to me about adult on-set diabetes (type 2) becoming a risk.

As a result, Pretty much since I was 35 I have been an on again and off again low carbohydrate eater, in order to try to stave off the diabetes (I hate needles). How ‘good’ I was about it often varied with my mood. About then one friend of mine noticed that I’d gone from always being pear shaped, and getting my weight in my hips and tits, to starting to expand in the mid-section, and to walk with a waddle.

That said, I’m a stress eater, and in times of high stress — like when in my late 30’s when because of what was happening with my stomach I was ultimately misdiagnosed me as having Ovarian Cancer (and told I needed a radical hysterectomy), I developed what I described as a close and loving relationship with both Ben and Jerry… However, since I WAS eating low Carb — or trying to, and WAS taking a statin to control my high cholesterol, I figured I could indulge myself on other things… like: fried chicken, fried cheese, fried jalapenos stuffed with cheese, fried calamari, fried mushrooms dipped in blue cheese dressing, cheesy broccoli, steaks, … need I go on? If it had the word fried in front of it, it was my friend.

Regarding the cancer scare… I ecstatically found out from a second opinion I got before letting them those idiots cut me open, that they were in fact WRONG, and what they thought was cancer was just a really horribly advanced case of endometriosis, the worst the doctor had ever seen. I say “just” because there are pills for that, cheap ones even … namely birth control pills. Most women the first sign of endometriosis is pain, so usually it’s caught early;  I had however none … so by the time they caught it it had managed to pull all my internal organs out of proper alignment, and was only inches away from invading my lungs — and if that had happened it WOULD have killed me.

Three weeks after the surgery for my endometriosis (it was supposed to be a 15 minute exploratory but turned into 6 hours on the table as my doctor weeded my garden) my gall bladder, after years and years of yo-yo dieting cried uncle and demanded that it be removed… THAT NIGHT… So, in an emergency surgery (because a bunch of gallstones got stuck in the pipe leading to the stomach, which resulted in sever pain and unrelenting barfing…) the gallbladder came out. After that, and because of it, I dropped back to about 130 lb as a result of having to add a VERY low fat diet to my low carb one… initially no more than 5g of fat per meal, and then slowly increasing it over time as the stomach adjusted to the absence of a Gallbladder.

But, like I said, that was only temporary, and once I could eat a high fat meal without it resulting in sever diarrhea, I went right back to eating a high fat diet. mmmmmm, deep fried mushrooms and jalapeno poppers dipped in blue cheese or ranch dressing… mmmmm  Then, during my few years of teaching in S. Korea, my weight started at 130 but did a slow and steady climb till I was back in the mid 155lb range. If you think being fat in the USA is hard, try in in S. Korea, where ideas of beauty actually prefer everyone and everything err on the side of cookie cutter uniformity.

Koreans believe there is ONE (ONE) perfect face, and most of Korean students had been given a “college acceptance present” from their parents of plastic surgery in their attempt to achieve it. This is what resulted in the Miss Korea debacle, where all the contestants looked alike:

No really, these are all different girls — its a combination of plastic surgery, and makeup intended to emphasize their uniformity that resulted in the above…  Oh, and keep in mind, the fact that they all looked so-alike was considered a “GOOD” thing, at least until the Koreans realized that the rest of the world was laughing at them because of it… then they released pictures of the same girls with no makeup….

On top of uniformity of face, Koreans also want to see uniformity of body… and in Korea the one size fits all clothing (which in women’s clothes is 95% of it) is a US size small. AND, my Korean female students who wore a size small T-shirt (US size — it’s a medium in Korea), all considered themselves fat. When I tried shopping for clothes in Korea women at the stalls would, towards the end of stay, take one look at me and just shake their heads. I was forced to go to men’s stores only, and buy X-large men’s size (US large) shirts… for pants I was actually sizing myself out of the available sizes, with only a handful of the larger chains even carrying my size.

Then dad died, and I came home to the single most stressful year of my life, so stressful that I thought I was having a heart attack because my heart would regularly feel like it was encased in ice… a really weird sensation. When I called the doctor she said, “that’s a high stress symptom, you NEED to reduce your stress or it will kill you.” At this point I had grown completely out of my own clothes, but I was able to wear my dad’s cloths, I”m 5’4″ and he was 5’10″… and a lot of the ones from when he had been skinny now fit me. That is when I decided I had taken about as much family bullshit as I could manage, packed up all my stuff into storage and took to the road. For the first few months I was down in Orlando, going to the Disney Parks almost daily… and eating healthy there, is beyond a struggle. As a result, in spite of the fact that I was walking way more, I was STILL gaining weight. I was wearing size 38 or 40″ waist jeans (keep in mind in my 20’s I was wearing 27 or 28″ jeans), and buying size L or X-Large (US) tops. In January I finally snapped out of my depression and started to alter my diet (less comfort foods, more healthy), and started to loose weigh — although two months in Georgia, (March and April), the land of all things fried where even the all day breakfast at McD’s only has the Egg-McMuffin on a biscuit (instead of the much lower fat English Muffin), did not help.

In May I swung through Chicago for my yearly checkup, weighed in at 185 lb, and was informed that not only were my sugar and cholesterol shooting up, but I had developed fatty liver disease; and, if I didn’t do something, and do it quick, I was going to need a new liver. YOUCH!!! She said I had to make an appointment with a liver specialist ASAP, and I had to change my diet immediately, to as low fat as possible. Mostly fish, a little chicken, no beef at all, and as low fat as possible, so I could NOT eat at restaurants anymore.

However, I was only in town for two weeks, not enough time to even book an appointment with the specialist, had already paid for lodgings in Canada for June through August, and I knew I would not be back in Chicago until the beginning of September, when an old friend was getting married.

This, my dear reader is why pretty much every meal after May consisted of fish, and something low fat and full of fiber on the side. NOT eating at restaurants wasn’t going to fly, so I had to come up with some pretty fierce protocols to makes sure that didn’t harm me. I know this sounds extreme but,…. I start every order with the explanation: “this is not about me wanting to loose a few pounds, this is about me having liver disease and if I am not VERY VERY careful needing to try to try find a new liver and get a transplant. So, unless you want to quite literally poison me, unless you want to be partially responsible for my death, you need to listen very carefully.” … it seems to work.

It’s also why I scheduled, as I promised her I would, two full months in Chicago come September/October …. which is where I currently am. First thing I did was to go to the liver specialist, and was greeted with GOOD NEWS!!! Instead of 185 lb, I was now 157 lb…  28 lb lost in four months…. about 2 lb a week which is a healthy weight loss … and all my bad liver numbers had dropped.

My three solid months of eating right, which involved careful ordering and ripping the heads off of restaurant staff that brought me anything oily, has resulted in a huge dip in my liver numbers. He showed me a chart, and my liver numbers that have been climbing now for the last 6 years (and this my doctor never really made that clear to me), or pretty much ever since they had taken out the Gall-bladder. He showed me a chart and there was this one yellow line that just climbed and climbed… at least till last May.


The red line was other liver numbers… which had also had climbed, but less steadily, both of which were suddenly coming down, and with a will. He said to me, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but keep doing it!” I think if you loose 10 lb more, you’ll be out the danger area… but keep going.

Later this week I’m scheduled for a special sort of liver test where they are going to try to determine if any Cirrhosis of the Liver has developed… he doesn’t think so, based on my numbers, but he needs to double check with this special sort of pictures. IF I fail that test — or it’s inconclusive, THEN they will need to do a biopsy.


Edit: Friday October 14th… just had the liver test. Firstly, they weighed me in, I was 157 on Sept. 7th, and the doctor said I had to loose at least 10 lb more…. I weight in at 150lb today… so he was VERY happy with that. Then they did the liver scan and he said there was no evidence of any scarring of the liver, i.e., cirrhosis. That he was very hopeful and happy (and how nice it was to have a patient who actually did what the doctor said to do). I was instructed to keep doing what I’m doing in terms of my low fat diet and exercise, till the liver number have come all the way down, but that he didn’t want to see me for two years, at which point he’d want to run tests again.