Tuesday, June 30

Rotten to the core

When buying posts, you generally have two choices: Posts and “peeler cores.” A peeler core is the piece left after a log is spun on a huge lathe and peeled into thin sheets to make plywood. Often they are painted green and sold as posts, fooling the buyer into thinking he/she is getting something you can actually stick in the ground as a fence post and expect to last 20 years. Real fence posts will last that long, but they cost more because they’re soaked in toxic gunk that keeps bugs and fungus and other things at bay. Many years ago a friend built us a nice little deck. He used what he thought were the real posts for a built-in table and benches. As time passed, it became obvious that he had chosen the wrong material. Things got tippy, then downright dangerous. Yesterday I started tearing the deck out and found, unsurprisingly, some severe rot.

I’ll be replacing the deck with something bigger (it’s the American thing after all). I won’t be using peeler cores.

Monday, June 29


Before taking this picture, there were four birds lined up on the half-barrel fountain, trying to cool off. By the time I had the camera ready, two took off. I went outside to check the thermometer on the north side of the house. When I opened the door, about thirty birds flew off from their perch on the ground where it was damp. It seems the critters are really feeling this heat wave. The temperature was 106° (41°C) and is supposedly going higher tomorrow. Maybe I should leave the camera near the window so I can catch the little birdies swimming in the fountain.

Saturday morning I headed for the corral to feed a couple of our old horses. As I passed the barn, the sun had just come up and was sending its warming rays through the cool morning air. A very young ground squirrel was slowly getting ready to lie down and soak up some rays. I watched it, then became concerned since it was moving so slowly and closed its eyes and looked like it was sick. I picked up a small twig and poked its belly. Boom! Alive! It looked at me as if I were the mean kid on the block and marched in a huff back to its burrow where it stopped, turned, and gave me a look like I didn’t think a small squirrel could give a look. I’d better watch my step!

Sunday, June 28

Amazing volcanic blast

On the Spaceweather site is this picture taken from the International Space Station of Russia's Sarychev Peak volcano, which erupted June 12. A larger image is here, and it’s 3-D when you cross your eyes. The bottom one works for me, and I recommend it for anyone who has never had the old switcheroo operation where your eyes get moved from their original sockets. If you did have the old switcheroo, the top picture is for you.

Saturday, June 27


I had been on the roof earlier today with a leaf blower, getting rid of a whole lot of leaves. Some of them landed in the fountain below, so I fished them out with a net. Later I was looking out the window at the fountain, admiring the clean smooth water in the top tub, when a bug flew onto the water, landing on its back. Doomed, I thought, as are most bugs in a similar situation. But this one wasn’t about to be drowned. In a mighty burst of energy, it beat its wings and actually flew up out of the water! At that instant a bird dove down and ate it.

Thinking outside the box

Neighbor Bill sent me a link to an article from the BBC Web site concerning the behavior of plants. The gist of the article is that plants will help other plants if they're related; strangers are ignored or competed with. An excerpt:
Some experiments have shown that if a plant's roots grow near to those of another unrelated plant, the two will try to compete for nutrients and water. But if a root grows close to another from the same parent plant, the two do not try to compete with one another.
Consider: If there is a large field of unrelated plants competing with each other by doing the equivalent of arm wrestling with their roots, could this be the source of an earthquake? Should we encourage botanists, rather than geologists, to do research on earthquake prediction techniques?

Friday, June 26

That’s me! That’s me!

The reason I’ve missed two days of blogging is that I’ve been on the road doing ranch stuff. Then when I got back at night there were dozens of hikers asking for mailing labels for their resupply buckets going to the ranch. And others whose payment via credit card on our payment site had to be logged in and acknowledged. Above is a reflection of me in the shiny trailer. See my smile? I actually could have gotten closer to that truck, shooting many pictures through the windshield at 60MPH, but the 1203 sticker on the trailer means gasoline. Fumes only, since he was going back to where he could fill up and was moving rather briskly, but fumes blow up too. When a truck is empty, it can come to a rather rapid stop, and I could get some really close pictures! But I was restrained by long experience making me do the sensible thing, dang it.

This blog post would have gone up last night, but there was so much Internet traffic Google bogged down and everything moved so…slow…I…just…quit. And went to bed.

Monday, June 22

Fast ride into…?

By way of YouTube’s JAXA Channel comes this movie of a spacecraft carrying out its last assignment—crashing into the moon. In its last minute of existence, it skims the surface, seeming to almost touch, but no—maybe it’ll hit the next crater rim—no, maybe the next. Finally it hits a totally black space. The flash of collision was seen in Australia. Space Weather, the Web site, has really nifty stuff just about every day.

Sunday, June 21

Year’s longest day

Year’s shortest blog.

Saturday, June 20

It’s that time again

Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana. And little beetles like these cactus flowers. It amazes me that such tiny barrel cactus can produce such big blossoms. None of the barrels in this pot is any bigger than an orange, and the blossoms are nearly that big themselves. After maybe two days at most, these flowers will wilt and fade away. Next year we’ll see a repeat performance.

Friday, June 19

Calling Goldilocks; come in, Goldilocks…

I need help. Goldilocks could determine which porridge was too hot, which was too cold, and which was just right. When I picked up four big boxes from the Jelly Belly company, each with a warning as shown in the picture, I was stumped. Was the car too hot parked in the sun; will it be too cold left outdoors at night? Maybe I should have listened more closely to the fairy tales as I grew up.

Thursday, June 18

Guess who?

Shown is the signature of a very famous person. Hints: Still living, male, takes really long trips. We recently purchased this signature, along with 20 others who took part in the same activity as this person a few decades ago. Hint: Saturn. Hint: Five. Hint: Moon. Hint: Walked On. Hint: First.

Monday, June 15

Fill ’er up—with spam!

In the online version of the Economist, an article appeared contending that a year’s worth of spam (unwanted email messages) consumes enough power to run over three million cars for a year. If I could hook a computer’s email program to my car, wow. Imagine your next new car coming with built-in email reception hooked directly to the engine! Now, why didn’t I think of that? Oh, wait; I just did.

Never mind.

Sunday, June 14

Mister Golden Ears

Years ago before I really got to know him, a friend named Jim expressed interest in a gadget I had, an iPod. He had heard of the device, but never listened to what it could do. I told him it was really nifty; it could hold a music file in a very compressed form and still sound wonderful. He stuck the earbuds in his ears and listened intently. “It’s got pretty good bass,” he remarked. “Pretty good?” I responded. “I think it’s pretty phenomenal!”

He demurred, “Well…”

Later on I discovered that Jim, the regular guy up there at the Florence Lake Store, avid hiker, looking like any ordinary human being who likes to spend a lot of time hiking up and down the Muir Trail (over 20 times, in his case) was one of the creators of DTS, Digital Theater Sound, the system that powers the incredible sound in nearly all Hollywood movies!

When I was connecting my laptop computer into the sound system at Adeline Smith’s memorial service we held in Fresno last year, Jim showed up and helped me. Thanks Jim, even if you do still think iPods are lacking in the purity that you and only a few other people on Earth can discern. He told me that he had thousands of hours of live concert recordings he made of the Grateful Dead. He gave Karla one of the ultra magnificent European-made microphones he used for that, and she loves it. We used it to record “Cam’s Letter,” one of the slide shows we did for the memorial. (At the memorial Jim told me he wished he still had that sweet little mike, but wasn’t going to pursue it.)

Who knows what this man hears beyond us mere mortals? He lives in Montana now, where it’s really really quiet. And the sky is big, just like Jim’s heart.

Saturday, June 13

It’s a mountain out there, Woody

The title of this blog reminds me of an opening sequence I had thought up for “Cheers,” a popular TV show from the 1980s. The show often opened with Norm Peterson, the disheveled and portly accountant, ambling in to the bar to the shouts of “Norm!” from the regular customers, and Woody, the assistant bartender asking how Norm’s day had gone. Norm would answer with something like “It’s a jungle out there, Woody.”

I imagined having a notable figure of that era, General Norman Schwarzkopf , himself an amply-proportioned figure, stride in to the shouts of “Norm!” and Woody asking how his day had gone. The General, after a hard day’s work fighting in Iraq would respond, “It’s a desert out there, Woody!”

If I were to walk in to Cheers, I would say, “It’s a mountain out there, Woody!” after yesterday’s goings-on. To start with, I was leaving the corral area to return to the house when Luke said I had just walked past a rattler coiled up by the side of the barn. I hadn’t noticed it, even though I practically stepped on it. Hilary ran to the house to grab the snake-catching stick and a 5-gallon bucket to contain him. But to no avail, since this snake defied the usual behavior of a rattlesnake by quickly slithering down a hole. Not one to give up easily, Luke managed to snare the snake shortly after. As it was lowered into the plastic bucket, it exhibited another un-rattler-like behavior. The noose was loosened and as Hilary was gingerly sliding the lid onto the bucket, the snake shot out of it like one of those novelty snake-in-a-can toys! Then it quickly made its way to a nearby brush pile as I futilely contemplated the impossibility of snaring a snake that’s running away from me. The noose has to go on the front, not the back end. We all concluded that this guy was the same one we had captured a few weeks ago, and he was wise to our tactics and not about to go through the ordeal again.

We circled the brush pile, which consisted of many small branches left over from cleaning up the mess of a large fallen oak branch. Luke spotted the rattler and got him to rattle by banging a stick on the pile. Then the snake went who knows where and hid. On the other side of the pile we spotted another reptile, a really large gopher snake. Seconds later there was another critter—a bunny! A little rabbit was hiding from the awful humans and feeling safe occupying the same space as two very large snakes!

Later that afternoon Luke came into the house saying we had to see what was happening down the hill. A ground squirrel was latched onto a 3-foot gopher snake and not willing to let go! Luke said he spotted the fight when the snake was wrapped around the squirrel’s body. We frightened the squirrel away and he scampered off. The poor snake revealed his wounds by slowly starting to bleed in about four places along his body. Time to let nature take its course and see if the snake makes it.

Not one to waste an educational opportunity for his new dog, Luke took Bella to see her first snake. The snake struck at and bit her! Harmless, but at the same time, shocking! Bella will now give snakes their own space for sure.

Then later in the afternoon, we spotted one of our horses with a great big wound under its jowl! After examining it, we decided once again to let nature take its course since the wound was very clean and seemed to be okay.

It’s a mountain out there, Woody!

Friday, June 12

Google’s idiot

Anybody out there use Gmail? I do, and still haven’t gotten familiar with its user interface. After failing to achieve fluency in using the program, I have given up and come up with a possible explanation for its incredibly difficult layout. Ever since Google started to recruit employees with its arcane and really clever newspaper, magazine and billboard ads, they made the unmistakable impression that only the brightest should even think of applying for a job there. Naturally, this upset folks who reacted to a company which insisted on having even high-IQ toilet scrubbers and scullery maids, so in response Google broke down and hired a certifiable Village Idiot to appease its critics. But what do you do with a drooling mouth breather? I know! I know! Put him/her/it in charge of designing the User Interface in Gmail! Will Gmail ever get out of beta? Not with the Idiot making you search all over the page for the function you want! Every time the Idiot makes another confusing change, the bosses reward him with an hour’s worth of Dumpster diving where he/she/it comes up with even more insane ideas!

Thursday, June 11


Anyone old enough to remember the first manned landing on the moon will probably remember the term “mascon.” The moon is full of them, and landing the Apollo 11 spacecraft required an emergency maneuver by Neil Armstrong to avoid ending up in a pile of rocks. The landing spot in the Sea of Tranquility had been very carefully researched, and it was programmed into the automatic system responsible for getting them to a nice flat place. But for some reason the lander was headed for a very inhospitable place strewn with boulders as big as the lander! Armstrong’s last-minute diversion saved the mission.

It turned out the problem was partly caused by mass concentrations, an odd feature of the moon’s gravity. Also inputs from the two landing radars overwhelmed the lander’s computer. There are places in some of the large craters where the upwelling lava is much denser than the surrounding terrain. As you orbit the moon, these anomalies can turn your carefully calculated orbit into hash. Lunar scientists call this “bumpy gravitation” and have figured ways to overcome its effects on anything that orbits close to the surface (mostly they don’t orbit close to the surface!). In the illustration, mascons are shown in red. An exploration of mascons is here.

Although not exactly the same thing, mass concentrations are also found in places like Vatican City.

Illustration: NASA

Wednesday, June 10

The pictures were crummy

I had a neat blog all thought up, and took pictures to accompany it. But they were crummy, due to the reluctance of the model to pose the way I wanted. So…no blog. Sorry.

Tuesday, June 9

A Tribute to Big, Fat, and Slow

Does anyone remember when high tech was made of cast iron? Today’s world runs on computer chips made of silicon. The only silicon used a hundred years ago was for making really hard bronze. Iron was still a valued material, even more than steel for certain applications. Today’s technology worships the attributes of small, lightweight, fast and cheap. A hundred years ago the opposite philosophy reigned. In New Orleans ancient pumps keep the below-sea-level city dry by removing the in-seeping Mississippi River’s water. They have run for so long that modern engineers thought they must be about to fail. They were stopped and taken apart. There was no wear! They ran slow and they were big. They were well-lubricated and if maintained will probably never wear out. If New Orleans were to replace them with today’s technology, the new pumps would be high-speed computer-controlled machines that require a service contract and full-time maintenance crew and a fail-safe Internet connection for upgrades. The old ones would be removed and made into dog food cans, a terrible loss.

At the Muir Trail Ranch we are blessed with a piece of 1920s technology, our Pelton/General Electric hydroelectric plant. In 1959 it was refurbished and installed to produce a constant 63,000 watts of extremely reliable electric power. While modern electric generators rarely run at less than 3,600 or maybe 1,800 revolutions per minute, our old cast iron Pelton wheel lopes along at a leisurely 900 RPM. The generator it’s connected to is a huge cast iron General Electric behemoth that boasts big oil-lubricated bearings that haven’t consumed even a drop of oil in at least 30 years, and never even get warm, much less hot. The output of the generator is carried by big fat chunks of copper insulated by big fat chunks of shellac-coated linen in big fat pipes running in big fat concrete troughs into a big fat steel enclosure with big fat switches and other big fat stuff. It would take a Major Act Of God for any of this to fail.

We venerate 50 years of old technology’s solid, honest, ageless value!

Monday, June 8

The 90,000-mile-long phone line

Well, darn close to 90,000 miles (145,000 km), give or take. We used our Skype service for the first time today between the High Ranch and the Low Ranch. It worked like a charm once you get used to the delay since the signal was going between two computers that are connected by satellites 22,300 miles up. It’s kind of like using two-way radios;
“Yammer yammer, over.”
“Yak yak, over.”
“Yak butter. Out.”
The ranch opening crew had a problem getting power from our hydro plant to feed all the way to the ranch facilities. I suspected a switch or line fault. Turns out, that’s what it was—a switch that didn’t close completely. But first we examined the DC exciter, the carbon pile, the knife switch, the 2400 volt meter, the hydraulic solenoid, the current transformer, and other nifty stuff. No problems there. Consider: This is the 50th anniversary of the hydro installation, so it certainly wouldn’t let us down. I hope the ranch celebrates with a candle on a cake to say THANK YOU to the Pelton wheel and General Electric generator and all the other good stuff that has given such reliable service for half a century.

Sunday, June 7

Wow, what a word

As I was reading a news article about blogging, a word popped out that got me thinking: “How many words have a double double-you in them?” Yes, “ww” appears in a word. It’s a word borrowed from another language to be sure, but not too obscure and it gets used in English enough to be commonly known. When you find out what the word is after struggling mightily for several days, you’ll slap your forehead with an open palm Italian-style and say, “D’oh!”

Now, step away from your computer. I don’t want any techno-search laziness to guide your hunt for the word. Use your head. After all, Rome wasn’t discovered in a day.


Friday, June 5


My, how calm, how serene. This afternoon’s puffy cumulous clouds belie their fury of only a few hours ago. At midnight there started a gentle rain. By 3AM, the lightning was hitting so close we were almost blinded by its fury. One thunderclap sounded like a big rifle shot right near my head. Fortunately the rain by then was fierce so the lightning wouldn’t set the entire valley ablaze. Checking the gauge this morning showed 1.25" (about 3 centimeters) had fallen in a short period of time. It had been quite awhile since the last rain. Today we planted a couple of trees that had lived in pots for way too many years, and we weren’t looking forward to beating holes in hard ground. Surprise! Soft dirt! Yay.

Monday, June 1

R.I.P Chip

This morning at 9:58 Chip cheeped his last. Early this morning he was hopping and chirping and ready to have a hearty meal. After an hour or so, he started flopping around as if he couldn’t find his balance. No more chirping. After a couple of hours of struggling, he breathed his last. He will be buried in his little nest. Sad times. First bird loss I’ve had, and it’s a mystery.