Three Great Books: Angle of Repose, The Cave and the Light, and The Rise and Fall of American Growth

Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner.

Why I picked up this book: Over the past few years I have been working my way through a list of the 100 best novels as selected by Modern Library. Angle of Repose is number 82 on the list.

One sentence describing what this book is about: Angle of Repose is about a turn-of-the-century family making their way in the American West, as told by their grandson, who reveals his own story while telling theirs.


  • Entertainment: star1star1star1star1 Angle of Repose had many interesting stories wrapped around each other. It took place in locations with which I am very familiar, but which have changed quite dramatically since the story took place. The characters were all extremely vivid, complex, and believable.
  • Insight: star1star1star1 The angle of repose is the steepest angle that a granular material can be piled up before the pile collapses. The book used this metaphor very cleverly in the exploration of emotions and relationships.
  • Knowledge: star1star1 Among other things, learned some interesting things about civil engineering, specifically about mining mercury in the Almaden Valley (now part of Silicon Valley) in the late 1800’s.

Other notes: This is the first book by Wallace Stegner that I have read. The book is beautifully written, conveying almost photographic images of the setting and very tangible depictions of feelings and emotions.


The Cave and the Light, by Arthur Herman.

Why I picked up this book: Came across this book while browsing in a bookstore, and was intrigued by the subtitle: “Plato versus Aristotle, and the struggle for the soul of Western Civilization”.

One sentence describing what this book is about: The Cave and the Light presents a distilled view of the teachings of Plato and those of Aristotle, and discusses their impact on serious thinkers from antiquity to the present day.


  • Entertainment: star1star1 Perhaps leaning towards challenging, this was neither a quick nor easy read. The writing style was fairly engaging, but there is a lot information to process, and a lot to think about while reading.
  • Insight: star1star1star1star1 After reading The Cave and the Light I found I had a much greater understanding of how the basic principles of our society evolved. I find now that I often read articles and opinions more critically, subconsciously considering whether a Platonic or Aristotelian viewpoint is being espoused.
  • Knowledge: Enlightening. I learned a ton about great thinkers I had never heard of, and about the history of Western thought in general.

Other notes: None.


The Rise and Fall of American Growth, by Robert J. Gordon.

Why I picked up this book: I read a short review of this book in either the Wall Street Journal or the San Francisco Chronicle (NOT the NY Times, because their reviews are NEVER short) and thought it sounded interesting.

One sentence describing what this book is about: The Rise and Fall of American Growth describes the huge improvement in the American standard of living from roughly 1870 to 1970, and takes the position that this improvement has now largely stagnated.


  • Entertainment: star1star1 This book is 650+ pages long, and includes, tables and graphs. The writing style is engaging, however, and the material is so interesting that the book is both engaging and taxing
  • Insight: star1star1star1 We engineers often talk (or even gloat) about the current pace of technological change. However, this book really hammered home the fact that the capability to send disappearing messages containing funny movies really does not compare to things like running water, electrification, and the highway system when it comes to real impact on our living standard.
  • Knowledge: star1star1star1star1 The Rise and Fall of American Growth paints a vivid and astounding picture of what life in America was like prior to the 1870-1970 growth century. It covers all aspects of our living standard incredibly comprehensively.

Other notes: None.



Adventures in Underwater Construction

Way back in 1929, my great grandfather built an unusual boathouse on Lake George. Ever since, the Boathouse has been a touchstone for all his descendants. It is currently owned by his grand-daughter (and my aunt) Julie, and her husband, Ken.


The Boathouse

In 2015, Julie and Ken had the Boathouse inspected. Specifically, they were interested in the condition of the underwater parts of the foundation that are not easily visible from the surface. Not unexpectedly, the inspection indicated that substantial restoration work should be done in an expeditious manner. Since Ken and Julie have little experience working with contractors, and Karen and I have a fair amount, we were invited to act as sounding board, moral support, and comic relief throughout the process, which is still ongoing. This blog will show, primarily in pictures, the remarkable work that is underway.

First, some quick background on how the Boathouse is built. Starting from the top and moving down: the Boathouse is built around over a dozen 12×12 inch vertical timbers. These timbers in turn sit on steel plates that sit on large concrete blocks. In turn, the blocks (and we are under water now) sit on cribs, which can best be visualized as log cabins filled with stones (you’ll understand when you see the pictures a bit further down). Finally, these cribs sit on the bottom of the lake. The entire structure is built over the lake; it touches land, but does not sit on the land in any way.


The closest I have to a “before” picture. The columns you see are the 12×12 timbers

The execution of this design back in the 1920’s was nearly flawless; almost 90 years later, the Boathouse is still within one inch of being perfectly level. In contrast, my house in San Jose was out of level by far more than that within three years of being completed! But after many years of a very harsh environment, some materials have simply reached the end of their expected life.

The process to repair the boathouse can be described with ease, but accomplished only with difficulty. The process is as follows:

  • Lift the Boathouse just a little bit, essentially putting her on “stilts”
  • Demolish and remove the old concrete
  • Reinforce the cribs
  • Pour new concrete
  • Gently put her back down

Of course, things are complicated a bit by the fact that most of this work must be done below the surface of the lake. And in the harsh Adirondack winter!

So, now that you have the general idea, let me show you some of the details, in full technicolor…


The first step was to get the water out of the Boathouse. This was done using a “coffer dam”. For reasons known only by the contractor, they started work in mid-December


The coffer dam is basically a steel frame covered with a large, thick plastic tarp


The tarp extends along the bottom of the lake for 25 feet, and is held down with sand bags


Once the coffer dam is in place, it forms an impermeable barrier, and the water is pumped out. Amazingly, it works!

OK, now that the water is gone, lets see what this foundation looks like!


Here’s a pretty good example. As you can see, the crib sits on the bottom of the lake, and the concrete (which clearly has seen better days) sits on the crib. And finally, the timber sits on top of the whole thing


I was curious why the wood does not rot. As it turns out, wood does not rot under water, because there is no oxygen. That is the same reason why Spanish galleons are found on the bottom of the sea, several hundred years after they sank.

You might be wondering how they manage to lift the Boathouse…


Smaller beams are attached to the large 12×12, and supported on the bottom of the lake


Small but powerful jacks are places at the bottom of each auxiliary beam to do the lifting

Now that the Boathouse has been lifted, it is time to remove the old concrete.


Demolition in progress


Demolished concrete pier, with timber suspended by the auxiliary supports


Pier’s gone, time to take a well deserved break

The Department of Environmental Conservation would not allow ANY concrete debris to be left in the lake – even though it had been in the lake for 85+ years. So, we had to figure out how to get it off the lake bottom, out of the Boathouse, and into trucks for disposal.


Conveyor from the work area, through a window, and outside


The start of the conveyor, inside the Boathouse


The rubble is piled in the emptied lagoon, for removal at the end of the job


Lots of old concrete. Unfortunately, the canoe boathouse will need to be removed so that the concrete can be loaded into trucks

Once the old concrete was demolished and removed, it was time to strengthen the cribs. The cribs are held together by steel pins, which have largely corroded and weakened. They  were reinforced substantially with some serious lag bolts.


Now THAT’s a serious lag bolt!


One problem with cribs is that the corners can separate, allowing the crib to collapse. Bolts in the corners will prevent this from happening


Lag bolts visible on the corner of this exterior crib

Now that the cribs are solid, it is time to replace the concrete piers. Concrete technology has come quite a ways since 1929; this time steel reinforcement will be used.


Rebar laid out and ready for placement in the forms


Plywood forms under a couple of the suspended timbers


Looks about ready for some fresh concrete!

It was tough to get the old concrete out, and it certainly was not easy to get the fresh concrete inside. I wish I could have been there to watch this!


Pumper truck getting ready for action


The best way to get the concrete in turned out to be to go over the boathouse and in from the lake side


Up and over!


The view from the lake


Masons working on a new pier

For anyone who loves this Boathouse, it is truly a beautiful sight to see the lovely, smooth concrete on which she now rests.


Completed pier to the right of the workers


Completed pier. If you look closely, you can see that the timber is still suspended about an inch above the concrete


The same pier, prior to restoration

And that’s about where she stands at the moment. Since these photos were taken, she was gently let back down onto the piers. There is plenty of work yet to do, but the end is in sight. The walkways need to be reconstructed, the rubble needs to be removed, the water needs to be pumped back in, and the coffer dam needs to be removed. But the heavy lifting, so to speak, is complete!


A Dog’s Life

We lost our dog Roscoe this week, after over thirteen years as a furry member of the family. It was not a surprise; he lived a very full life, and had been slowly declining over the past year or so. It made us sad nonetheless; it is amazing how attached you can become after so much time!

I spent some time this weekend going over some of our favorite pictures of Roscoe, and thought is would be fun to collect some of them here and tell Roscoe’s story, in pictures. So, if you knew Roscoe, or just like dogs, read on!


We picked up Roscoe from the breeder in Oroville, California in September of 2003


Yes, he was a cute pup, full of energy and mischief


Roscoe and Brian quickly formed a very sweet bond. I think Roscoe could tell Brian was the youngest, and was extra cuddly with him. Here, Brian is asleep, using Roscoe as a pillow


A boy and his dog


While Brian was the snuggler, Tyler was more of the playmate. Here, Roscoe is giving Tyler some kisses


Tyler and Roscoe hanging out


A nice lake was Roscoe’s all-time favorite thing…



… closely followed by snow! There is some debate about whether dogs can smile; Roscoe provided a conclusive answer to this!


Roscoe was a herding dog, and took his job seriously. Here, he is trying to “herd” as we start a toboggan run


He felt pretty strongly about herding the canoe as well


And swimmers too, of course!


When part of the herd got away, he would chase them down and bring them back


And when part of the herd got TOO far away, he was not happy until he saw them return


There is no doubt he was the happiest when the herd was assembled


He loved his Grama almost as much as he loved his boys


Baseball was one of his favorite pastimes. We tried calling it “executing code C” rather than “playing catch”, but he quickly figured that out, and would insist on playing too.


Roscoe played hard, and was not afraid of getting dirty…


… or of getting a little wet…


… or of collecting a few snowballs in his belly fur!


Tuckered out after a big day


Roscoe loved paddling, whether in a kayak…


… an inflatable…


… or a canoe


In his later years, he took a fancy to hiking, as long as he was [1] off leash, and [2] in some nice woods somewhere


He loved going to the beach…


… particularly his favorite beach on Lake George


He loved his road trips. Roscoe made it to thirty states in his thirteen years!


Although he didn’t always stay awake


Roscoe had his own twitter account, and tweeted one of his road trips


While he did appreciate art, he seemed a lot less impressed by his portrait (done by my good friend Jed Duncan, and currently hanging in our family room) than Karen and I were.


Roscoe spent his last summer at Lake George, and I think he believed he was in heaven


A serious moment. This is one of the last pictures of him that I took

Now that our last, furry child has moved on, we are truly empty-nesters! Certainly the end of a major (and wonderful) chapter in our lives…


What I Did This Summer, Part 2

In my last post, I told the story of our new place at Lake George and of our major remodeling project. And while the construction did rule our lives to a degree, we did manage to find time to take advantage of the other pleasures that the Adirondacks have to offer.

To start with, one of the advantages of living in a construction work site this summer was that it forced us to wake up early and get started with our day. There is nothing like knowing that the painters will be knocking on the door at 6:30 to get you out of bed and into the shower! Thanks to this incentive, we saw many Lake George sunrises – and that, in my opinion, is the most beautiful time of the day around here. Take a look at these pictures, and see if you agree…


Red sky at morning…


Sun just about to peek


Sun rising as storm clouds dissipate


Our sideways oak, and its reflection


Boathouse at dawn

One interesting thing about Hague is that there is only one supermarket within 15 miles… and that is a Walmart. Long before we left for New York, we vowed NEVER to buy food from Walmart (due to previous bad experience and general principle!), a pledge we lived up to. Instead, we would escape the dust and mayhem of 51 Pine Cove by hopping in the truck and hitting fruit stands, farms, and small markets all over the Adirondacks and Vermont. A day’s circuit could include a stop at the little farm next to Tractor Supply in Ticonderoga, followed by raspberries and a cider donut at Gunnison’s Orchard in Crown Point, then up the Champlain Valley to the Essex Farm  to get a chicken. We’d have lunch in Essex along the lake while waiting for the ferry to Vermont, then after a pleasant half hour on the ferry we would meander through the Vermont countryside to Green Pasture Meats and to Champlain Orchards for produce and hard cider. Then, across Lake Champlain again on the charming Ticonderoga Ferry, and finally back home, with a quick stop at the Hague Market for a freshly baked cookie. Not the most efficient way to shop, of course, but mighty pleasant, with some lovely sights along the way!


How could we NOT stop?


Storm brewing, as seen from the Essex ferry


Champlain Orchards, where we became regular shoppers


Covered bridge on Swamp Road in Vermont


Essex Farm CSA


Lake Champlain shoreline

Our constant companion through the summer was Roscoe, our thirteen-year-old Australian Shepherd. Definitely well into his advanced years at this point, we were hopeful but not sure that he would survive long enough to see the Adirondacks. However, he revived remarkably once we arrived – Lake Therapy, we called it. As long as he was hiking, wading, kayaking, digging on the beach, or sleeping, he was a happy dog!

Roscoe is not the only one who enjoys paddling – Karen and I like it too! We had some lovely times on the water, both with and without Roscoe. We paddled mostly on Lake George, but also took a few expeditions here and there. Looking forward to more exploring next year, when we are not under construction…


Evening paddle on Lake George


Storm’s brewing


Picnic in the canoe, on Cedar River Flow


Resting on a small island


Ford-tough canoe transport


Chasing loons on Jabe Pond


Loon-chase successful!

Our original plan for this summer had been to limit our boating to paddle-driven vessels, but we quickly discovered a flaw with this strategy – the flaw being that it was not something easily done with friends and visitors. So, it did not take us long to rationalize the idea of purchasing a boat. And, for me, that meant a wooden boat. It’s in my blood, I guess! Anyhow, we did some looking around, and came across an under-loved Chris Craft in very nice shape. And, the rest is history!


1947 Chris Craft Sportsman Utility 22, perfect for relaxing evenings on Lake George

In addition being famous for boating, the Adirondacks are renowned for hiking. We took advantage of this as much as we could, taking very short, flat hikes with Roscoe (whose hindquarters are very weak), and longer, more strenuous hikes without him. Saw some beautiful places, and got a little sorely-needed exercise in the process.

All these activities were really fun just by themselves, but were made all the more rewarding by the constant presence of family and friends. We enjoyed frequent visits from some great people who we rarely get to see much of! Some pictures of this fine cast of characters is shown below, roughly in order of appearance…


My aunt and uncle, Julie and Ken, who were kind enough to provide us with refuge when the cacophony of power tools became overwhelming


Hiking with my cousin Ginger, who lives here year-round, and provided all sorts of great guidance for us


Ginger’s grandson Josh, fisherman par excellence


Jed and Jane Duncan, longtime friends and our brave, first visitors


My sister Lisa and her husband Tim, who were kind enough to arrive with soft shell crabs from their dock on the Chesapeake


My son Tyler and his old man


Hiking in the High Peaks with the Rueppel clan


Karen with Bricker, Julie and Ken’s grandson, and the world’s happiest and most gregarious nine-month-old


My Aunt Vee, who at age 85 felt that living on an active construction site was “a great adventure”


Julie, Vee, and my cousin Oey from New Hampshire


Patrick, friend of mine from college, learning how to drive


Brian with a soft shell crab and leftover ribs for lunch


Kelsey, Brian’s girlfriend, who spent every possible moment in the water


Judy, Karen’s mom, from all the way out in California

Like all good things, summer must come to an end. And indeed, as I write this, it has. Days are getting shorter, nights are getting cooler, and it is time to start thinking about our trek back home to California. We are taking the “long” way, however, and will be making lots of visits along the way, so I’m not complaining!

What I Did This Summer, Part 1

For many years Karen and I have shared the dream of spending summers on Northern Lake George in upstate New York. And, with Tyler living full-time in North Carolina and Brian firmly established at school in Connecticut, we decided that 2016 was the year to pull the trigger. After investigating summer-long rentals and discarding them due to high cost and lackluster availability, we got the harebrained idea of purchasing an under-loved property and fixing it up.

After a couple off-season trips to Hague, and some stellar negotiating on Karen’s part, we found ourselves to be the owners of a very humble one bedroom, two bathroom cottage in a fantastic location on the shores of the lake. In late May, we hopped in the truck and drove across the country to our new summer abode.


Little House on the Lake, vacant for seven years before we bought it

Karen was very busy in the weeks before we left for New York, and had a landscaper, a tree guy, and a remodeling contractor all queued up to start work the week after we got there. And we were not disappointed! The contractor, CGM Construction, told us he would have the job done in three months, and with a 12 month and a 24 month remodel under our belts, we privately smirked a little. But we were thrilled to see work begin!


The kitchen was the first room to get demo’d. “Looks better already”, said Karen!


Debris piled up quickly…


… and we got a dumpster, the first of three that we filled, with our mailbox on it!


Dead trees were one of the first things to go


Chainsaw cowboys taking care of business

We had a flat area of the yard that was largely unused, my guess is that it was a septic field at one time. Anyhow, I got it in my head that it would make a great place for a fire pit, and decided to build one. Eight 6×6 landscaping ties, 48 fifty-pound bags of gravel, and a couple loads of boulders from a nearby brook later, the firepit was built. It did not disappoint! A firepit with a world-class view, with smoke that always blows out over the lake, not in your face!

In case you haven’t guessed, we lived in the house throughout the remodel process. Which was no big deal, really, we’d done it before. But, as with the last remodel, cooking was a challenge! Our cooking style suddenly got VERY simple, usually a piece of meat grilled outside, with steamed or sauteed vegetables cooked on the stove. And, we ate out at least once a week, at the Firehouse Grill, the only restaurant in Hague.


They were kind enough to leave us a stove…


… and not much else!


Counter space was at a premium


Cabinets, but no appliances


So close, yet so far!

One thing we know we were going to need was a dock. Fortunately, we got hold of The Dock Doctors early in the Spring, figured out what we would need, and placed a deposit. However, I underestimated the bureaucratic maneuvering it would take to get the necessary permits. After all, we were just replacing the decrepit dock that was already there! Anyhow, one day about six weeks after we arrived, we were thrilled to see a barge approaching with a crane on it. And, by the end of the day, we had a dock!


Yay! The barge is here!


And a few hours later, most of the dock was built


Dock in foreground, worksite/home in background, with firepit to the right


THIS is why we wanted a dock! One of many sunrises we watched, as the workers always arrived at 6:30 or 7:00

Work continued throughout the summer, there was not a weekday where at least one worker (and sometimes up to a dozen!) paid us a visit. And, by August, things really started to come together.

A little aside… early in the summer, we had paid a visit to Sub Alpine Coffee in the High Peaks on one of our many day trips. We saw some cool handmade stools, and found out they were crafted by a small furniture maker in Westport, on Lake Champlain. We paid him a visit, Courtney Fair was his name, and got him to make some stools for us, too. And, a handcrafted counter made with cherry wood to go with it!


Wood Counter and Stools


Kitchen and Family Room. Domestic Bliss!


The Final Dumpster Departs!

If we had been bold enough to voice a prediction on when CGM would finish the job, we would have been eating crow big-time, because they beat their three-month target by over a week, even while addressing some serious complications. Needless to say, we are thrilled with how the whole project went, and are looking forward to spending a few relaxing weeks in our completed home!

Shown below are a few before-and-after pictures, to give you an idea of what was accomplished. Huge improvement! Not bad for a summer’s work…

Here is the view from the landing of the stairs, what used to be a living room is now the “dining” portion of a great room:

Dead trees and the warped, rotting deck are gone, replaced with a new deck and an awesome view:

Tired, cramped kitchen expanded and modernized:

Completely unfinished upstairs converted into three nice bedrooms and a laundry room:


As much as we liked the workers, it is oh-so-nice not to have to wake up early every morning to greet them! Just have a bit of landscaping work to do now, and the project will be complete. Then, unfortunately, it will be time to pack up, and start the long drive back to California!