Saturday, February 28

OK, I give up…

The Master of the Universe, Google, has somehow been overcome with myriad technical problems that blocks their ability to let me upload a picture to my Blogger blog. After six tries to get my masterpiece photo of a tree on the blog, and warnings that there are glitches galore, I decided my post entitled Pine eggs will not happen today. Instead I will recount yesterday’s trip to the Big City in the Big Valley.

Karla and I drove to Fresno to meet with Patt (Pat with two Ts, I call her), who is in charge of both Housekeeping and Backpacker Relations at the Muir Trail Ranch. She wanted to discuss the upcoming season and her part in it. We met her at the Amtrak station, one of my favorite places since trains go by and blow their horns, ring their bells and shake the ground with their gut-churning massiveness. While she and Karla talked business I marveled at a BNSF train that must have had a mile and a half of identical hopper cars heading south. We all wondered what the cars were carrying. Patt suggested grain; Karla agreed. I guessed comic books. It was preceded by a northbound Amtrak train that filled with a pant-wettingly-excited batch of six-year-olds in a school group, all of them wearing Amtrak Junior Conductor paper hats. Who knows what excitement they were bound to experience! While we talked, several other Amtrak trains went by since Fresno’s corridor is one of the busiest in the nation with its fourteen trains a day. They’re so busy they don’t have time to turn around at the end of the run; the engineer re-fills the diesel tanks, walks to the opposite end, toots the horn and takes off backward. I doubt if they have time to wash the windshields or empty the ashtrays.

Traveler’s Hint: If you’re lost in California’s Central Valley and don’t have a compass and your GPS unit is busted and you’re near a train track, you can determine which way is north: Amtrak puts its locomotives on the north end of the train, regardless which way the train is headed.

Thursday, February 26

Howdy, Nessie!

On the way to the Medium Size City today, we spotted Nessie on the neighbors’ place, the Dryad Ranch. Also Big Ben the mule and his girlfriends (all horses!). Despite being out on open land for the first time in her life, Nessie has managed to keep her massive mane and tremendous tail free of twigs, cockleburs, and assorted trash and clumping-up-ness. She has maintained her brushed-every-day show horse looks. When all her ear hair and whiskers are back in full bloom she’ll regain a true natural horse look and better fit in with our crowd of scruffies.

We got pictures of other horses too, and if nothing important happens, I’ll do a blog about them next.

Tuesday, February 24


Too cute for words. I got this in an email from Bill, but there’s no attribution. So thanks to whoever took the picture.

Monday, February 23


A building thunderhead at 3:30 PM means we could have a big light show tonight. Several years ago a huge cell of thunderclouds built up in the afternoon over the town of Coalinga. It traveled across the state in a straight line and finally ended its life in Mariposa, 90 miles (145 km) later. We watched it approach, pass over our house, and head northward. It produced a show that entertained and lasted for a couple of hours. Akela, our white dog, spent the entire time under Grandma’s bed. Too bad she missed the show.

In today’s San Francisco Chronicle was an article saying that we now have 90% of the entire rain season’s worth of precipitation. A good sign, but we will need much more to overcome the deficit of the last three years’ drought. We will need a good snowpack and some occasional thunderstorms this summer to get through our season at the high ranch on hydroelectric power. Backup diesel, while a life-saver, is awfully expensive and just plain stinks. We need to figure out how to use horse manure and kitchen waste to make methane. It would be good to use the excess hydro power, probably 1400 kilowatt hours a day, to make hydrogen. Heat from the hot spring meadow could run something, too.

Any ideas?

Sunday, February 22

80,000 | 600,000 | 2 Billion

The figures above stand for the number of people who will be out of work, the number of acres of farm land out of production, and the number of dollars that will be lost. Farmers in the Central Valley of California are worrying that the lack of water in the Westlands Water District may simply put many of them out of business for good. Until now, Fresno County was the most productive ag area in the entire world, and most of that loss will occur there.

The drought is blamed for federal officials’ decision to turn off all water to farmers from the California Aqueduct.

Oh well, that water was really meant to be sent to Southern California to flush toilets and fill backyard pools. Besides, we can always import food from Mexico.

An article in today’s New York Times which fleshes out the story is here.

Graphic: New York Times

Observations on the economy

While attending this year’s San Francisco International Gift Fair, we noticed two things: buyers are more selective, sellers are more absent. The four-day show, which takes place in February and August, has shrunken. The last time we attended, two years ago, the entire north and south halls of the 700,000-square-foot Moscone Center plus the entirety of the block-long Concourse a mile away were stuffed to the rafters with exhibitors. This year, only half of the Moscone Center was occupied; even that was not quite full. The Concourse was vacant.

Two years ago, it was a challenge to shove our way through the mobs of buyers. This time the crowds were thin. No long lines at the registration or information booths. The show’s catalog had shrunken from its full-color ad-filled extravagance to a much smaller listing of exhibitors and their merchandise lines. Sadly, many of our favorite sellers were absent from the display floor.

Everyone is hunkering down. It’s time to simply survive till the good times return (if the government would get out of the way with its pork-laden “stimulus”). It reminds me of winter: The rattlesnakes are in their dens and the robins have flown south.

One thing remained as it always had—coffee at the gift show was $3.00 for a 10-ounce cup. A caesar salad was $10.00. In our hotel room we feasted on a tiny bag of cheddar cheese flavored popcorn for $4.50 plus 20% convenience charge plus 8.5% sales tax—$5.86 for a few handfuls of popcorn! (I had opened the bag before I realized that it was an extra charge.) Fortunately I hadn’t opened the nine-dollar-plus-20%-plus-sales-tax tin of cashews! I questioned the sales tax charge on a food item; I hope the Westin Hotel people contact me with their justification since I mentioned it on our comments form when we checked out. (Update—they haven’t.)

Mid-priced breakfast for two at the nearby Marriott hotel was $46 but was really good.

The train ride was cheap and fun. Some things don’t change—for now, anyway.

Saturday, February 21

Falcon 1, Dove 0

A few minutes ago, daughter Hilary emailed the above picture from Death Valley. She witnessed the falcon chasing and killing the dove, and was able to get to her camera fast enough to get a picture of them on her lawn. Wow.

Photo: Hilary Hurley Painter


Probably 105% of this blog’s readers couldn’t care less about my post, Obscure puzzlement last Thursday. But I don’t care about those readers, just the ones who are interested in the stuff I like. Here is a picture of the item, a 2N404, correctly identified by reader Pete S. I probably soldered a hundred of these transistors onto circuit boards while working on the radar sets on the ship.

The 2N99 is shown here too because it’s the oldest transistor I ever owned. Lots of these oldies were partly handmade, unlike today’s electronics which are cranked out by the trillions on very expensive machines. If you were to try to make a computer out of these as capable as today’s average laptop, it would be bigger than Texas, hotter than the sun, louder than a 747, take all the electricity generated in North America, run slower than molasses, cost an arm and a leg from everyone east of the Mississippi, and break down the instant it is turned on even if it were running Mac OS X.

Glad they didn’t even try.

Yay for CalTrans

It’s like complaints about the Postal Service, the Department of Motor Vehicles, and other slothful wasteful worthless government agencies. Even if they were to perform perfectly and give you free chocolate, people would still complain because that’s just what you do. One agency that is the target of public wrath is CalTrans, the folks who maintain roads in California. I remember a joke about them: A CalTrans crew arrives at the job site. The foreman discovers that there are no shovels in the truck. In a panic he contacts his boss by radio. “There are no shovels!” he screams. “We’ll send them out ASAP,” his boss assures him. “Meanwhile, tell the men to lean on each other.”

In today’s San Francisco Chronicle is an article about the oddities you can discover when you’re driving around the area. One is the troll on the eastern portion of the Bay Bridge. When part of the bridge collapsed during the Loma Prieta earthquake, the repair crew decided it was time to put a bridge-protecting troll on duty. They gave some metal to an artist and a fanciful figure was made and attached to the span.

The article is here. Read about the Cormorant Condos installed on the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge.

Photo: Lance Iversen / San Francisco Chronicle
CalTrans joke: Neighbor Bill

Friday, February 20

A link to the past

Now that I have made fun of the new pennies that will be introduced starting with Lincoln’s 200th anniversary, I’ll get serious.

When I was a kid, my parents sent me off every Saturday morning for piano lessons. Supposedly it was to instill a little culture and add to my skills, but actually it was to get me out of the house so Mom could “dung out” my room. It only cost $1.25 per lesson, though that was in silver coin, worth considerably more today. Plus the ten-cent bus fare each way. We’re talking a buck forty-five in hard money every week. Today that money, adjusted for inflation, would buy an acre of midtown Manhattan. (Whoops, I forgot already—be truthy.)

Due to the bus schedule, I arrived at the music teacher’s house 45 minutes early, so I would go down to the basement and visit with George, her father. When I was 8 years old he was 96. He puttered around in his workshop, making things out of wood. He was a very vital, healthy man and interesting to me because he was born in 1853—before the Civil War, way before the invention of the horseless carriage and the airplane and radio and most everything else that was familiar in my life.

At that time I was starting a coin collection, consisting of pennies. Anything more than a penny could be spent for either a candy bar (5 cents) or a comic book (10 cents), so pennies were low-valued enough to actually be collected without interfering with what was truly important in my life. George took an interest in my collection, and would save up some of his pennies for me. I bought them one-for-one on occasion. One day he asked me what I knew about Abraham Lincoln, the figure on almost all of my coins. I responded that he was the sixteenth president, not knowing much more. “Do you know about the Gettysburg Address?” he asked me. “I was there when I was a little older than you, and I got to shake hands with the President.”

He said his father was an officer in the Union Army and was instrumental in setting up the Gettysburg Cemetery in Pennsylvania, where Lincoln’s address was given. Many of the attendees were welcomed to the house where Lincoln was staying, and that’s when George and his father met him and got to shake his hand. He asked me, “Would you like to shake the hand that shook Abraham Lincoln’s hand?”

“You bet!” I replied, and with his firm, warm handshake forged a link with history that is still with me.

Thursday, February 19

Obscure puzzlement

I noticed today that I have put together 404 posts on this blog, prior to this one. That number reminds me of my long-ago past in the US Navy. Here's a clue: It comes in a can and was made from the element found between gallium and arsenic. Any guesses?

If you get this one, you are probably an incurably geeky nerd with a sense of history. But likely a nice person in spite of it.

Coffee break!
It’s a red-letter week for coffee lovers. Starbucks is going to introduce a new product called Via. It’s a powdered version of their coffee that is identical to its fresh-brewed product, or at least very difficult to differentiate, according to supposed aficionados. Whether it will be sold in supermarkets is not yet known; first it will be available at its stores only. Click for a look at a four-minute taste test by the folks at Advertising Age.

The next big news is that Nescafe is going to make its coffee in a jar better by using more Arabica beans. Almost all instant coffee is made from the cheaper Robusta beans, which give the brew a bitter taste. The two videos below are, first, the 30-second commercial shown in Britain, and second the making of that commercial. Over a ton of hand-selected beans were used. Notice the use of an Apple MacBook Pro in making the spot. That’s what made it possible after all.

Thanks to Advertising Age for the lead!

The final coin

This final coin in the series depicts a rather odd scene. It shows the Capitol building in Washington DC being disassembled. It is to be carried off piece by piece to Colorado for reassembly. Turns out the city became so corrupt even politicians were repelled.

Wednesday, February 18

Honest Illinoisan

The third coin in the new pennies series depicts a young Abe Lincoln standing in front of the Capitol Building in Springfield, Illinois. This was before politics in Illinois got as bad as politics in Louisiana, but not yet as bad as it is in Washington DC. He may have been the last honest Illinoisan to make the presidency.

Tuesday, February 17


This second in the series of designs for a new Lincoln penny snuck by the censors in the Department of Education, the National Education Association, and the various teachers’ unions in the 50 states. Or maybe none of those people even saw it for themselves.

The heretical design depicts the future President of the United States studying by himself. He actually got his early education on his own! Later on he studied law at a real accredited university, but his fundamentals were acquired by himself! Shudder! He was the last self-taught person to make President, and good riddance!

I’m sure all the aforementioned educator types will make an effort to remove every last one of these coins from circulation lest people get wrong ideas about learning.

Monday, February 16

New pennies coming!

Hang onto your hats! For the first time in 50 years, there’s gonna be a change to the humble penny. For the whole next year, a new reverse (back) to the old Lincoln penny will be introduced every three months. It’s all being done in honor of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln was 100 years old, he got a penny in his honor (1909). Fifty years later, the back of the cent was changed to show the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. Now in 2009, the first of the four new coins will show a rendering of the log cabin in which he was born. Since that cabin is gone (logs rot and taste good to termites), they used the old Shipp Cabin at our ranch as their model. They didn’t get it quite right, but it’s close enough for government work.

Saturday, February 14

Another Big Horse!

This one is called Vanessa. (Nessie seems to be her de facto nickname.) She started as a Premarin foal, one that was adopted by a horse-lover who can no longer maintain a great big horse. She’s a four-and-a-half-year-old Percheron, and as you can see, rather tall. She has a mane as long as your arm, and her tail makes it clear to the ground. She’s been penned up all her life, mostly in a stable with a blanket on when it got cold. This is her first taste of real freedom, and she doesn’t quite know what to do with it. Karla is steering her out of the front yard before she stomps it to bits.

Nearby part of our herd is checking Nessie out, mostly by biting her, trying to kick her, and in general being their nasty herd-bound selves. I figure in a week or so Nessie will bond with at least one other horse, and in a month join a group and settle down to being a regular horse. That’s what happened with another relatively recent acquisition, Ben. He had a further liability: he’s a mule. Horses don’t regard mules as real animals, certainly not real horses.

Who ever said that life on this dirt-ball planet was risk-free or pleasant anyway?

Friday, February 13

Glad I’m not a bird

When the snowfall let up a bit, I went out to the bird feeder only to see that it had been emptied. I guess the hordes of avians anticipated the oncoming storm and ate every last seed. We are short of bird food right now, and I received a phone call from a neighbor warning about venturing out onto the county roads. They don’t get plowed; that’s reserved for state roads. People were skidding off into the gutters all over the place, and it’s a mess, so there won’t be a trip to the bird seed emporium today. I managed to scrounge up some moth-eaten black sunflower seeds and tossed a few scoops onto the ground. Moments later, the winged hordes returned, chirping and chattering and fighting, as birds do. I guess that’s how they express happiness.

Snow! Gr-r-r!

Two kinds of weather I can do without: strong wind and snow. At least we don’t have strong wind now, but the snow sure is coming down! And we’re only 1650 feet (~500 m) above sea level! And it’s California, fer cryin’ out loud! It’s not supposed to snow here, and besides we’re in the beginning stages of a century-long drought.

Well, maybe some strong winds will come and blow all this snow away. I’d like that.

Wednesday, February 11

World has a new bull

Hilary’s dog, Sioux, was wanting to go outside for some reason. I opened the door and she shot out, barking loudly. Turns out there were three things worth barking at: Geronimo, The World’s Greatest Horse, and a black cow and her newborn, still wet baby. I ran back to grab my camera, peeled off the lens cap, ran out, and…no cow. Just Geronimo, who approached me anticipating a possible apple or carrot.

The cow and her calf were simply gone. The time that passed between my sighting them and when I returned with a camera couldn’t be more than thirty seconds. There was no way a newborn calf could move that quickly.

Must have been aliens in their super speedy spacecraft. There is no other explanation. Woo woo.

Lest we forget

The fires in southern Australia are making news all over the world. As of this morning, there are 181 people confirmed dead, hundreds of square miles burned, several towns destroyed. The same kind of reporting is similar to what we read about the wildfires in southern California and the other states in the US that catch fire every year.

But this photo is a reminder that it’s not just people that suffer. The story in the San Francisco Chronicle is here.

Photo: Mark Pardew, Associated Press

Tuesday, February 10

A brilliant idea

I ran across this idea in the February 16, 2009 issue of Forbes magazine. Two men have put together a company whereby people who need designs can post an amount of money to an escrow account and ask for designers to show them proposals for anything from logos, stationery design, Web sites or anything else. Then designers submit their ideas. Anybody can be a designer! The customer can interact with them to tweak the designs to their liking. Below is a beautiful stationery design that cost only $500—

Wow! Brilliant! I perused the site,, and saw some very good design ideas that were sold for as little as $200. Once a design is selected by the customer, the designer is paid out of the escrow account. How slick!

Monday, February 9

Kudos to Amtrak!

We had a truly pleasurable ride on the train to and from San Francisco. First, the station agent in Merced was very friendly. The conductor on the train should audition as a talk show host or comedian; he was informative and friendly. The train itself was spotlessly clean. The engineer drove the train as smoothly as any I ever experienced. In the lounge car, the lady attending to food service was friendly and efficient. When we arrived in Emeryville, the conductor showed us how to connect with the bus that would take us across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco. The bus driver was expert and informative, making sure that his passengers knew where they would be picked up for the return trip.

The Amtrak bus driver on the return trip was friendly, efficient and dedicated. In San Francisco he had to park his bus and walk a couple of blocks to inform passengers that had been stranded. There had been a traffic accident that closed part of Market Street so the bus couldn’t pick up the Amtrak passengers waiting there. He led them to where the bus had been diverted. The whole diversion was orchestrated as if it were a routine procedure. He got us back across the bridge to Emeryville, then made sure we knew how to connect to the train.

I would very gladly hire any of the Amtrak personnel we encountered on this trip. They were dedicated to their tasks and carried them out with soul. Cheers to Amtrak!

Welcome back

After a busy weekend in San Francisco, it was nice to stand for a very brief time in front of the Moscone Center, then get on the Amtrak bus and be whisked over the Bay Bridge to Emeryville, sit for about a half hour of people-watching, then brave a bit of wind and rain and board the backward train to Merced. It’s funny—instead of turning the train around for the return trip, the engineer simply moves to the lounge car and sits in its driver’s cab, turns on the headlights, toots the horn, rings the bell and drives the train backward back down the middle of the state all the way to Bakersfield, its final stop.

We were hoping the rain would diminish as the train approached Merced. It did. As we drove off to Mariposa, it started to get stronger, then got foggy. Lightning lit the entire sky! It was amazing. Hail was accumulating on the pavement. We needed to get some fuel on the way home, and I had hoped the rain and hail would diminish by the time we got to the filling station that doesn’t have a canopy to keep you dry as you fill up. The rain absolutely stopped! But it started again while I was filling the tank.

Back on the highway the hail was getting deeper, then snow started to fall. We saw the snow blower truck ahead, its odd rear-facing white light illuminating the freshly-cleared road and its spinning yellow light making it difficult to keep your attention on the road itself. As we rose in elevation, the snow was coming on heavier and we were discussing whether we should simply follow the snow plow all the way to Oakhurst and find a hotel room, or take a chance on the potential rock slides on the cliffy part of the dirt road down to Bailey Flats where we live. On our way up that same road on Saturday morning, I had noticed that the gutters were filling with loose rock washed down from a previous storm. The cliffs are kind of scary since the wall on the left goes straight up and the dropoff on the right goes straight down to a potentially raging river fork. And it’s only barely more than one lane wide so meeting an oncoming car can be a problem.

We decided to take the shorter route home, and turned off of Highway 49 onto the snow-covered Indian Peak Road. We drove in the tracks left by the few cars that were going our way. Having full-time 4-wheel drive helped, as did gearing down and going slow. Before getting to the cliffy part, we saw a car and a truck that had slid off the slippery road and were stuck in the mud, hazard warning lights flashing in the mist. Now clear down to first gear, we got through the cliffy stuff problem free. The Madera County part of the road had a lot of muddy slick parts, but slow driving got through all that nicely. We got to the Red Gate and I knew we were home free, though Karla was nervously kneading a chunk of wax she had peeled off of a little round cheese snack we had shared. She had molded the wax into a cube and I suggested that to keep her mind off the road, she knead it into a dodecahedron. She stuck with the cube.

Finally, at 11 o’clock, we approached the house and its cheery porch light that I had turned on as we left Saturday morning. The cat greeted us with its bulging belly that had probably been overstuffed since it had a full two days’ ration of food which it probably ate in one sitting. Its sand box required major maintenance.

Snow surrounds us, but only up on the high hills. I dumped almost 2-1/2" (65 mm) of rain out of the gauge; more is on the way.

Friday, February 6

We’re outta here

For the weekend, anyway. It’s off to San Francisco so we can walk about 50 miles through the Moscone Center and look at STUFF. This is the time we gather ideas for what to have at the Florence Lake Store this summer. The cat’s dish will be filled to the top (and I’ll guarantee he’ll try to eat all of it in the first sitting), the bird feeder will be topped off, and we’ll have some nice dry firewood by the stove for when we return to a very cold house. It’s one of the perks of living primitively.

One nice thing about the trip is that we only have to drive to Merced and get on Amtrak. We get off right at the door to Moscone Center, and the hotel is only a block away. One day pack is our entire luggage. Traveling light is a learned skill, and avoidance at all costs of driving in San Francisco is simply the only sane thing to do. Especially when two days’ parking is $60.

See you Monday.

Wednesday, February 4

Super Bowl’s clever gimmick

Sunday’s Super Bowl had a gimmick that helped to keep people from tuning away after seeing the great commercials. They had a tolerably decent football game going between the award-winning spots, plus some guy singing and a whole lot of fireworks for about fifteen minutes in the middle of the show. Overall, it was pretty clever of the producers to do this to help hold the audience.

According to several surveys, people rated most of the commercials to be top-notch. The one shown here was the favorite among the people who were polled by the Neilsen Ratings folks. The vote was split pretty evenly between horse lovers and dog lovers.

One commercial featured a moose, and there was an ostrich, a rhino, and various other odd pets. A real bonus this time: None of the commericals were about or even featured house cats.

Thanks for the video link to

Tuesday, February 3

How to save…

Thanks so much to Susan for sending this image to me. “How to save on toilet paper” was her caption. It is so appropriate. What can I say? Australia has nothing but poisonous everything!

It was a Big City day, and we’re pooped. I couldn’t think of anything to say on today’s blog except that we’re back on the air with the new router. This weekend it’s off to the other Big City, San Francisco, to drool over all the cool stuff we can order to sell in our store this summer. I predict that we will stroll down the aisles by all the exhibitors’ booths and have to avert our gaze from the hungry eyes of the booth attendants. One thing I have learned in our thirty or so years of attending these shows is that you never make eye contact with exhibitors or you are doomed. At least psychically, if not financially. It’s almost like approaching a stop light and there’s a guy on the median with a cardboard sign saying he’s a homeless Vietnam War veteran with six kids, all of whom have leukemia, and a wife with no legs and a huge tumor on her shoulder that bleeds and four hungry dogs and a rat. Okay, here’s a dollar for your rat, but the rest is your problem. No, wait. Give me back the dollar. It’s ALL your problem.

(I’m not really that bad, really.)

By tomorrow, I’ll probably have something worthwhile to say.

Monday, February 2

Tech failure

Sorry, but the satellite modem messed up. In fixing it, the router got messed up. Getting online is difficult till these get fixed, which will happen tomorrow if I’m lucky. Other than that, eve*$thii@m i& fin… ø… å†∫…