Friday, August 27

New solar telescope huge success

This is the first picture of the sun taken with the recently completed NST, the New Solar Telescope. Very impressive. If you want to be immersed in the minutiae of this project, click here. Fans of Rayleigh scattering and albedo will be thrilled.

Wednesday, August 25

Feeling sorry

Here I was, feeling sorry for myself being here in this ghastly heat, hotter than it’s been in months, it seems. Poor plants, horses, rattlesnakes.

To make myself feel a little better, I checked the weather down there in Death Valley. Imagine how it will feel when it rains, adding humidity to searing heat. Now it seems positively cool here! And it soon will be, with an over-30-degree drop in the high temperature only four days from now!

Sunday, August 22


Yesterday a couple of horses at the high ranch had some wound problems, one with a deep hole poked into his hip, and another with a stick that poked into her hoof, then broke off when removal was attempted. We needed a vet. Our friend Mike, one of the top vets in the whole West along with his assistant Gina, drove up to Florence Lake. They were ready to go across the lake on the ferry and ride in on horses when Richard showed up with his helicopter. He had been taking some of the ranch guests out to the lake. Mike had recently helped one of Richard’s horses, so Richard offered them a ride to the ranch. What the heck, why not? The ride took all of five minutes.

I had written to Hilary to get more data about the whole affair, and she responded, “For the record, one horse had a stick in her hoof and the other just had a nasty 6-inch deep poke in his hip. And also serendipitously when Mike gave the stick horse (Gypsy) a sedative and Luke touched the wound, the stick popped out! Herb had been fiddling with the wound for the past week, and all Luke had to do was look at it. Of course that happens when we fly the vet in.”

Meanwhile Herb was heading to the lake with horses for Mike and Gina. Would he return empty? No. The cook at the ranch wanted some help. A cook showed up at the lake. Would she like to ride a horse in to the ranch and help out? Yes! Herb had a rider to take back to the ranch.

I am not making this up.

Saturday, August 21

Being a bricklayer again

Haven’t I done this before? Oh yeah, the standby generator’s surroundings were enhanced with bricks. These are different bricks, though. They have tapered edges and are made for walkways instead of a mortared-together wall. This is an interesting job because the laying of the bricks goes so quickly. What is shown in the photo was done in about five minutes. But the preparation! I hauled away two large wheelbarrow-loads of dirt in order the prepare the ground. And there’s a thick layer of sand the bricks are laid on that has been meticulously smoothed and flattened and tilted slightly away from the building to drain properly. All the preparation has so far taken an entire week because the weather is so hot and the ground is so hard I could only slice it away a thin layer at a time after wetting it then waiting then scraping then wetting.…

Then of course there are the changes of plans that happen as the project goes on. I just now decided to extend the bricks a couple of feet beyond the edge of the sand shown there. They will also extend to beyond the hoe in the upper right corner of the photo. I have already sliced away another wheelbarrow-load of hard dirt.

I started by buying 100 bricks. Then I bought another 56. Tomorrow morning I'll buy another 50. It’ll be nice when it’s finished. I will then start another project—39 feet (10 meters) of walkway made from another kind of paver. Hope I survive till the end.

Thursday, August 19

In praise of LEDs

Okay, I don’t hate all LEDs. Last week I saw a very nice LED desk lamp at Costco. Twenty bucks. Cheap enough, why not give it a try. Guess what? It’s terrific! Plenty bright, and the color of the light is like daylight. Only six watts! It gets cozy warm; you can put your hand right on top of the lamp and it’s comfortable.

The light comes from a dime-size 3 by 4 array of flat yellow dots. When it’s on, you can’t look at them without getting a big hurt on your retinas and an afterimage that lingers for quite awhile. It is similar to the LED used in the Mag-Lite 3-cell flashlight, except the Mag-Lite has only a single element that’s dome-shaped, probably to improve its focus. It, too, is something you don’t want to look at even by accident. When I first got the flashlight I called it scary bright. Outside at night it illuminated objects an awfully long distance away, which I never thought could be seen at night with a hand-held light. It cost $30 at Costco, which included an LED Mini Mag-Lite and all the batteries.

The Mag-Lite’s single LED is just a tiny yellow dot

Costco has an interesting way of marketing. Shoppers call it the treasure hunt. Here’s how it works: You’re cruising the aisles and run across some really neat thing that you’d like to buy, but maybe not today. The following week it’s gone and may never be back. The theory is buy it now or forever regret it.

A case in point—When Costco opened its third Fresno-area store several years ago, Karla and I stopped by the first week it was open. In the jewelry case they displayed a platinum solitaire diamond ring that was going for $104,499, less than half normal retail price. It was gorgeous. Sure enough, the following week it was gone! We’ve been kicking ourselves ever since.

Wednesday, August 18

How many LEDs are in your life?

When the lights are out and I’m ready to drift off to dreamland, the house is suffused with a blanket of tiny lights. The LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) that adorn nearly everything that you can plug into an electrical outlet announce their presence. Just about every consumer product manufacturer loves to use these diabolical decorations to show that their product is plugged in and doing its duty. For example, to live with an iRobot Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner, you have to put up with three of the green glow-ers: One on the power brick, One on the charging dock, and The Big Bright One on the vacuum cleaner itself. All are the cruddy green color that has way too much yellow in it, the Cheap Green, as I call it. There’s a better green? Yes! Apple uses it on my Time Capsule, the one-terabyte backup disk and WiFi router combo. Its single, subdued green light is mellow, tasteful, rich, organic, soothing—something Apple engineers probably had to work on for years in order to please their aesthetic sensibilities.

The most jarringly garish appliance is my HughesNet HN9000 satellite receiver modem, with its FIVE count ’em FIVE super bright blue LEDs. They could illuminate a football stadium in a dense fog. Not only that, but two of the lights BLINK! Constantly! Why? Who knows—maybe it’s to show the user that something is happening, as if you couldn’t tell by looking at your computer screen and seeing that your Internet connection is working. I cover that beast with a large brown paper grocery sack with appropriate cooling vent slits cut into it, but still there is a suffused ominous blinking blueness that soaks through the bag.

Some indicator LEDs serve a useful purpose. For example, when I’m recharging my digital camera’s batteries, the charger blinks to indicate the state of charge: two blinks for a half charge, four blinks for a full charge. That makes sense. But why does my multi-outlet plug strip have to glow at all? Why does the paper shredder glow green when it isn’t doing anything, and red when it’s jammed. I know it’s jammed—I can see and smell the smoke! Why does the rice cooker have to tell me it’s either cooking or simply warming? I can tell by the noise it’s making—it either gurgles or hisses or sits quietly. The kitchen either smells like there’s something cooking or it smells like the rice is ready to eat. Don’t manufacturers realize we have more than one sense? Does the triple-plug adapter I plugged into an outlet to increase its usefulness have to glow orange? If my coffee grinder doesn’t grind, toaster doesn’t toast, and microwave doesn’t heat, can’t I figure out that the adapter isn’t connected even if it lacks a glowing light?

Blinking lights of various colors are not necessary to have a fulfilling life in the Twenty-First Century. Back in the mid- Twentieth, when I was a kid, we had one phone in our house. It was wired into the wall and you couldn’t move it to another room. It had a rotary dial. It didn’t light up. Nothing lit up. Well, the big wooden console radio in the living room had a backlit tuning dial, but it had to glow in order to be seen. The glow of the vacuum tubes inside didn’t show, but it had a Magic Eye that did! What a nifty thing! It was round, about the size of a quarter, with a dark dot in the center surrounded by a green arc that closed into a circle when you were exactly tuned to a radio station. When we turned out the lights and the radio was off, the house went dark.

The wonderful Magic Eye!

Okay, you can see I’ve had my fill with ubiquitous LEDs. I hope they’re only a passing fad. Now I’m looking forward to the next Big Improvement to our lives—it’s kind of retro, which is a fad in itself: A house that becomes dark when you turn out the lights!

Magic eye photo: Wikipedia

Tuesday, August 17

Long live the King!

At 1:30 today I wrote this email to Hilary after King died:
“King took his last breath at 12:40 PM. Bill had arrived with his tractor before noon, Madison [the vet] got here at 12:25. I just got back to the house right now. Instead of dragging the body down to Dead Horse Tree, which wouldn’t have worked with the way Bill had the tractor rigged, we picked a different spot. He had a couple of forks hooked to the bucket so he could lift the horse. That worked very well. We took King down the hill to the place where one of our old horses was shot by Eileen [another vet]. King is under a tree near the creek, and looked none the worse for wear.

“This morning I had given him lots of water, so he was comfortable up to the end. We were saddened to see him go.”

Hilary responded:
“I had a feeling King died at 12:40. Right then, to the minute, Benjamin suddenly started screaming and screaming, and had an expression of agony on his face, like he had just lost an old friend and was inconsolable. Tears were pouring down his cheeks like they never had before, and his eyes were open, not closed like when he has a bellyache. I think he watched King gallop by on his way to the Big Meadow in the Sky, and was sad to see him go.”

And later added:
“It was amazing, considering the timing. He was happy and fine, and then suddenly he was overtaken by sadness. I immediately knew what had happened, even though we’re programmed to mistrust those instincts and call them stupid.”

The gathering of twenty horses and mules:

When Bill and I got back up the hill through the gates to the top of the corral, we were surprised to see that every one of the horses and mules had gone, drifting off to wherever it was they had come in from.

I was reminded of the expression used when a monarch dies and is succeeded by a new monarch: The King is dead. Long live the King!

Photo: Hilary Hurley Painter

Déjà vu

So many years ago that I can’t even remember, we took our morning walk down the road and were surprised to see a dozen or more horses on the road lined up along the fence, looking toward something we couldn’t see. It was odd. Later we went to feed a horse we had penned up because she needed care. She didn’t show up, so we went searching for her. We found her, dead, where she had fallen down a steep rock face and either hit her head or broke her neck. Or maybe she’d had heart failure.

The strangest thing about all this is that the horses that had lined up along the fence were looking in the right direction but couldn’t possibly see where their friend was because of an intervening ridge. But that didn’t deter them from approaching as close as they could and paying their respects.

Early this morning I headed for the corral and was surprised to see every last one of our horses and mules gathered around. Sure enough, old “Bones,” King, was lying down. He had been struggling to get up, but was too weak. He was still alive, but it was unlikely that he would ever be able to stand again. I called the only vet in the area who makes house calls to come over and put King out of his misery.

Once again, a horse in distress had managed to call in all his friends to say goodbye.

Sunday, August 15

Another stunning achievement

Running through the deck on the first pass is the holy grail of solitaire. It happened tonight as I was working my way to the 5,000th win (only 993 wins to go!). It is so much fun when every click brings up a playable card. So I truly enjoyed this game, and will now go to bed and dream of repeating it endlessly, like counting sheep.

Good night.

(I do NOT usually stay up late playing Solitaire. Tonight I have a very large download to do, and can do it without cutting into my daily allotment of bandwidth if I wait until 11PM and finish the download before 4AM. It’s just that I can only read so much news before I’m full and give in to the need to be productive instead.)


Several days ago I was returning from my hike to the water tank, my morning regimen of ascending the equivalent of a 14-story building. By the road was this odd thing, this skinny waif, this object that could barely cast a shadow. It was a horse that had obviously not been eating well; a 35-year-old “hard keeper,” meaning he needs supplements to an ordinary horse’s diet of grass. He had wandered off with his buddies and hadn’t been seen by us for probably five or six weeks.

I led him to the corral where I locked him up in the big pen and started him on some high-value feed. Equine Senior pellets, a special high-protein feed for older horses, “four-way” which is corn, oats, barley and molasses, sugar beet pulp, and pellets made of rice bran (the stuff they remove from rice to make it white and palatable to picky humans who will probably die from eating too much of the stuff because there’s no nutrition left in it). Don’t get me started on “enriched” white flour!

He had probably lost, who knows? 150 pounds? 300 pounds? I could see every bone in his pelvic region, every process on his spine, his scapulae, in fact the only part of him that looked normal were the parts where there is little or no flesh, like his hooves and teeth. I rigged up a system that would provide him with plenty of fresh water and started a twice-daily feed regimen.

I can report now that there is some visible progress. He is eating more enthusiastically and whinnies whenever he sees me approaching. I have nicknamed him Bones, an appropriate name for now, and I hope I will soon call him by his real name, King.

Friday, August 13

Telling a story

It has occurred to me in the past few months that there can be something about telling a story that comes from outside the storyteller’s imagination or experience. Karla used to tell some wonderful stories to our daughter Hilary when she was a little kid. Hilary would snuggle up on the bed next to Mom and wait for tonight’s story. Although we had read her many stories from books, eventually you run out of books, and necessity being the mother of invention, you invent stories. I always enjoyed listening in on the tales Karla spun because they were just so darned good. Imaginative, exciting, and thoroughly enjoyable, Hilary loved them and could hardly wait for the next one.

I asked Karla what the magic was that made her stories so entertaining. Her answer was that she was simply setting the stage and introducing the characters. Then the characters took over and created the stories. Her role was being the narrator. That implies that she was not the creator in the strictest sense, but rather “channeled” the characters after giving them permission to create. That was a hard concept for a literal-ist type person like me to grasp.

Lately I have found that Karla’s method of creating stories works for me, too. Sometimes I start writing down an idea then expanding on it without any clue as to where it is leading. I recently wrote a short blog entry called Dangerous in which I started with the theme of a question I had asked Karla many times, jokingly, if something I was about to do “made me look dangerous.” I felt there might be something that could come from that premise. Sure enough, it happened.

In the setup, which really did occur, I told about trying on various pairs of eyeglass frames and asking if they made me look dangerous. Karla’s response in every case was “no.” I didn’t know where my story could lead but kept writing. Then the storytelling genie took over and came up with the pink eyeglass frames angle. That didn’t really happen, but it evolved that “dangerous” could be equated with “back away from me.” I thought that was funny, and used the idea, which by the way wasn’t really mine. It just came to me from that wonderful area where ideas poke their heads in from outside the story—a source that I have only recently found, but that Karla had been using for a long time.

Thanks, Kiddo. You’re right—let go and let the magic happen.

Tuesday, August 10

Who could complain?

Well, for one, I could complain. Look at those numbers—the 4,000th game won out of 25,996 played. What if it had been 4,000 out of 26,000! Wouldn’t that have had a much better symmetry? Been more mathematically aesthetic? Just plain nicer?

I shouldn’t complain. Now, on to 5,000!

Monday, August 9

Ben’s first horseback ride!

Whoa, Daddy. That’s a big animal!

Okay, I trust you.

See? Daddy’s safe. So are you.

Are you sure?

You bet! Ride ’em cowboy!

Photos by Hilary Hurley Painter


I ran across this one in the Los Angeles Times today. It happened near a school in North Carolina. This is a pre-signage mock-up that will be made permanent once it’s approved. I hope the approver can spell. If you pronounce the word SHCOOL as it’s spelled, it sounds like you’re inebriated. So maybe the notice was for drunk drivers. Give the road crew credit for creativity!

It reminds me of what happened a few years ago here in Central California when a road signage crew laid out the stencils to paint the word SLOW on the road, but inverted the W. Drivers had to SLOM until they corrected their mistake.

Saturday, August 7

Stinky sponge

So far this summer, I have managed to keep a kitchen sponge smelling good for two months. By bleaching? No. By infusing it with biocides? No. By storing it under intense ultraviolet light? No. By inserting a teensy pellet of plutonium I got for my birthday from neighbor Bill that he forgot to turn back in before retiring from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory? No.

By rinsing the sponge after every use? Yes.

You see, the only reason a sponge or dishcloth gets to stinking is that there are bacteria on them, and the user feeds the bacteria by wiping up a spill of Bacteria Chow® (which is darn near anything organic) and tossing the damp sponge or cloth onto the drainboard to let it fester. Dampness and food particles make for a stinky sponge. It is so tempting when after all the dinner dishes are done and the counters and tables are wiped clean, you notice just one itsy bitsy spot of gravy or even bread crumbs to wipe up and you’re done. Your hands are dry, the sink and surrounds are spotless, and rinsing the sponge will just mess everything up all over again. Besides, nobody will notice that minuscule spot of stuff on the sponge. Except the bacteria. And they’ll have all night to munch on it and spew poo throughout the sponge.

If you simply can’t stand to get the sink all wet again, toss the sponge in the freezer overnight. Or take it outside, hook it to the line on your spinning rod and tow it behind the boat, making a quick circuit of the lake. Or feed it to the dogs (they’ll eat anything with gravy on it) and buy a new sponge. If you haven’t been rinsing it all along, your old one is probably beyond salvation by now anyway.

An August surprise?

When the president was given a tour of the plant at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and saw truckloads of blank paper unloaded at one door and truckloads of money leaving at the other door, he must have thought, “Making money is so simple—let’s spend it!” Rumor has it that during this month, August 17th or thereabouts, he will announce a forgiving of mortgage debt at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the holders for the majority of mortgage debt in this country, for those whose home value has fallen below what they still owe. Millions of ordinary citizens will have a huge burden lifted from them, and the resulting load of debt will be transferred via taxes to those who acted responsibly and avoided risky investments in the first place. Read all about it here in this report by Reuters writer, James Pethokoukis.

One other scary thing about forgiven debt is that the Internal Revenue Service considers debt relief the same as income and will tax it. You can’t win for losing.

Friday, August 6

Tunnel vision

A couple of months ago I got a pair of eyeglasses with no-line bifocals. Not that I’m vain and want to conceal my vanishing youth, but because I had tried a pair of lined bifocals and it drove me nuts, especially since I didn’t agree with the optometrist as to what magnification I wanted for reading. She would have me hold things about a foot from my face; I’d rather read about a foot-and-a-half away.

The eyeglasses people told me I should try no-line, progressive lenses. They go from your normal distant vision at the top of the lens, then progress downward to the magnification you need at the bottom, making a gradual transition. One problem, though; they do it with tunnel vision. In order to read a page, I have to move my head left to right because words are out of focus on either side of center. Also, in order to find the magnification I want I have to bob my head like one of those goofy dipping drinking birds that bob up and down over a glass of water. It can make you dizzy.

I have excellent distance vision, and need only slight magnification (+1.5 diopters) for reading, so why bother with full-time glasses? The reason is that I am constantly looking from close to far away all day long, and am repeatedly donning and doffing my readers. (Donning and doffing—when’s the last time, if ever, you heard anyone say that?) When I take the reading glasses off, I usually put them in a shirt pocket. If I lean over, as I did atop the water tank last week, the glasses slide out and quickly sink through eight feet of water, joining a very old roll of plumbing tape and a broken pipe adapter ring, probably never to be recovered. Or they get crunched under the drive wheels of the road grader. Or they fall into wet concrete. Or I sit on them. Or a pesky leprechaun grabs them and disappears down a rabbit hole. That’s why.

So I figure if I keep my full-range-progressive glasses on, they’ll last longer. But the tunnel vision is going to take some getting used to. The sellers told me to give it time. I will if I don’t get woozy and fall into some wet concrete myself.

Or disappear down a rabbit hole. “Oh, hello, Alice. Fancy meeting you here.”

Thursday, August 5


Shopping for eyeglass frames with Karla. I am looking for glasses that make me look dangerous.

Do these make me look dangerous?
How about these?
This pair?
Dang. Don’t they have anything that makes me look dangerous?
Try these.
But they’re pink!
I don’t want to wear pink glasses!
At least they would make people back away from you. Isn’t that the same as looking dangerous?

The iron frogs

Tomorrow I’m going to town and decided to wear a nice cotton shirt that needed ironing. I got the ironing board set up and grabbed the steam iron out of the storage pantry. As I was about to pour some water in its spout, I saw an odd dark shape covering the hole. It looked like a piece of chewing gum. It was a frog! I scooped it up and as I was about to take it outside and toss it into the middle barrel of the fish fountain, I noticed another frog between the handle and the base. Two frogs in one iron! Doesn’t that have special significance in some culture somewhere? Sure made me feel good.

I feel sorry for people who don’t encounter frogs in routine places. I also feel sorry for people who have to iron their own clothes.

Tuesday, August 3

Low-res dial-up modem excitement

Hilary and I were exchanging emails about what’s happening at the ranch and my new Internet stuff coming next MONDAY!! Can you believe it? In this day and age I could be without swift access to the world’s knowledge and fallacies and lies and assumptions for more than a week! It seems the problem is that our local service company can’t keep up with new orders and service of the HughesNet system installations around Central California. I ordered the latest equipment and high-speed service instead of repairing my old system—two tin cans and an amazingly long string to the nearest satellite; when it rained I had to untangle the string when it got saggy and tangled in the trees.

Back to my original mention of Hilary. She came in with a freshly-bathed Benjamin, put him in front of her laptop computer and punched the button to take a picture. What got my attention was his posture—he was holding his head up without support. We had fussed and bothered about his inability to do that for the longest time. He was able to turn his head while lying on his belly which took some muscle to do, but we were always supporting his head while we held him. Maybe we retarded his muscle development by doing so, and it’s really exciting to see him heads-up.

Hilary sent the picture using the lowest resolution possible so I could receive it before I grew a beard and two-foot-long fingernails, so it isn’t up to the quality standard I have set for this high-class blog. But you get the idea. Yay, Ben!

Monday, August 2

Life in the slow lane

Apparently the local phone company is swimming in federal funds aimed at bringing the world to our doorsteps out here in the boondocks. For months now, big bulldozers have been tearing deep grooves in the earth and burying big plastic conduits and a very fat electrical cable. The next task is to pull fiber optic cables through those pipes and bring them to the pedestals they’re installing at crucial intersections.

The word on the street is that in a couple of years they will have brought high-speed Internet connections to the properties branching out along the line. Imagine that! High-speed Internet in the wilds where the fastest thing now is a frightened wild pig. Currently, due to the recent failure of my medium-speed satellite connection, I have to forgo many of the things I had done prior to that failure. My main job in the summertime is to provide services to people arranging for either a pickup of a food resupply along the John Muir Trail, or an overnight stay at our guest ranch. Trouble is, doing that job requires a moderately fast connection to the remote server where we keep the files. With a telephone modem cruising along at maybe 30 kilobits per second, I could probably grow a world-class Guinness-record beard before I could complete even one inquiry. I could grow a ten-digit set of those grotesque twisting two-foot-long fingernails that were the pride of Chinese royal wives. I could die then reincarnate a dozen or more times, each time exponentially more intelligent and experienced to the point where I would not only rule the world, but the entire galaxy. With the Force behind me, I could even bring back Constitutional government to the United States. (Ha ha. Dream on.)

Oh well. In a couple of years we’ll know the effect of this upgrade. Hang on to your Star Wars action figures; I’ll recognize you and welcome you into the fold.