We Answer Your Questions

Occasionally, we respond to questions. As in the following case:

Dear Dr. Info:
Why does my pee smell like that?

Dear Concerned:

Without more detail, it’s hard to know for sure. But my guess is that you ate asparagus recently. That’s because studies by the Urine Institute have found that more than 90 percent of questions about micturation odors are related to asparagus consumption. And indeed, these observations appear in literature from ancient times. Achilles complains about the smell of Agamemnon’s “offensive green stream” after a feast of braised asparagus (“The Iliad,” Book XIV) and retires to his tent until the air clears. Much later, Voltaire called the liquid aftermath of asparagus consumption one of the delights of life, deeming the attendant aroma le grand phunque.

Knowing you, you want more than just my guess that asparagus is involved. OK, then–let’s assume it’s asparagus. Now that we’ve done that, we can ask, “why does asparagus make your pee smell like that?”

The answer is surprising (to me, anyway): Although research has zeroed in on certain chemicals and metabolic processes that apparently play a role in producing the funk, there is no universal agreement about the source or the cause; about whether everyone produces smelly urine after an asparagus party or only some people; or whether the real issue is whether everyone has the olfactory equipment needed to smell asparagus pee.

Here are some sources:

Asparagus, in the Wikipedia (see the section on asparagus and urine).

Why does asparagus make your pee smell funny?, from The Straight Dope.

How Does Asparagus Make Urine Smell?, from eHow.com.

Big Bathtub II: ‘Wasted’

The state periodically produces a document called the California Water Plan. It has been coming out in one form or other regularly or irregularly since 1930. It's part catalogue of the state's water resources, part status report on climate, rivers and the plumbing system that eases the thirst of farms and cities, and–as I read it–part marketing brochure for our biggest water customer, agriculture, and for new dams and reservoirs to secure its water supplies. That last aspect may seem odd, but I was struck by how the draft for the next water plan sings the praises of farmers' efficiency in using every last drop of water they get. It ought to be noted that California agriculture gets about four gallons out of five of the water impounded in the state's reservoirs.

The California Department of Water Resources offers a set of summary statistics on the state's natural water supply. In an average year, the state gets about 200 million acre feet of water in rain, snow, and river flows from other states (the latter is mostly by way of the Colorado River, long a major source of water for Southern California).

Of that 200 million acre feet–probably enough water to keep China going for a year if you could save every thimbleful–100 million or 120 million just sort of goes away. It evaporates, gets sucked up by redwood trees and crabgrass and some crops, or keeps natural marshes marshy. Of the remaining 80 million to 100 million acre feet, about half is captured for urban and agricultural uses. And the final portion, sometimes a quarter or more of all water that nature provides this dry place, flows down the great valley rivers, the Sacramento and San Joaquin, and out the coastal streams and bays to the Pacific. The state website describes this outflow as necessary "in part to meet environmental requirements." It sounds responsible of us. Almost altruistic.

If you've spent enough time in the San Francisco Bay region, you can name a couple of these "environmental requirements" almost without thinking about them. One is the need for an adequate flow of freshwater to prevent the "intrusion" of saltwater into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Brackish water threatens farms there, and it also effects residential users, some of whose water is siphoned right out of the Delta channels.

Another environmental factor is fish. The installation of the vast and complex system of dams, reservoirs, canals, pumps and siphons up and down the Central Valley–but especially in the Delta–has proved deadly for the great salmon runs that used to charge in from the Pacific nearly year round. Belatedly, state and federal water and wildlife officials, at the prompting and prodding of politicians, environmentalists and their lawyers, and judges, have seen fit to set aside some of the yearly flows for the good of the salmon and other imperiled species.

But that responsible, almost altruistic-sounding side of the state's water management sometimes lets its guard down. Our governor, remarkable for his knack to say the right thing–and for seeming to never dig in and deliver on that thing–was talking last week about all that must still be done to fix California. One of his pet projects is a $9 billion program of dam, reservoir, and canal construction. When he was making his pitch for it last week, he described the water that flows out to the Pacific as a waste. It's as if he and those of like mind believe that every glassful, every ounce, ought to be put to productive–you know, human–use.

In saying that, the governor gave voice to an old, old sentiment. Fish and wildlife were never a big consideration when the rivers got plumbed. Putting water to work was the chief concern.

In 1919–90 years ago this week, in fact–the California State Irrigation Association published a tract by Lt. Col. Robert Bradford Marshall. He was a veteran of the U.S. Geological Survey who had studied rivers in California and the West and the problem of getting water where it wasn't. His 12-page report was titled "Irrigation of Twelve Million Acres in the Valley of California." The Department of Water Resources acknowledges Marshall's report as the forebear of the present-day California Water Plan by listing it as the earliest iteration of the state's great water schemes. In short, Marshall proposed building a big dam in the northern Sacramento Valley and building a series of great canals to bring water to both farm and city. Thinking about our current governor and the idea that water that flows into the ocean without having done any honest work is a waste, I was struck by the tract's introduction to Marshall's ideas:

"… Back in those early days Col. Marshall wondered why they didn't irrigate in Northern California as they were doing in Colorado, where he had surveyed the year before. And he then as a young man dreamed that dream of EMPIRE BUILDING that every man of vision at one time or another has dreamed when he views California's millions of acres parched and burning in the summer and her millions of acre feet of water pouring into the Pacific in the winter. …"

And here's Marshall himself, describing that free-flowing water and the people who apparently refused to control it:

"The people of California, indifferent to the bountiful gifts that Nature has given them, sit idly by waiting for rain, indefinitely postponing irrigation, and allowing every year millions and millions of dollars in water to pour unused into the seas, when there are hungry thousands in this and in other countries pleading for food and when San Francisco and the Bay Cities, the metropolitan district of California, are begging for water."

In a dry year like this one, you still hear voices begging for water. And the answer we hear from the governor, farm interests, and water officials is now, as it was so long ago, to capture more of the water that falls on us and put it to work.

Guest Observation: Jem Casey

In honor of the day. From Flann O’Brien’s “At Swim-Two-Birds,” whence this comes, and where it might be better appreciated in context.

Workman’s Friend (or, A Pint of Plain)

When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night –

When money’s tight and is hard to get
And your horse has also ran,
When all you have is a heap of debt –

When health is bad and your heart feels strange,
And your face is pale and wan,
When doctors say that you need a change,

When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rare –

In times of trouble and lousy strife,
You still have got a darlint plan,
You still can turn to a brighter life –

“… There’s one thing in that pome, permanence, if you know what I mean. That pome, I mean to say, is a pome that’ll be heard wherever the Irish race is wont to gather, it’ll live as long as there’s a hard root of an Irishman left by the Almighty on this planet, mark my words.”

Need Ice?


In this age of (apparently) shrinking polar ice caps, I pondered what’s been happening up north this winter–way north, in the Arctic night. The first site that Google produced for the phrase “arctic sea ice” was this: Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis. The news: the extent of Arctic sea ice is greater than it was in the minimum season (two years ago); the extent of Arctic sea ice is significantly below the average recorded for the years 1979-2000. But check out the sight for yourself.

And a bonus for Arctic ice fans: The Catlin Arctic Survey (patron: HRH The Prince of Wales): Three Brits on the ice plus a logistics team tracking and resupplying them. The team is to trek from a spot north of Canada’s Arctic coast to the North Pole, about 1,000 kilometers; its mission is to measure the thickness of the ice along the way; that could be important evidence about ice deterioration under the pressure of global warming.

The adventurers set out on March 1, and in their 15 days on the ice they’ve traveled all of 28 kilometers. That’s about 17 miles, if you’re keeping score in the United States, or a little more than a mile a day. Luckily, the weather is fine: currently -41 degrees C. (-42 F.) and sunny. The BBC’s running a nicely done diary site, complete with audio reports from the trekkers.

Encounters with the Saints

Went down to Santa Clara last night to see our local men’s professional soccer team, the San Jose Earthquakes, play an exhibition against what amounts to a farm team, the Portland Timbers (the home side won, 1-0; thanks Eamon and Sakura).

The Quakes play in Buck Shaw Stadium at Santa Clara University. Saint Clare, I dimly recall from the Nikos Kazantzakis novel and maybe a Hollywood movie starring someone like Bradford Dillman, was Saint Francis’s one-time squeeze from Assisi (at least that’s how I think the story goes). When he gave up the life of the feckless, dissipating hedge-fund operator (or medieval equivalent) for one of impoverished contemplation and ethical treatment of animals, Clare did likewise. Fast forward to the Spanish colonization of California: Both saints wound up having California missions named after them. The one memorializing Saint Francis was part of the settlement that eventually turned into a town full of lots of dissipation and hedge-fund shenanigans and only occasional world-renouncing introspection. The mission celebrating Saint Clare burned down, I’m told, and was replaced by the building you see here, which is on the campus of Santa Clara University–a place that I expect veers constantly between partying and deep reflection. santaclara031409.jpg

Your Berkeley Pickup Message of the Day


Going the bumper sticker one better, I’ll bet this is the first time Jung has gotten such high-profile treatment on a U.S.-registered vehicle (in Europe, I’m sure there are whole fleets of Saabs and Volvos plastered with his insights). Sighted on Grant Street, near Vine.  

Green Job


Just across the street from the North Berkeley BART station is a house with a high-profile home industry: birdhouses fashioned from cast-off lumber. I think I noticed the place five or six years ago, and it has become more obvious since, with half a dozen or more pickups and other vehicles parked along the block across from the station, all festooned with these whimsical and perhaps even practical hand-crafted avian domiciles (I have yet to see these elsewhere, though I figure some must have sold by now). In the last month or so, the birdhouse entrepreneur has freshened the marketing with references to the new administration, economic stimulus, etc. I snapped this walking by the other night.  

Guest Observation: E.B. White

From a collection we have, “E.B. White: Writings from The New Yorker, 1927-1976”:

Crossing the Street

July 16. 1932

Possibly you have noticed this about New Yorkers: instinctively, crossing a one-way street, they glance in the proper direction to detect approaching cars. They always know, without thinking, which way the traffic flows. They glance in the right direction as naturally as a deer sniffs upwind. Yet after that one glance in the direction from which the cars are coming, they always, just before stepping out into the street, also cast one small, quick, furtive look in the opposite direction–from which no cars could possibly come. That tiny glance (which we have noticed over and over again) is the last sacrifice on the altar of human fallibility; it is an indication that people can never quite trust the self-inflicted cosmos, and that they dimly suspect that some day, in the maze of well-regulated vehicles and strong, straight buildings, something will go completely crazy–something big and red and awful will come tearing through town going the wrong way on the one-ways, mowing down all the faithful and the meek. Even if it’s only a fire engine.

‘The Wire’

In a rare show of endurance and stick-to-itiveness, I have concluded my 10-week program of watching all five seasons of "The Wire." It wasn't easy. I ventured late into the night, consuming piles of burritos and pizza slices, quaffing unpretentious but still premium brews and humbler vintages of red wine as the gritty life of "Ballmer" played out before my slack jaw and uncomprehending stare. But finally, red is black, and the last disc is ready to go back to the video store.

The project was occasioned by wanting to watch Season 5–the one in which The Baltimore Sun is a major player–for the first time. But I wanted to put the season into perspective by seeing everything leading up to it. As the series aired, I saw only Season 4 as it aired. I had already seen the first season on DVD and maybe parts of the third year, too.

Treading where millions have before, I offer a few takeaways:

–If you could see just one season, watch the first. You can chase your tail arguing about which season was the best conceived, best written, best acted, etc., and I'm not certainly above that (see below). But what the first season has that the rest never equal is surprise: A world and characters are revealed with depth and detail and tension rarely equaled on the tube. The best of the subsequent seasons build on the first, the worst of them mimic them in a tired sequel kind of way.

–Best seasons: the first and fourth. The first for reasons already elucidated. The fourth because of the combination of wonderfully tight story lines and the group of kids the season follows.

–Worst season: the second. It seems forced and formulaic; reminiscent of the SCTV parody of "Ocean's 11."

–Best take on the theme song, "Way Down in the Hole": Season 1 (The Blind Boys of Alabama) and Season 4 (DoMaJe, said to be a group of Baltimore kids). Tom Waits wrote the song and his version is used in Season Two; I found it grating to the point of fast-forwarding through it.

–Favorite characters: Bunk, Omar, Freamon, McNulty. Not in any particular order. And oh, special mention to Snoop, one of the oddest and scariest characters ever; and to Bubbles, who alone among all the characters is redeemed at the end.

–Favorite arcane newsroom moment: From Season 5. An editor at the Baltimore Sun asks a rewrite man to do something. The rewrite man, Bill Zorzi (actually a former Sun reporter), retorts: "Why don't you stick a broom up my ass and ask me to sweep the place?" If you spent any time around The San Francisco Examiner in the 1980s, this was a moment of pure deja vu. There was a copy editor there named Tony Stelmok, an old-timer whom a colleague describes as looking like Colonel Sanders. One night, the slotman directed him to trim a story or write a whip (a "reefer" line, for instance, one referring readers to a story on another page), to which Stelmok responded: "Whip, whip, whip. Trim, trim, trim. Why don't I just stick a broom up my ass and sweep the place, too?") As it happens, there is an Ex-Sun connection: Jim Houck, a news editor at the Examiner, became managing editor at the Sun. Given the relative rarity of the formulation "why don't I stick a broom up my ass," I'm betting that Houck carried the Stelmok tirade to the Baltimore newsroom, and eventually, through oral tradition, onto TV.

Modern Marketing Notes

A weekend morning ritual has evolved since The Dog’s arrival in 2006: On Saturdays, we walk up to Fatapple’s, a restaurant with a take-out shop, and pick up coffee and a pastry, walk over to the local school garden for the four-legged family member to scope out the chicken coop and the squirrels, then sit in the little amphitheater next to the playground (it’s got a view out to the bay) and eat. Sunday, we’ve started walking the other direction, to a place called Fellini, on University Avenue, that has a take-out window. We buy coffee and skip the pastries, then walk down to the old Santa Fe right -of-way and circle back home. All of the above is habit-forming. ledgers030809.jpg

Across the street from Fellini is Ledger’s Liquor, one of the few remaining liquor stores on University. In olden times, city ordinances forbade alcohol sales within a mile of the Berkeley campus. You know the reason: the pernicious effect of drink on youth and so forth. Those laws were scrapped long ago, but their legacy — a dearth of taverns and liquor outlets and a subdued night life — remains. The big liquor market on the street, Jay-Vee, closed about a decade ago and is now a synagogue. Another place a few blocks away, B&W, which was attached to a bar and seemed to have a corner on the down-and-outer crowd, has been a vacant lot for two or three years. The stores have gone out of business mostly because surrounding neighborhoods, and the city, have become unfriendly: University Avenue liquor stores are seen as magnets for crime and trash.

Ledger’s had been around awhile when I got here in the ’70s. It was known for stocking exotic beers, which back then only meant brews free of the taint of St. Louis, Milwaukee, or Golden, Colorado. I can’t remember the last time I was in there; I’ll bet it was in the ’80s. But it’s still kicking along, though what draws my attention now is the assortment of goods advertised and the slick way they’re presented.

The message on the marquee is semi-permanent and perhaps immortal. Anyone know a source for that?