Sunday, August 30

Late summer sights and smells

It happens more often now it seems. This morning the scene is reminiscent of many summer mornings in the past; an orange cast to the light, the smell of a campfire. How nice a campfire smells! But not day and night for days on end. Since we depend on sunlight for electricity around here, and it’s hot, and the plants require more water, and the well pump is a power hog, and the sun is obscured by smoke…

It gets unpleasant sometimes.

This latest fire started as a control burn. The folks in Yosemite do more control burns than most people, and by doing so keep their forest nice and healthy. Somehow this fire in Big Meadow, which was supposed to be about 90 acres in size, got out of control. Five days later it is zipping along, and has grown to over 4,300 acres (1,740 hectares). A negative return, to be sure, compared to buying $90 worth of stock and ending up with $4,300.

Our local fires rarely get mentioned in the major news outlets, but this morning the San Francisco Chronicle gave this one a few sentences in a story about the enormous house-eating fires in the Los Angeles area. Probably because this fire is in Yosemite National Park.

Thursday, August 27

The three Fs

Frame, focus, f-stop. Nowadays I wonder how many photographers think in terms of the three Fs. I bought a small 10.1 megapixel camera that comes with a nice pedigree (and only cost a tenth of what I paid for my “real” camera). It has a 12x zoom, from 25mm to 300mm (35mm equivalent focal lengths), a 300-picture minimum storage capacity, relative lightness and small size. Recently the emphasis on the number of pixels is being downplayed because more isn’t necessarily better. Oh, and it makes movies too.

Its Leica lens seems to take near-perfect pictures every time. There’s one problem though; you can’t easily frame a shot when you’re outdoors because there is no viewfinder. You compose by looking at the large LCD display on the back. Outdoors its brightness increases, but in bright daylight it’s almost useless. So I am learning to shoot “by the seat of the pants.” This is a new discipline for me, but I’m catching on, surprisingly.

Today the peace is almost continuously disturbed by the noise of firefighting airplanes battling the Big Meadow fire in Yosemite Park north of here. The picture above shows one of them. My camera decided to focus on the branches of the tree instead of the plane. There is no way I can change that, apparently. Later on I was feeding horses in our corral when a plane approached and I tried movie mode. The plane was high and I couldn’t see it on the screen so I just aimed kind of like shooting from the hip. When I played it back, the plane was very close to the center of the picture.

Back to the subject of frame, focus and f-stop, who needs to frame a shot when there’s Photoshop? You can crop a photo, change its perspective, and manipulate just about anything to do with composition. Focus? Automatic for the most part nowadays. And how many people even know what an f-stop is? Real photographers remember in the back of their minds that if you make it a small number, you can put a foreground or background out of focus to emphasize your subject. Small point-and-shoot cameras don’t give you much choice there since their tiny lenses are so close to the focal plane (what the heck is that?) that most everything is in focus.

With the new small automatic cameras, we could add a fourth F—Fun. No more lugging around a selection of lenses and bodies, awkward flash attachments, and all that old-timey stuff. The expense of making many exposures on film is gone. Gratification (or disappointment) is instant. Add a fifth and sixth F—Fat Folios. Of photos Fotos. (Seven)

More unbelievable than the water slide stunt

Here is something hard to believe. A commercial for Evian, the water. If you believe this…hm-m-m—I just realized evian is naive spelled backward.

Monday, August 24

A widescreen movie

Have you ever stopped to watch a bed sheet flapping in a gentle breeze? I’ve watched movies at home, projected on a sheet hanging on the wall, but here’s the opportunity to watch a movie being made by the sheet itself. Several times this morning, as the sun changed its position in the sky, it made for a lot of interesting images. Finally I broke down and grabbed a camera. Maybe I should wash the bed sheets more often. And bring along a bag of popcorn to enhance the experience.

No sunspots; the mule died

This is getting boring. According to, this is the 45th day without spots on the sun, one of the longest quiet spells of the current solar minimum. We are in the deepest solar minimum in a century. So what does this mean to me? Well, it reminds me of a story:

There was a farmer who had a mule he used in the summertime, but it just stood around and had to be fed during the winter. He thought he’d try saving money by adding a little sawdust to the mule’s feed. Day by day he’d add a little more sawdust.
“So, how’d it work out?” asked his neighbor.
“Well, it went pretty good,” the farmer said. “I got up to about ninety percent sawdust, then…”
“Then what?”
“Then that ol’ mule up and died!”

A good thing, too. The farmer could have run out of sawdust! So what’s this all got to do with sunspots? Nothing, it just reminded me of the story.

Sunday, August 23


The investment was worth it. At first, I felt the pangs of “I made a big mistake” when the Acme Home DNA Modification Kit arrived from It was expensive, but the description on the Web site was so compelling I just had to have it. After a decade of fiddling with this ol’ horse’s genetics, I finally got her to sprout her own feed, right there where she used to have a forelock. All she has to do is shake her head and it’s dinnertime! Too bad she’s so old it won’t really offer a full payback what with hay being so cheap and all.

The old rain gauge

Before I get inundated with a request to see the old rain gauge with a bullet hole in it, I took it back to the 4x4 redwood post and hung it for one last time. As you can see, it’s crazed, has a chip out of its top and a hole put there by Hilary in her Annie Oakley days when no beverage can was safe from being multi-perforated by her and her gun-totin’ buddies. The neighbors would call—“What’s all that shooting?” they’d ask nervously, thinking the sheriff had finally found the pot growers at home up on the hillside. “It’s nothing,” I would say. “Just the rain gauge.”

It’s a neat gauge. Inside is a narrower tube that fills with the first inch of rain, calibrated in hundredths. When it’s full, it spills into the larger outer body. Its capacity, without the bullet hole, is eleven inches (280 mm). I paid an astonishing $40 for it back in the mid-1980s and haven’t found an exact replacement, at least not from Taylor, its original maker.

Rain? In August?

Just about the last thing you need in summertime in the foothills of Central California is a rain gauge. So my old (at least 25 years) weather beaten, leaky, worn out rain gauge with a bullet hole in it was taken down a few weeks ago and retired. The new gauge given to me by neighbor Bill hasn’t been installed because I want to move the post on which it will be mounted away from the little olive tree next to it which grew into a huge rain-shadowing monster and has been probably giving me incorrect rain readings ever since as a result of its being there. So I haven’t a clue as to how much rain fell last night and early this morning. The bedrock mortar holes above offer a clue; maybe we got a small part of an inch or even a few millimeters. Hard to say.

Friday, August 21


Don’t you just love it when you make a discovery? Look at the illustration till there’s an “Aha!” moment. More typography to be found here.

Illustration credit: Adrian Johnson

Tuesday, August 18

Meteor strikes

As it did last year, the Perseid meteor shower occurred with the most spectacular visibility during the night when I’m off in dreamland. So I depended, as before, on seeing its aftermath represented by thousands of little craters in the sand under trees.

Saturday, August 15

Is this for real?

On YouTube, this amazing stunt from Germany:

Friday, August 14

My, how things change…

Above is the main part of the page I ran across on a site called To the left is an enlarged portion of the above ad. In the middle of the list of areas of California in which you are likely to find world-class hotel accommodations is a place that used to be a lumber mill town and had a grocery store, a feed store, a hardware store, a couple of gas stations and no traffic lights when I first moved into the area half a century ago. Now it has five intersections with traffic lights.

My, how things change with time.

Sunday, August 9

Break out the Windex

This was too good to pass up. Iapetus is mysterious for many reasons, including the ridge around the middle that makes it look like a walnut (not too visible in this picture). Scientists are mystified by the odd coloration on the right side of the picture. To me it’s obvious: The moon is moving left to right, it’s springtime on Saturn. Those are bug splats. Click the picture to enlarge.

Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

Friday, August 7

More bad plumbing

When a willow tree suddenly pops up in mid-summer in the dry foothills of central California, you know you’re in trouble, plumbing-wise. They love water, and in this case the tree was the first clue that one of the reasons we ran out of water so early, so often, was that another leak had been born. We drove by this place many times. It is uphill from the road, and the terrain lays at an angle that you don’t notice the soil darkening from moisture. But you certainly notice young willow trees!

It turns out the old ball valve made of plastic (big mistake) had finally swollen under pressure enough to weep, then finally gush. I had a nice new bronze and stainless steel valve lying around, part of the defensive posture one develops when living miles and hours away from the real world. The leaking water had made the otherwise adobe-like soil very easy to dig, the bad valve was quite close to the surface due to the terrain, and the fix only took a little leakage of blood.

Now I have to devise a “vault” to enclose the new valve and allow access to it. The old vault is now too small, due to the different construction of the plastic valve. I don’t want to buy one of the commercial ones, since the last one finally broke under the weight of grazing horses kicking and stomping its lid. A large pile of big rocks usually deters horses, but doesn’t make it too easy to get to a valve in a hurry. Maybe I’ll just park the road grader on top of the valve and hope I can start it when I need to. Or just hope I never have to close the valve.

Thursday, August 6

A green idea with a yellow tint

Save water—pee in the shower! Article in San Francisco Chronicle here, Brazilian commercial en portuguese below.

Tuesday, August 4

Why is this woman sort of smiling?

Because she’s about to tell you about a cellphone, kind of. But maybe not. And to follow up, she’s gonna rattle you.

Sunday, August 2

Why is this girl smiling?

You’d smile too! She has a Turbo Heather!