Chapter 154: The day I learned about Santa

The following took place around Christmas, 1990. I was 8 years old.

The Bells

After struggling to fall asleep on Christmas Eve, eager to discover Santa’s bounty, I was woken by an unmistakable sound. It took a while to convince myself that I wasn’t dreaming, but the sound seemed to be coming from above me and outside the window. Sleigh bells. Consistent and continuous, like the sound of a Salvation Army volunteer. My understanding of Santa and his transportation of choice gave me the impression that it must be coming from the reindeer on his sleigh.

I grew up with dogs, and I knew the sound their collars made. It wasn’t consistent and continuous, it was random and based on their movement. The reindeer would have to be shaking their heads or bodies like the Salvation Army volunteer’s hand to be making this sound, and no animal I had ever seen was that well trained. Even if Santa had trained them, the sound continued for quite a while. How could Santa make it to every house in the world if he just let his reindeer stand on my roof shaking their heads? I don’t remember the bells stopping, but eventually I fell back asleep.

The Bounty

In the morning there was the usual and joyous Christmas celebration, the discovery of stockings and unwrapping of presents, and I briefly forgot about the sleigh bells. However, one present concerned me: a child-sized plastic house (somewhat like this one). It was an excellent plastic house, but what concerned me was its relative size compared to our chimney. It was my understanding that Santa used the chimney to deliver our presents. The plastic walls were too big to even fit through the fireplace opening, let alone the chimney. It was possible that Santa came through the front or back door, but he would likely have set off our burgler alarm and woken us all up. I imagined all sorts of possible rolling or folding techniques for the plastic walls, but all of them seemed impossible without causing damage.

The Breakthrough

Several days later, sitting at the dining table with my mom finishing some math homework, I decided to vent my frustrations about the plastic walls and the chimney. I explained to her how I didn’t think it was possible for Santa to squeeze the walls through the chimney, but also that every other explanation I came up with didn’t make sense either. Just before I started to wade into the sleigh bell issue, she stopped me.

“Sam, do you want to know how Santa did all that?”

I knew there was something going on that I didn’t understand, and I wanted more than anything in the world to know what it was.

“Well, Santa is this wonderful thing that parents do during Christmas …”

As she explained, I became very quiet. The world had shifted in an instant. Basic axioms of existence were thrown out the window. Past experiences reanalyzed. And it made sense. It made so much sense. I had walked up to the door of enlightenment without even guessing it could be opened, and it remains one of the most bewildering and exhilarating moments of “A-ha!” I have ever experienced.

That said, I still have no damn idea where the sleigh bells came from.

Chapter 153: El Ruedo de la Malagueta

El toro bravo chasing banderillerosI stumbled on the bullfight by accident. I was at the start of an 18 day trip to the Iberian peninsula and I was traveling by myself, hoping to do something my later trip partners might find repugnant. My research told me that the first week of April was early for bullfighting, so I had decided to let fate make the decision of my attendance for me.

Walking back from the beach in the Spanish town of Málaga, I noticed a crowd of men standing, waiting for something. Seeing nothing of note around them, I happened to look up to see what appeared to be a renovated Roman Colosseum. La Plaza de Toros La Malagueta. A bullfighting arena.

I scalped a ticket and was ushered onto a stone bench next to some excited British men. The arena filled to capacity, the thousands of people being mostly older men, but with many wives and children accompanying them. We sat hip to hip, knee to back, struggling to fit modern bodies into a space designed for the nutrition of the past. Hands were shaken, beer was purchased and peanuts cracked.

The corrida de toros began. Three ostentatious toreros strode into the dirt arena, followed by banderilleros (“flagmen”), picadores (“lancers”), and numerous hangers on. The crowd cheered and the parade eventually exited. When the arena had calmed, the trumpets announced the arrival of the true star. El toro bravo.

Through the open gate came sprinting the most beautiful and muscular bull I had ever seen, snorting, stomping and charging, a locomotive of muscle broken free from his tracks. He chased the banderilleros and their pink capes behind the protective ring at the edge of the arena floor, his horns clanging against the metal with each near miss.

La Plaza de Toros a Malagueta, Málaga, SpainThe first torero, Javier Conde, took to the center of the arena and began to dance with the bull, pulling him close with his cape, only to step aside or whip the cape away at the last moment. Whenever the bull began to tire, a new horrific measure was introduced to give the bull new life.

First, the picadores, men on blindfolded and cloth-armored horses, used lances to stab the bulls’ back. The bull would attempt to ravage the horse with its horns, but the armor provided enough protection that the bull would soon gave up. Later, decorated javalins were stabbed into the bulls back by the toreros. After three failed attempts by Conde to strike the bull through the heart with a sword, banderilleros tried to get the bull moving by pulling its tail. The bull lay defeated, but not dead. The latter was accomplished by a knife, twisted once inside the bulls skull. A horse drawn wagon came and hooked the dead beasts’ horns and dragged it across the arena, out the same door it had entered.

The trumpets sounded again, and through the open gate came sprinting the most beautiful and muscular toro I had ever seen, snorting, stomping and charging, una locomotora de músculo, broken free from his tracks. The second torero, El Cid, was much more skilled. Each swirl of the cape had more flourish, more confidence, and he brought the bull closer to his body on each snarling, rampaging charge. El Cid managed to strike the bull through the heart with his sword on the first attempt. The bull lay panting, dying, and was finished with the same flick of the knife.

The mood of the Brits sitting next to me had changed. Gone were the smiles, the jokes, the eating of snacks. The closest to me turned and said “We’ve seen enough.” They fought to find a way out, their empty seats quickly cannibalized by space hungry Spanish bottoms.

David Fandila, better known as El Fandi

Then, with trumpets roaring, through the open gate came sprinting the most beautiful and muscular toro bravo I had ever seen, snorting, stomping and charging, una locomotora de músculo, liberado de su pistas. He chased and charged the hapless banderilleros, the master of all in his domain. Then came El Fandi.

What happened next was the most graceful, poetic and loving murder of a dangerous animal I could have imagined. El Fandi’s dance was so fluid, so sure, you could almost see him caress the toro‘s brow as it roared past him, trying to kill him with every muscle in its body. The bull was stabbed, taunted and provoked, all so that El Fandi could dance ever longer. I was mesmerized, only snapping out when the knife was twisted and the bull let out its final twitch.

Through I had only seen half of the corrida, as each torero fights twice, I realized that I had seen enough, and walked out in the chaos of intermission.

Most cattle that have died for my benefit have done so in factories, leaving this world in a mechanized ritual with no celebration. I doubt I will ever pay to see another animal tortured to death, but if I had been born a bull, I would rather die in the arena than in a factory.

Only in the arena, in front of an audience of thousands, can you stare your murderer down and, with a single twist of your horns at the final moment, make him look like a fool.

Chapter 152: How climbing a mountain is like examining a patent

The following was used as my law school personal statement, and is based on my post about climbing Gokyo-Ri

We had hiked for a week through the Nepalese Himalayas to climb a mountain named Gokyo Ri. Less than two hours from the summit and the possibility of watching the sun rise behind Mt. Everest, I was freezing, dizzy and severely deprived of oxygen. I had paused to catch my breath amid the rocky landscape when I was struck with a realization: occasionally, climbing a mountain is a lot like examining a patent.

The cold and altitude were forcing me make a difficult decision. Despite wearing every item of clothing I had packed, I could feel my body temperature falling. Any attempt to quicken my pace and burn more calories was met with severe dizziness and nausea. The only cure for severe altitude sickness is to turn around and head down the mountain. Turning around meant I would not make it to the peak, but continuing meant the symptoms of altitude sickness would only get worse. A mountaineer is often forced to judge rationally and calmly how far he can safely climb and to turn around before he puts himself in danger. I was at that point. It hurt my pride to retreat, but it was too dangerous to continue.

Patent examiners face similar decisions. Examination requires fierce negotiation between an examiner and an inventor’s patent attorney. The examiner rejects the patent using prior art, and the attorney argues or amends the claims to narrow the scope of the protected invention. The attorney’s job is often to get the patent their inventor wants but not necessarily the patent their inventor deserves. The overwhelming majority of the responses I receive from attorneys will delineate, for dozens of pages, the various ways in which the attorney thinks that I am wrong. Sometimes the attorney is correct; I withdraw my rejection and give them a patent. More frequently, the law and prior art support my position. The examiner’s dilemma is the same as the mountaineer’s: “Can I keep going? Should I keep going?”

One particular attorney was so vigorous in the defense of his application that he appealed me to our internal Board of Appeals. The patent office takes appeals very seriously because they can take years and cost both sides large amounts of money. This specific attorney argued with thunder and lightning that my rejection of his patent in light of a research paper was both wrong and nonsensical. I have dealt with aggressive attorneys before, and in this case he was attempting to hide the fact that his position was based on simple semantics. His invention was quite similar to the one presented in the research paper, just with different names for the various components. I wrote up a defense describing the equivalence and stood firm against his appeal. The patent has yet to issue.

I did not turn around that morning on Gokyo Ri because it was hard. I turned around because I saw no possible way of continuing safely. I approach examining patents the same way. Stubbornly holding a good patent hostage may cause financial ruin to fledgling inventors, but allowing a bad patent to issue may stifle innovation and tax entire industries. Knowing where to draw the line requires careful attention to the changing nature of both technology and patent law, and this constant flux is the primary reason I am interested in law as a profession. Mountains I know how to climb do not intrigue me; mountains I do not know how to climb are the ones that cling to my imagination.

Chapter 151: My business trip to El Salvador

San Miguel volcano looking out over Santa Clara

During the first full week of January I was able to participate in an Engineers Without Borders (EWB) trip to El Salvador. The Santa Clara Potable Water Project was started years ago and has extensive community support, but securing funding proved a problem. Many of the original engineers involved in the design left before the implementation was started. I joined the EWB chapter just as they found funding through Rotary International and were in need of people with free time who could help implement an existing design.

Having essentially no practical construction or electrical engineering experience, I was quickly nominated the Electrical team lead and sent down to help kick start construction along with three professional engineers and three members of the George Washington University undergrad EWB chapter.

Santa Clara is a rural farming community of approximately 240 households, the overwhelming majority (~80%) of which do not have access to potable water and instead use hand-dug wells. The wells and the shallow aquifer they access are generally contaminated by nearby latrines, confirmed through the excessive levels of fecal coliform bacteria present in water samples.

The EWB project includes several interconnected systems that, once installed, will work together to provide clean, potable water to the community:

Water Source: An electrically powered pump and control system located at an existing deep well will pump chlorinated water to a 30,000 gallon storage tank built on the top of a hill.

Distribution System: A large water distribution system will pipe water out to each individual house, metered through the use of individual water meters.

Water Committee: A water committee will be organized that is made up of community members. The committee is responsible for collecting fees from each household to pay for repair, wages for water employees, the power costs of running the water system and continued public healthy promotion in the community.

Essentially, the goal is to build the infrastructure for a water utility, and then the community will staff and manage the utility, using any profits to invest back into the health promotion activities. Sounds simple, right? Our goals for the January trip were threefold: update and familiarize ourselves with the design, reconnect with the community, and hopefully actually start building things.

Our intrepid leader, Greg

Update Design

As none of us had been involved in the original design, we felt it was important to review all of the previous design decisions, and to go over our design with the local El Salvadoran engineers that would be involved with the actual construction. We ended up having to update the design to reflect what is more customary in terms of tank construction for the area. The soil samples that had been previously arranged for the tank site were not sufficient for the local engineer, so we arranged for another soil sample to take place while we were there. The soil ended up being of a much lower quality than anticipated, which required increasing the depth of our excavation and modifying the design of the tank foundation. We also relocated where the tank would be in the plot of land to accommodate the possible addition of another tank in the future.

Reconnect With Community Members

We participated in a large community meeting where members of the Water Committee were selected, as well as the work teams that would be involved with the extensive manual labor to dig both the tank site and the distribution network. Santa Clara is essentially a township of the municipality San Rafael Oriente, and we arranged a meeting with the mayor of San Rafael Oriente. The mayor committed to providing money to connect the power line to the pump site, as well as the continuing maintenance of the electrical connection.

Starting the Actual Implementation

Based on the soil sample, we used the organized community labor to start excavation of the tank site, as well as starting excavation of the pipeline that will run from the well to the tank. The excavation occurred several days after we had hoped, based on waiting for the updated soil samples to return. We also staked out the path that the well-to-tank pipeline would take. Due to the delay in getting the updated soil sample, the planned excavation of the tank site did not occur as soon as we had hoped, and were not able to start the actual tank construction.

All in all, it was the most functional I’ve ever felt as a volunteer for anything. I’m still very involved in the planning of the project, and hopefully we can get the entire thing functioning by the onset of rainy season (June). Below are a couple more pictures from the trip, and I hope to post another chapter or two about the experience.

“Water is life’s mater and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.” – Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

The EWB travel team, hard at work

Community organizing the Water Committee

Excavation of the future tank site

San Salvador peeking out above the trees

Chapter 150: Redefining Sam

Three years ago I wrote a chapter about my perspective on the previous year. I compared myself with the blurb about me in my families Christmas letter, and concluded that both the year and the blurb included “not enough stories and no girl in the Christmas card”.

By those standards, 2009 has been fantastic. I started off with a 2 month trip to India and Nepal, four separate trips to Utah (including a massive climbing expedition), most of a week at Burning Man, multitudes of weekend trips, and I moved into a new house. All in all I was away from DC more than 17 weeks of the year. Somehow I managed to successfully woo a fellow corporate gypsy named Jessica, who drinks lots of wine and cooks with the best of them. I finally got around to applying to law school. By year end I had plenty of stories and a girl just waiting to brag about in a family Christmas letter.

But there was a problem. In March, my parents announced they were getting a divorce. This last month they each wrote their own Christmas letters. There was no family Christmas letter.

There is no one correct way to view your parents getting divorced, because every divorce is different. It happens for different reasons and at different times in the life of a marriage, with different effects and outcomes. My parents are amicable and still seem to enjoy each others company. I don’t blame either of them, and we all work to make the best of it. How it will affect me and my brothers is unknown; how it will affect my parents is only partially known and ever evolving. My dad must redefine himself as a newly single man. My mom must redefine herself as a newly single woman. I must redefine my role as a brother and as a son. My brothers and I must redefine how we think of ourselves and our parents as a family. Our yearly source of definition, the family Christmas letter, has split in two.

And this was a big year. I went from being perennially single to being in a stable, caring relationship. I went from being controlled by my job to more actively controlling it. I went from being the guy who always talks about applying to law school to being the guy who finally did. And I went from being simply the eldest brother to being the eldest brother of a splintered family.

My parents divorce seemed to be a catalyst to realize what other parts of my life were already trying to tell me: it’s my job to define myself, not someone else’s.