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.

Chapter 149: Interview of Sam, Ed and Monty, circa 1992

Mom: If you could do anything, what would be it?

Monty (age 4): I like to play with my brothers ’cause both of them are big. I like games and batman toys, balls, and “for pretend” typewriting and writing and drawing and pretend eating.

Ed (age 7): If I could spend lots of time doing stuff, it would be playing out on the swing or the ring with our new neighbors ’cause it’s very fun and exciting but it’s more fun with them than by myself. I don’t like being alone. I get lonely. I like being with just a few people.

Sam (age 9): If I could do anything, I would play with Legos and read TinTin books and drink a concord fruit punch all at the same time!

Mom: What kind of books do you like?

Monty: TinTin, Berenstein Bears, and How Things Work.

Ed: I like mystery books, books on scientific progress, Calvin & Hobbes, and scary ones — but only in the daytime.

Sam: I most like to read adventure books like TinTin, the Redwall books, and Little House on the Prairie.

Mom: What kind of career do you want?

Monty: I’d like to drive cars and give people tickets at the movies and giving people pieces of paper when they want to draw and write things.

Ed: For a career, it’s science. I’d like to put together potions and I’d put together chemicals to see if they would hurt little kids or blow up or something. But I wouldn’t want to make medicine because you can’t make any money at that. If I thought something might blow up, I’d wear a special suit and, if it DID blow up, I’d the tell the newspaper because some people might up chaos.

Sam: When I get older, I’d like to be a mechanic or an engineer on computers, airplanes, spaceships or helicopters.

Mom: What are your hobbies?

Monty: My hobbies are having candy and my rock collection.

Ed: My hobbies are science and playing.

Sam: My hobbies are TinTin, Legos, drawing, and building.

Mom: What would you like to learn to do?

Monty: I would like to learn to paddle a canoe fast, to learn to write, to not pinch people and hurt them, and to reach my candy after lunch.

Ed: I’d like to learn to climb upside down, climb, and dance in front of people when they’re smiling and laughing.

Sam: I’d like to learn to cursive write all the letters of the alphabet, paddle a kayak straight, and beat my dad at chess, I’d also like to learn to cook some foods I really like to eat like brownies, lasagna, clam chowder, macaroni, and chocolate chip cookies.

Mom: What do you do when you are bored?

Monty: When I’m bored I eat lunch or get a snack or ask for food when we’re visiting people.

Ed: When I’m bored, I don’t know what to do. I’m usually not bored! I like to hear music or go outside if I don’t have anything to do.

Sam: When I get bored, I usually tell my mom, but if she can’t help me I go play with Legos, read TinTin, or I might even take a nap. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night (like 6 nights out of 7) and I lie there bored waiting for morning. Sometimes I lie there pretending I’m playing with Legos or remembering parts of TinTin. Because I sleep on the top bunk, I can look out the window to the bayou and if I see it’s getting light, my hopes rise and I know that soon I won’t be bored any longer.

Mom: How good are you at finishing jobs?

Monty: If we’re having lunch, I set the table and I finish the job. When I make my bed, I finish the job.

Ed: I only finish jobs that are interesting. If the job is boring or the boss is dumb, I’ll probably quit. If the job were boring but my boss was my friend, I would probably do it. But I can’t be the boss because I don’t have enough money to pay anybody to work for me. But I would like to work so I can get some money but I’m not strong enough to work on buildings.

Sam: Finishing a job? It depends on what the job is: if it’s picking up all the sticks in the backyard, I’d probably finish it. If it was pricking up the pine needles, probably not. If the job’s too impossible, I probably won’t finish it.

Mom: How do you like best to learn?

Monty: I want to learn from my teacher at my school very far away. Ed told me how to really drink water. Ed teached me how to pedal my bike. Mommy teached me how to write. Daddy teached me to wrestle.

Ed: I like to learn new things with my friends or by myself.

Sam: I like to learn new things from my parents, from my friends, brothers, and alone.

Mom: What are the most fun things you like to do?

Monty: Ride a train, turn on the lights that are very high on the ceiling, turn heavy things that turn upside down, put my pajamas on, make a house out of bricks and paint, and take a bath.

Ed: The most fun thing I like to do is discovering. I also like diving, swimming, riding my bike, and swinging on our neighbor’s swing.

Sam: I have the most fun playing with Legos, reading TinTin, pretending things are live, kayaking, going on camping trips, drinking Concord fruit punch, eating clam chowder, swimming, playing chess, Risk, Pente, and Monopoly, exploring, skiing, sledding, playing things with my brothers, listening to music, and making music, playing with our neighbors, caving, hiking, cooking sometimes, playing with old electrical junk, climbing, making forts, visiting old friends, having map quizzes, watching animals, riding my bike, watching space shuttles take off on TV, playing with costumes, and drawing in my squiggle book.

Thanks Mom and Dad.