Thursday, July 31

A new slave for the house

As I write, my new robot is cleaning the floor. And doing a very good job of it, I might add. Today I hit Costco, my favorite place on earth other than the warm waters off the Kona coast, and purchased an iRobot Roomba vacuum cleaner. Costco had them on display for a few months already, and I had hinted to Karla as we passed by them in the store that it might be a nice addition to the family. She was noncommittal, as she should be, having a husband who’s a gadget freak. My resistance to buying it finally broke down today, and I brought it home and plugged it in to charge it up and hoped it would impress me. It does.

Oops! What was that? Something just crashed. Oh no! It just ran into our ancient Ming vase and knocked it over! Oh no! It ripped all the tassels off the only surviving Persian rug from the glory days of Babylon, and it’s shredding my collection of 1940s comic books! Gotta go!!

Triple bonus! The cat hates it!

Wednesday, July 30

The homes versus forest quandary

Way back in 1961, a fire named Harlow destroyed 42,000 acres in little over a couple of days. Around 200 houses and two human lives were lost. The town of Nipinnawasee was destroyed. The fire burned through the area where I lived then (destroying my entire three-foot-high collection of comic books dating back to the early 1940s!) and also where I live now. It cleared a lot of land of its brush and small trees. Since that time, there hasn’t been any fire here. That’s 47 years! The natural cycle of fires in this part of California is every eight to ten years. Fortunately, the land around here has been heavily grazed by cattle and horses, keeping it relatively open and clear. In olden times that task was done by native elk and deer, with a little help from the native humans.

If that same fire occurred today and covered the same area, the number of houses lost would be in the thousands.

In 1961 wildfires were fought with the emphasis on saving the forest, not the houses. So fires could be contained relatively quickly. Now the emphasis is on saving homes, which requires diversion from the fire as a whole. In the case of the Telegraph fire now burning north of here literally hundreds of firefighters are standing near houses waiting for the oncoming flames, not concentrating on the spreading front of the fire.

Something is really wrong here. Sure, people’s houses are important, and I certainly wouldn’t shoo any willing firefighters away from the old homestead here, but there has to be a better way.

On June 20, I flew over parts of the local area and was really shocked at the density of houses in these hills. The pilot told me that “this is nothing—you should see Yosemite Lakes Park!” So many of the houses were right next to ornamental brush and ornamental trees that would practically explode if they caught fire. That’s the whole reason for living in the wilds—the gorgeous scenery and lush forest.

The island of Bermuda is located in hurricane territory. All the buildings there are built of concrete and can withstand 150-mile-an-hour winds. You are not allowed to build anything that a hurricane can destroy; it’s the law.

Should we do the same here? Fireproof houses?

I don’t know if we can have our cake and eat it too. For one thing, our “cake” could end up way overcooked.

Tuesday, July 29

Fire update

The latest on the Telegraph fire can be found here. In summary it is at 29,600 acres, 15% containment with 3,500 people fighting it. One of the aircraft they’re using is a DC-10, a three-engine plane that never was successful as an airliner because with an odd number of engines it was always assigned to odd altitudes, had to carry an odd number of passengers and only flew to odd places. This picture was taken at the end of one of the firefighting shifts; the plane is serving strawberry daiquiris to the thirsty crew below.

Photo credit:

The supreme all-inclusive expression

You’ve heard them, the expressions that mean everything. Like, the whole nine yards. Or the whole ball of wax. Or the whole enchilada. How about combining them into the ultimate all-inclusive expression: The whole nine-yard ball of enchilada wax.

Apologies to my Australian readers, since I don’t think it would roll off the tongue very well if you had to say, The whole eight-hundred twenty-two point nine-six centimeter ball of enchilada wax. You should go back to your British and American roots fer cryin’ out loud. The metric system was a French invention after all.

French’n vention. That rolls off the tongue real nice, come to think. I could wax poetic:
He sat on a bench an’
picked up his wrench an’
thought he would mention
a French invention
Okay, I’m outta here. Good night.

Monday, July 28


It is time to put together the last 500 or so copies of Never a Dull Moment, a book Hilary wrote when she was still doing home school. We had 2,500 copies printed (actually the printer did an overrun of several hundred copies). In order to keep costs down we turned down the $1.75 or so it would have cost to have each book bound by the printer. The idea was to be able to have it sell for $8.95 retail. We had been told by some booksellers that self-published books tend to be way overpriced because the writers can’t get small runs published for a decent price. Working backward from the discount a bookseller takes, our production cost, and a reasonable profit, we ended up doing the collating and binding ourselves.

We’ve sold around 2,000 copies, but the demand is still there at the ranch and the store at Florence Lake. We have several file storage boxes in our storage building filled with collated pages that need to be assembled into finished books. My goal is to put together fifty books a day until they are all completed.

Each book consists of seven 16-page “signatures” plus covers. My job is to punch the covers, then each of the signatures, then assemble them, and finally spin on and trim the coil binding.

A sticker with the ISBN number and price is placed on the back cover. Then in bunches of ten books they’re wrapped in stretchy plastic so they won’t slide around and get damaged. Finally they’re put back in the storage boxes, ready for sale.

After punching the thousands of holes with the little manual binding machine, I have a right hand that’s sore and a right arm that’s primed for an arm wrestling match.

(Canon lens cap in middle photo is for scale.)

Fire now at 26,000+ acres

Here’s an article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Sunday, July 27

Fires and Fame

I doubt that too many people in New York City would be concerned if a rural community in Central California was threatened by a wildfire. If fire threatens a town named Mariposa or Midpines or Mount Bullion, well, so be it. But if you add the tag “Yosemite” it becomes big news.

Off and on all day I have been listening to KCBS, a news radio station from San Francisco, and our little fire leads off the national news every hour. Again, because of Yosemite. (Our fire got demoted to second place when some nut-case blasted nine people in a Tennessee church with a shotgun.)

Perhaps what’s happening here is that news organizations tailor their product to only those things that people can relate to. If something happens in an area that most people never heard of it simply doesn’t become “news.” So far this fire is tiny compared to the enormous blazes that threatened Big Sur, and the town of Goleta near Santa Barbara, but it has the potential to threaten access to one of America’s iconic National Parks.

So that’s why it’s making news.

As of now it has grown to 18,150 acres and threatens 2,000 residences in the communities of Midpines, Briceburg, Mariposa, Greenley Hill, Coulterville, Bear Valley, and Mt. Bullion Camp. Containment so far: zero.

Here’s where I am in relation to the fire

Using GPS and a recent satellite fire map, I determined that I can breathe easy, for a bit at least. But take a look at the extent of the fire — the area would almost cover the city of San Francisco!

More bad air

The fire is blanketing our valley with its smoke, but not as heavily as the previous nearby fire. It started Saturday and quickly grew to a thousand acres due to the abundance of dry brush, steep terrain, and the fact that it hadn’t burned in a hundred years. By Sunday morning it was at 16,000 acres (25 square miles, 6,500 hectares). Electric power to Yosemite has been cut off. People are streaming out of Yosemite Valley looking for a cold drink. Mariposa is booming with the unexpected business. The Fresno Bee has an article.

Shown is a blanket of ash on what was a very clean shiny car only three days ago. Since I open the windows in the house at night to help keep it cool, there is now a fine deposit of ash throughout. Oh well.

Saturday, July 26

It’s ba-a-ack!

At about 7 this evening I stepped out to do some evening watering since the temperature is so high. We’re going through another four or five day heat wave and some of the plants have to be watered in the morning and the evening. The first thing I became aware of was the smell of smoke. Another fire is burning north of us, on both sides of Highway 140, the Yosemite Highway near Mariposa. So far it’s a day old and about a thousand acres and only 5% contained. It is threatening around 400 homes near an area called Midpines. We’re going to be having this kind of stuff clear through November this year, the prognosticators say. Doughts stink.

Hoofed herbicide

From the deep shadows of our jungle came the sounds of stomping and tearing and chewing. I approached cautiously, expecting to find a black bear or maybe a horde of wild pigs. Imagine my relief on finding a couple of horses! Plus imagine the happiness to see that they were working on reducing the poison oak population. Horses can eat the stuff that could kill a human by causing the throat to swell shut. When horses stomp through poison oak, horse handlers have to wash off with ammonia, or else develop itchy lymph-oozing blisters. Every spring when the vet and farrier and others come to our roundup, we have to make sure we have plenty of ammonia and rinse water for them.

When I was about 12 I had my first encounter with the pretty, shiny, deep-green leaves of poison oak. The swelling was so great I thought my skin would burst. Since then the effect is almost nothing and poison oak isn’t a bother. But still it’s nice that the horses get some fresh greenery.

Friday, July 25

Mirror images

This is really very strange (aside from my grumpy face in the photo). An article in the New York Times about how you see yourself in a mirror has some very interesting insights. If you look in a mirror and trace around your face on the glass with a marking pen, you will see that the drawing you made is exactly half the size of your actual face. But even weirder, look at your face in the outline you just drew as you approach or back away from the mirror. It still fits that outline, regardless of how close or far back you move! I tried it and it’s amazing! Or counterintuitive at least.

Even though I am using an ancient Chinese mirror (recently updated with high definition 1080p glass), any mirror big enough to show your face will work.

Oh, one more thing. Look at the picture and tell me where the camera is; I had to do a bit of planning to make this come out.

Thursday, July 24

Dancing around the world

You who are regular followers of the Astronomy Picture of the Day site have already seen this. What does dancing have to do with astronomy? Nothing really, except that both are practiced all over the world.

Where the Hell is Matt? (2008) from Matthew Harding on Vimeo.

As they said on APOD, few people can watch this and not smile!

Wednesday, July 23

Originality lives!

I wish I had infinite bandwidth. This artist has some wonderfully original work. Here’s just one:

By the way, get there before Google/YouTube takes it down! More here.

Tuesday, July 22

Don’t try to read this between 5:30 and 5:40 PM

So on Tuesday the 22nd at 5:30, find something else to do for ten minutes besides reading this blog. Suggestions: Walk the dog. Trim your toenails. Neat-up your sock drawer. Get a real job.

Apple stock falls. So what else is new?

I manage a couple of stock portfolios (if you can call buy-and-hold “managing”) that are heavily invested in Apple. In our family are two Apple desktop computers in the house; in our storage building are another two. At the high ranch and at the lake are four laptops and a desktop. iPods abound. Our vehicles all sport Apple logos on the tailgates and back windows. (Did I just say Windows?)

Yesterday Apple Inc. reported Macintosh computer sales growth of more than 40% over the same quarter last year. They secured third place in US sales, right after HP and Dell, even though they aren’t pursuing any sales to businesses. Half of the buyers are switching from Windows. Apple’s retail stores make more money per square foot than any other retailer on the planet, roughly twice as much as the previous record holder, the jeweler Tiffany & Co.

And as usual, Apple’s stock took a big hit, dropping 6% in value. Why? It always happens when they report record earnings. If it didn’t happen, I’d be worried; something would be wrong. As long as history repeats itself, I’m comfortable.

Apple announced “state of the art new products at prices our competitors can’t match.” It used to be that Apple products were sold at a premium to those of other manufacturers. Recently they pre-purchased almost 50% of the annual output of memory chips from Samsung in Korea, the world’s largest supplier. With Apple buying enormous chunks of essential parts, other makers can only hope to sweep up the scraps left on the factory floors before the rats pee on them during the night.

One thing that could be causing anxiety among Apple investors is the rumored ill health of Apple’s co-founder, Steve Jobs. At his last public appearance in early June, he was gaunt. He is the 53-year-old survivor (so far) of pancreatic cancer which was diagnosed in 2004. Supposedly he was completely cured. Investors think if he passes the company could founder. I don’t share that feeling. After all, when the great American cultural icon Walt Disney died, his company continued to prosper and is successful beyond even Walt’s wildest dreams.

I happened to be in Fresno early on the morning of July 11. I drove past an AT&T phone store and saw quite a commotion; the new iPhone was going on sale at 8 o’clock and there were several hundred people circling the store. The first person in line was being interviewed by a reporter from Channel 47, my old alma mater. This kind of enthusiasm on the part of customers is simply non-existent for most companies. How many people surround a Chevrolet dealership right before the new Malibus arrive? There were maybe four people in line at Best Buy and CompUSA combined when Windows Vista made its limp debut one forgettable midnight, and they were probably homeless, hoping to come in from the cold and scarf some free weak coffee and a stale white-flour-and-high-fructose-corn-syrup-sweetened artificially-flavored and -colored cookie.

Jobs is a good leader and his passion for perfection shows in all the company’s products. (Many companies make maybe four or five prototypes of a new product before deciding which to use. Apple makes, literally, hundreds of prototypes.) There are lots of very capable people at the company and all they have to do is pick one among themselves to be the public face to keep the fans happy. Tim Cook, Jon Ive, and a whole inner circle of creators can keep up the flow of awesome products. I’m not worried.

Besides, I’m investing other people’s money, not mine.

Monday, July 21

Back when TV was interesting…

Thinking about old commercials and how many TV shows were literally owned by their sponsors, I got to wondering why some of the silliest events on these shows tend to stick in my memory. One of the sponsors, Winston Cigarettes, had such influence they once used their slogan, “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should,” as the secret on their show, “I’ve Got a Secret.” The premise of the program, which ran from 1952 to 1976, was that the panel of four celebrity types had to guess the occupation, hobby, fame, or whatever secret of the guest. One example was a man who was the very first person to appear on television, in 1925.

The event I remember was when six people sat with the host and the panel had to guess their secret, which was that their names spelled out the sponsor’s slogan. But not exactly. Their names were: Winston, Tase, Good, Lika, C. Garret, and the final name — Schultz! It sure got a laugh, and it sure has stuck with me.

Another TV show of that era was “What’s My Line?” Salvador Dali is the guest in the following clip, which runs a bit over nine minutes. Worth watching what TV was like when panel shows were more, well, more smarter like.

The host, John Daly, had a long career in broadcast news; he was the first person to publicly announce the death of Franklin Roosevelt. Regarding his skill as a panel show host he said, “The art of conversation lies not only in saying the right thing at the right time, but in leaving unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.”

Notice the sponsor’s name all over the set. That isn’t done anymore since shows make more money being re-played in syndication than when first shown, and their sponsors may not even exist after a few years. Cigarette brands that used to sponsor big shows include Chesterfield, Raleigh, and Old Gold. They’ve all since gone up in smoke.

Sunday, July 20

Vegan Viper hasn’t left

Yesterday as I was watering the strawberries, I caught sight of the Vegan Viper slithering into its hideout under one of the half-barrels. Odd, since I have never seen a rattlesnake occupy the same space for very long; they always seem to be on the move. But, since this is the only place on the entire property with strawberries, I thought that made sense (ha ha).

But again today, the Viper is still hanging around the strawberries! That’s weird. I think I may have to capture this little snake and take it out to explore new territory. I’ve noticed that up on the county road the elderberries are fully ripe. Hope it likes them.

Ubiquity of extraterrestrialities

Loyal reader Pat has suggested that I take it easy and back off from the apparent obsession I have about meteors. “Tom dear, lie down and put a cold compress on your head,” she advises. I have used an ice pack before when the neurons nudge neurotic nastiness and nuttiness, when the synapses synchronize, surreptitiously searing serious symptoms of silliness into what remains of my slowly rotting mind.

Problem is, after using the ice bag a lot, it got a little soiled. I tossed it in the washer. Its care tag advised against using a clothes dryer, so I hung it on the clothesline. Imagine my surprise when the next time I used it, it leaked! It was shot through with holes. Caused by what? Micro meteorites!

Thanks Pat, but no thanks.

Saturday, July 19

Hawk dies from extraterrestrial causes

It’s rare to find the intact carcass of a top predator. This is a red-tailed hawk, at least by my reckoning. I found it along a trail the horses use to get to our barn for their daily ration of free food.

How did this bird meet its demise? And why is its body relatively intact? I mean, it’s not as if our recent acquaintance, the vegan viper, bit it as it flew by since it has no interest in things that taste like chicken. Coyotes, raccoons, even ground squirrels will tear a carcass to shreds in a trice, but not this one.

So I launched a pseudo-scientific investigation and discovered much to my surprise that this magnificent bird was brought down by meteorites! The evidence was compelling. First, the bird was dead, which would be directly attributable to being bombarded by lots of high-velocity interstellar particles. Second, the bird’s body was totally desiccated (dried out), obviously the result of the intense heat of the meteorites’ interaction with the bird’s bodily fluids. Third, nothing, apparently, ate its remains, even though as mentioned before they would taste just like chicken. You may wonder why that would enter the equation. Ponder this fact: Wild animals are reluctant to do anything outside their normal behavior. Meteors are objects of wonder and mystery. Could they be harmful (other than their huge velocity) by causing disease or radioactive damage? Could they be infested with viruses or worms or other extraterrestrial/Internet terrors? Wild animals sense that something is just not right about finding a hawk on the ground, dead without an obvious cause of death like battle scars or disease.

Fourth, it’s meteorite season.

Apparently only flies found the carcass attractive, but flies are opportunists willing to sacrifice a few thousand of their offspring in order to take advantage of a windfall.

Evidence of meteorites around here is abundant. I posted three articles about them recently, but there’s more. The remaining grass on the hillsides seems to be disappearing. I know, there are six horses grazing the place this summer, and it’s a drought year, but they don’t eat the grass totally down to non-existence. It’s got to be meteorites pummeling the dry grass.

In the photo I have placed a 1786 ten-shilling note from Rhode Island for scale.

Friday, July 18

Best cell phone ever!

More and more useful functions keep getting added to cell phones. Last Friday Apple started to sell its iPhone 3G. In three days they sold a million of them in 21 countries. It looks good and is very capable, but watch out Apple! This Sumsing phone raises the bar—

Thanks to neighbor Bill for the tip!

Thursday, July 17

Vegan Viper

Lurking between the two strawberry half-barrels, this viperous beast has suspicious lumps in its belly. And I thought it was birds getting the big berries! It’s so simple: Rattlesnake + strawberries + swollen belly = vegan viper. Keep an open mind and you too can enjoy these insights.

Another possibility: Since the snake doesn’t have to kill its prey, it probably doesn’t have venomous fangs. It could become tame and make a very nice house pet. When strawberry season ends, maybe it could eat prunes or melon balls or even popcorn. Imagine on a cold winter’s evening the family gathering around the warm hearth and tossing popcorn, watching their pet viper leaping to catch it on the fly! I wonder if it can be trained to use a litter box.

Electric lion fur

My ongoing investigation of the meteor craters that are appearing under so many trees around here is revealing some very interesting facts. If you’ve ever watched a meteor shower, you probably noticed that meteors almost always come down at an angle. In the photo above I am looking straight up at a hole in an oak leaf that was obviously made by a speeding meteorite. The leaf is exactly parallel to the ground, but the hole in it is an oval which means the tiny particle hit the leaf at an angle, then veered to vertical at the last instant before impact since it made a round, not an oval crater. What could explain this odd behavior?

When I studied electronics, I learned that a magnetic field or an electric charge can deflect a stream of electrons or other tiny particles. That’s the principle involved in the cathode-ray tube, such as a television picture tube. An electric charge attracts the electrons toward the screen, while shifting magnetic fields deflect them back and forth to paint an image. The same principle is illustrated by the pictures below.
The three actors were hit square in the chin by meteorites while watching meteor showers. The craters aren’t at an oblique angle, but perfectly perpendicular to the ends of their chins. What made the meteorites hit straight on instead of at an angle? The men’s magnetic personalities, that’s what! Due to the energetic impact and searing heat of the meteorites, the holes weren’t repairable by cosmetic surgery, so the three actors endured them and actually got to liking their wounds, kind of like how the eyebrow-to-cheek scars from a sword fight make men look more rugged.

No magnetic fields could be detected around the impact craters under the trees, however.

During dry weather, when you pet a cat that’s sitting in your lap, an electric charge builds up. You can move your finger near the cat’s nose or ear and a tiny spark will pop, making the cat uncomfortable but not enough to jump off your lap. (I love to pet cats when the air is dry; I don’t even mind the smell of burnt cat fur.) So this is where the lions mentioned by some readers figure in (although I still reject the suggestions that all the lions are aunts). Lions are covered with cat fur. If they’re resting under the oak trees, and being stroked by bears, their electric charge will be enough to deflect the tiny meteorites to hit the ground perpendicularly, leaving perfectly round craters.

I rest my case.

Pictures of actors:

Wednesday, July 16

Lions? No tigers or bears?

I’m hearing from some of you that the little holes I showed in Meteor shower are actually caused by lions! Yeah, right, like I’m that dumb. We don’t have enough lions around to make even a tenth of the holes that appear under every tree where the soil is dry and sandy, even if the bobcats helped. Some of you have suggested that the lions are aunts! Aunt lions? No uncles? Puh-leeze! In the meantime, I am totally immersed in my investigation, and will have all the proof I need to back up my theory in a day or so.

Tuesday, July 15

Meteor shower

First, let’s get what you’re thinking out of the way. I know, you’re thinking this is about Molly Meteor’s friends throwing a bridal shower to celebrate her betrothal to Chester Comet. Ha ha.

Now let’s get serious. I wonder how many wildfires are started by meteor showers. There’s a whole lot of little hot pieces of rock hitting earth every day. I am surprised that no fires were started by the meteors that hit recently near here. As the picture shows, there were lots of them! Landing among all those dry leaves should have touched off something.
I am going to have to launch a pseudo-scientific investigation, then get back to you with the results. Meanwhile, ponder the advice of Smokey Bear, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.” He must figure we know how to stop lightning. Dumb bear. A totally appropriate mascot for his agency.

Monday, July 14


Several years ago I was using a saber saw to cut a thin piece of plywood. There was sawdust on the wood that started to form geometric patterns due to the vibration. The saw had a variable speed trigger and when the speed increased or decreased the pattern changed. Here is a demonstration of the effect using a metal sheet and table salt.

Salt Sound Waves - video powered by Metacafe

It sounds like a sine wave generator is being used since the tone is pure without overtones. This link takes you to a more complex demonstration of what is called cymatics. Here’s a Wikipedia link.

Now I know what causes the odd patterns in the fish fountain when the goldfish start humming for dinner.

Sunday, July 13

Isn’t it nice when things just…work?

I found it! The English Honda commercial I talked about in the last post. (Like that was difficult with the Internet at hand.)

It took 603 tries to get this impossibly outrageous Rube Goldberg effort on film. No computer chicanery was used to make it. It’s REAL! In this day and age, who would ever?

All of the objects were actual Honda parts, taken from two of the only five hand-made models that existed at the time! The Honda folks were really nervous about letting the crazy film makers take 40% of the entire world’s supply to make a commercial. The odd behavior of the wheels that roll up a ramp was made possible by loading the insides of the tires with bags of nuts and bolts (taken from the Hondas, of course) that off-balanced the wheels.

Saturday, July 12

Tracking shots

One of the most difficult things to accomplish when making a movie is the tracking shot, which is continuous filming without cuts. It takes the most precise planning to bring it off. I wish I could remember the name of the film that had one of the most remarkable tracking shots in history. Being a musical, it was probably an MGM film. The shot started with a close-up of a singer’s face. The camera pulled back slowly showing the singer’s body, then the entire stage, then pulled up the aisle showing the theater’s audience, clear back to the door to the auditorium, then through the lobby, out the entrance, finally sweeping upward to show the entire building from a height of probably six stories, looking down at the street and all the surrounding buildings. One shot! I found out later that a specially-made 80-foot-long boom on a rolling platform was used, then dismantled never to be used again. The producer and director had to have some mighty clout to convince the money men at the studio to finance such a marvelous piece of film making. I hope the audience appreciated what they were seeing.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers did a several-minutes-long dance routine that involved a swooping staircase, the two of them swooping up and down same, with the camera following the entire routine. One shot. Technicolor cameras were actually three cameras in one box, each with its own big reel of 35mm film. They were incredibly heavy and bulky. It took gorillas to move those beasts! But Hollywood had lots of gorillas.

Here is a tracking shot (it should really be called a trucking shot, since camera movement to right or left is called trucking) from a film by Jean-Luc Godard. Weekend was released in 1968. It’s about a supposedly idyllic weekend trip to the countryside that turns into a never-ending nightmare of traffic jams. Very French, as Godard’s films naturally are. This shot is a delightful 7-1/2 minutes that involves a bunch of cars that bring back memories, for me at least. Imagine! A 1958 Packard! A 1957 four-hole Buick (kids, ask your mom or dad [Grandma? Grampa?] about Buick’s holes). Austin-Healeys! Fiats! Rovers! Goofy French Citroën 2CVs! Goofy French Citroën DS 19s! The goofy French Renault Dauphin! A sailboat! A draft horse! TWO original Mini Coopers! Original!! And to complete the insanity, a truckload of lions and a truckload of monkeys and a llama! And dead people!

You couldn’t ask for more! If you have $35 to $150 burning a hole in your pocket, offers it on DVD here.

A Honda commercial that only appeared in England had a tracking shot that lasted two minutes, involving the most intricate Rube Goldberg (kids, ask Mom or Dad) craziness. Filming the commercial took over 600 tries to get it right! SIX HUNDRED!! I’ll try to find it and show it to you.

Friday, July 11

Long-eared rats

The famous naturalist John Muir, once a sheep herder, referred to sheep as hooved locusts. I wonder if he was plagued by rabbits in his garden—I certainly am! The ghost plant written about previously got replanted in a big pot and placed on the Great Wall where it flourished until the long-eared rats found it. In one night they reduced it to stems. If I put the plant back in its old spot on top of the post, it’s just a setup for having it crash to the ground again.

Or it could attract the elusive Western Washington Winged Wabbits, wooing them from their migration route from Walla-Walla to Waikiki. I hear they’re good to eat if you like the taste of chicken cooked in a wok with white wine, served with whole wheat waffles and wiener wedges.

Thursday, July 10

I am not kidding

No Photoshop tricks here, just one awfully hot day. This was the temperature at 2:30 PM today. And it was windy, to boot. Perfect weather for a totally uncontrollable wildfire. I’ll bet everyone in our little valley is peering out the window every few minutes, looking for smoke. I sure am!

Wednesday, July 9

The REAL reason cigarettes have filters

My recent post, Cigarette commercials! reminds me of something interesting. As part of the pitch, Winston talks about their exclusive “Filter Blend.” It was implied that the company had discovered just the right mixture of leaves to produce a smooth, satisfying taste. They also mention the pure white filter, but don’t imply that the filter has any health benefits; they leave it up to the users to assume that they were smoking a more-healthful cigarette. Remember, this followed the era when cigarette ads in big-format magazines like Life portrayed medical doctors who recommended particular brands for their mildness. One brand’s motto was Not a cough in a carload! (You knew they were doctors because they had white coats, and on their foreheads wore those little round mirrors with a hole in the middle that they used to look up your nose or something.)

While I was in the Navy, I got to know a man whose family had been in the tobacco business for generations. He told me the cigarette filter was invented for only one purpose: to enable tobacco companies to use lower grades of leaf. The filters removed most of the harshness that had previously forced the growers to sell their inferior tobacco overseas. (If you’ve ever smoked a French cigarette, you’ll know what I mean!)

When I was on the USS Enterprise during the early 1960s, everybody smoked. You didn’t necessarily have to have a cigarette in your mouth, just breathe the air in any part of the ship where smoking was allowed. I don’t know how the Navy deals with smokers now, but I read once that on at least one submarine the Captain makes smokers get into a very cramped, poorly ventilated part of the boat and only at really inconvenient times. He orders them to hang by their toes upside-down while he has the boat go through loop-de-loops making the smokers’ heads bang repeatedly against the bulkhead (wall, in Navy-speak). Then they have to eat the butts before he lets them out to take a sanitizing shower then go to bed without supper or their blankys.

Or something like that.

Tuesday, July 8

Ain’t love grand

This morning I heard a gurgling, chortling, clucking sound coming from a nearby oak tree, and saw the two ravens I’ve been feeding for lo these many years grooming each other. They were apparently finding little morsels on each other’s beaks, and would alternate between being the recipient and donor of the service. This picture is taken from quite a distance and shot through a window because if they saw the camera, they would be out of here immediately.

What is it about animals and cameras? Our cat, Raven, won’t cooperate and let me get a picture of him for an upcoming blog. I really need the picture for the article and may have to resort to sly feline psychological stuff (if I can think of something, that is). Know any tricks to get a cat’s picture as he is walking away from you?

Horses are just the opposite. Grab a camera and go try to get a whole-horse picture — they’ll walk right up to you. Hilary wanted monthly updates documenting the growth of one of her young’uns. Having an accomplice, Karla, to tempt the horse away with carrots enabled me to get pictures of more than eyeballs and nostrils.

Cats are from another universe.

Monday, July 7

Photoshop phrolics phor phun











the opportunity for such an alliterative title presents itself!

Summer’s here!

And this is only the beginning. Shown is the reading as of 3:30 this afternoon. “Records may be in jeopardy,” the weather guy just said on the radio a minute ago. We can expect four or five more days of hotter weather. If it weren’t so hot outside, I would start digging a swimming hole. Well, maybe when the weather is cooler. But then, who needs a swimming hole when it’s cooler?

I’ll have to think about this.…

Cigarette commercials!

You have to be, what—at least forty years old? to remember this kind of stuff:

So many TV shows were totally owned by tobacco companies (and, to be fair, soap, candy, car, soft drink…). Jingles like “I'd walk a mile for a mild, mild Camel,” “L.S.M.F.T. (Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco)” rolled off the lips of young and old alike. “Use Ajax (boo boom), the foaming cleanser (boo ba boom-ba boom-boom boom) Floats the dirt right down the drain! (boo ba boo ba boo ba boom!)” I can’t describe the tune that all the boo-ba sounds made, but I also can’t forget the melody. Are today’s commercials as effective at burning eternal messages into our brains? Don’t think so. Or are old, rotting minds just full of no-longer-meaningful junk that has somehow taken over jingle-remembering territory and can’t be expunged?

Sunday, July 6

Flying lawn chair

This story in today’s San Francisco Chronicle is worth a look.

Saturday, July 5

Déja vu all over again

Sorry I can’t replicate the accent grave needed to make the word déja look really French, but I do have the accént acuté, so there. (The letter a in déja needs the grave.)

Yesterday I downloaded eight pages of instructions to connect to a new transponder on one of the 15 or so satellites used by HughesNet, my satellite Internet provider. I have had to live with almost a whole week of dial-up speed, something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. (Well, depends on the enemy.) After seven tries punching in a bunch of arcane numerology, it worked. The satellite modem’s bright blue LEDs all lit up, and the upload and download speeds crept up a bit, but it was nothing to email home about. I figured they needed to work out a few wrinkles, so give them time. But now, a full day later, the signal strength has plunged from 68 out of 100 down to 15. Only two of the five lights are on. Deep sadness suffuses my spirit.

This blog entry, number 201, is being brought to you courtesy of SierraTel Internet, my backup dialup account. It costs about $20 per month to maintain, and I have kept it since 1995 for the email address, but have used it only a couple of times in the past five years for Internet connecting. You, my loyal readers, deserve this uninterrupted access to a rotting mind, so expense be hanged!

Living in the boonies has its benefits and its costs. If you want rapid unfettered access to the world through the Internet, live in or near a city. If you want access to gobs of wild animals, nocturnal insects that pierce you with their veiled probosces and raise welts the size of lima beans as you snooze in innocent rural innocence, and the constant threat that everything you’ve accumulated over your mega-decades of life on this planet can go poof in a wildfire, go boonies. My sister in southern California has DSL that easily exceeds the speed of light. And some wild birds. But no rattlesnakes. Somehow she’s found a way to live with that. She has my profound sympathy. And utter envy.


This is the 200th entry to my blog. It could be a special occasion, but it got me to thinking: Why is it we ascribe such importance to events that end in zero? I mean, zero means nothing. Two zeroes should signify even greater nothingness. So to dishonor the undeserved insignificance of zero, my 200th entry is —


Does that make sense? I’m losing the ability to keep track of triple/quadruple negatives. My defense is the slowly rotting mind. Please comment.

Or not.

After all—

it’s nothing.

Friday, July 4

Gargantuan Pile of Dead Plant Parts

It’s almost silly to use a 7,000-pound truck to haul a bunch of branches that probably weighs less than a week’s worth of groceries for a family of one (if you don’t include the beer). But live oak is the hardest wood west of the Mississippi, and simply won’t compress into a neat little bundle. Wood this dry is dangerous to have around during wildfire season, which seems to be just about year-round anymore.

A couple of live oak trees collapsed from thirst and fell into other trees near Karla’s music studio. They are way too close for comfort, so today I started to part them out and haul them off to our Gargantuan Pile of Dead Plant Parts far from the house. We set fire to the Gargantuan Pile a few years ago and watched in horror as the flames shot into the sky and threatened high-flying commercial aircraft! Since then we’ve kept piling on more deadwood and wondering what to do with the Pile. It provides a fine home for pack rats and rabbits, and an occasional covey of quail will scurry in to escape the alligators. The Pile slowly shrinks under the weight of its Gargantuan-ness, but it would be nice if it simply disappeared.

“Get a shredder, dummy!” I can hear some of you yelling. But to handle such voluminous timber, it would have to be a truly industrial-sized shredder, something not normally available to mere civilians. Not only that, occasionally you have to toss in a human just to keep the innards lubricated. In other words, they’re dangerous. I’d rather threaten the occasional Boeing 747 full of innocent carefree vacationers with a colossal blaze instead, then buy carbon credits to atone for the pollution.

Cheap chow

When I finally got our three-half-barrel fish fountain established by soaking, rinsing and emptying till all the wine residue was gone, algae grew all over the interior surfaces. It got pretty thick. I removed as much of it as possible before putting in some goldfish. Surprisingly, the fish ate all the rest of the algae! The interiors of the barrels are clean shiny oak, just as was intended.

Meanwhile, our main horse-watering trough, the “Teacup,” has started growing a whole lot of flagellate algae. The entire surface can get covered with its wonderful foamy greenness. What to do? Will the horses still drink out of it? Should I toss in a bunch of goldfish?

Or should I be smart and simply grab a handful every day and feed it to the fountain’s goldfish? It doesn’t seem they could eat that much in a day, but the handful shown in the top picture lasts a little less than 24 hours, feeding nine fish that vary in size from large* to small†, with a few mediums‡ tossed in for balance.

*6, †2.5, ‡3.5–4.325 inches
*15.24, †6.35, ‡8.9–10.9855 centimeters

Thursday, July 3

Learning about prejudice

Back in my old elementary school days, kids were treated to the wonderful sweetness of library paste. We chosen ones were allowed to take the blackboard erasers outside and pound them together amid clouds of chalk dust that would coat our hair and eyebrows and lashes. The janitors shoved the rows of student desks aside and tossed kerosene-soaked sawdust onto the hardwood floors to keep the dust down as they swept. Somehow the glass inkwells in every desk never ran dry. The magnificent wooden wall clocks with the name Regulator in gold leaf on the glass had gleaming brass pendulums that swung hypnotically as the minute hand crept ever so slowly toward recess time. School was a lot of fun and very exciting.

During recess there were games of marbles played in the dirt that surrounded the asphalt playground. Then suddenly marble season would end and it would become yo-yo season. Nobody knew why, but it should have been obvious when the Duncan Yo-Yo Company representatives showed up and dazzled everyone with their acrobatic yo-yo wizardry. They used top-of-the-line yo-yos with rhinestones embedded in their glossy sides. They cost fifty cents, an expense few of us could afford. (That’s FIVE comic books, or TEN Hershey bars for gosh sakes!) If you got tired of marbles, kickball or yo-yos, there was the janitor carting all the waste paper out to the big trash incinerator. He would tend a fire that was truly awesome, far bigger than the fires we had in our puny incinerators at home.

From the air Webster Elementary School was shaped like the capital letter E, two stories of solid brick Educational Excellence. On the ground floor in the exact center of the school building was the principal’s office. Miss Winkie was as mean as anyone I ever knew. When I was in kindergarten, she was my teacher. One day while we were slathering poster paints on big sheets of newsprint, making art, she whacked my bottom for using the wrong color for the sky; I peed my pants. From then on I never liked her, especially after she became principal. I didn’t understand how a teacher could become the principal. It was like the two disciplines belonged to distinct species. Kids passing through her part of the building were as quiet as little mice, for any noise was met with a fearsome rebuke from her.

I played trumpet in the school band, sang in the glee club (chorus), and along with my secret love, Mary, represented Webster in the annual Fresno District Fair school dance festival after we had spent weeks practicing our dance moves in the open-air corridor outside the classroom. Mary and I also sang duets on the radio during Christmas school programs. We got our pictures in the paper! She and I were in every school play. No prettier girl ever attended Webster. Life was delicious.

Then came fifth grade.

My mother started teaching in the early 1920s on an Indian reservation, then moved to Spokane Washington where she’d been hired on as the schoolmarm. When she arrived at the train station she was picked up in a buckboard wagon by her husband-to-be, Dad.

While I was happily attending Webster, she was teaching way over there on the wrong side of the tracks at Lincoln Elementary. One day I was told that I would be going to Lincoln for fifth grade. What a shock! It must have had something to do with money. I had been walking home from school at mid-day for lunch, prepared by either Mrs Seib or Mrs Cripe, our part-time housekeepers. Lincoln School had an excellent cafeteria. I guess we couldn’t afford the housekeepers that year. I could probably have figured out how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and pour a glass of milk by myself, but I probably would have left a mess, something Mom wouldn’t tolerate. My older brother and two older sisters were in high school or college themselves and weren’t available to supervise.

Every morning Dad would drive us across the tracks to Lincoln. The school’s enrollment was probably 30% black, 30% Hispanic, with the remainder making up every other ethnic group “except Eskimo,” I was told. One of the black kids, Percy, became my best friend. I was probably the whitest kid at the school; he was definitely the blackest, a stunning almost coal-black that is rarely seen outside Africa. My other friends were Chinese, Filipino, Mexican and Greek; many were the children of recent immigrants. My teacher, Mr McClelland, was terrific. Marina, a very pretty Greek girl, had a stunning smile. Nothing ever jelled between us since she didn’t sing or dance, but boy could she spell! In the school-wide spelling bee we reached the finals, just the two of us. I was nervous. She smiled at me. I misspelled anniversary. My friend Percy said he’d never forgive me for ending it with ery and letting a girl win!

The school’s principal, Mr Easterbrook, ruled with an iron fist. Every Monday morning we would all assemble on the playground as some hapless kid would be marched up onto the platform to be whipped with a big wide leather razor strop for his infraction. Almost all the offenders were Mexican. At Webster there was no such punishment, or Mexicans.

With Mom’s permission I invited some of the kids at Lincoln to my house one Saturday for a cake and ice cream party. Bus fares were ten cents, and only one transfer had to be made for the trip. Nobody showed up. It turned out that black kids just weren’t welcome in “our” part of town and they never got on the second bus. I couldn’t understand why, but after that I started to notice that there weren’t many colors in my neighborhood.

I returned to Webster for sixth grade and started to notice how monochromatic the student body and staff were. Mary and I renewed our unacknowledged love affair. For the first time I noticed that her parents were from Italy. That was good enough. Together she and I sang and danced our way through our final year of elementary school.

Wednesday, July 2

“Hello, I’m Mister Fred!”

When I described the charming fellow above to Karla, she named him/it Fred. Nothing alliterative, just Fred. Not Ray Rattlebottom, Robbie Razortooth, Rick Ratgobbler. Just Fred. As for me, I’m staying away from animal naming for awhile to let them regain their dignity. Humans should stick to naming their own kids, except for those people who really go overboard. We know a young man who got named Rockblaster. I’m not kidding. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good name for a rattlesnake, but I am going to remain mum. After all, I restrained myself from naming a bobcat after being chewed out by a ground squirrel.

Below, Fred sports a pretty good set of noisemakers. I bet he has fun on the Fourth of July with that array.

Normally I don’t react physically when I come across a rattlesnake. My first thought is “where did I put the snare?” But this guy measured 3-1/2 feet, just over a meter, and I wouldn’t be able to stuff him into the usual plastic bucket for transport to a nice new neighborhood. So I let him mosey off to enjoy the upcoming holiday weekend after I experienced a whole-body chill when he reared up and seemed to say, “Get out of my way!”

Yessir, Fre— Oops!