Saturday, October 30

False spring?

Today the rain ended after leaving an overnight abundance of almost four tenths of an inch, 10 millimeters, of nice cool soft ground-soaking rain. We are probably at five or so inches this season which is way past normal; rain usually gets serious a month or more later.

The weather has been warm, too. It seems to be fooling some of the plants, the introduced plants that is. The natives are doing their usual thing, dropping leaves and hunkering down for the cold that will soon be upon us. But the grapes (Thompson Seedless) and orange tree (Seville) have been fooled into thinking it’s springtime and are producing new leaves.

Even the agaves seem to be sharpening their teeth, doing their impression of crocodile jaws.

Tonight’s sunset celebrated the end of the storm with a gorgeous sky of crimson, orange and blue that silhouetted the soon-leafless oak trees. Time to get the rest of our firewood split and in the shed. We have several dead trees that were felled by Luke this summer, cut to length by Loren this fall, and split by Karla and Audrey a week ago.

The cycle continues.

Wednesday, October 27

Lumber load

Karla and Loren made a trip to the Big City for lots of lumber and another 16 railroad ties. It was a strange load, but it got here without incident.

Thousands of screws, nails, and metal things were put in storage, ready for the next project: a roof that spans both of the trailers and provides cover for our two ferry boats. That was two days ago, but today was tweaking the two structures making them plumb, level, and square with each other and adding under-structure so they can handle heavy loads of hay. Tomorrow we start building the big roof.

Saturday, October 23

Olive us love them!

Every October we look forward to the abundance of big, gorgeous olives from our four trees. This year we have a problem to contend with—some bug has been biting the fruit and leaving a mark. We picked a few quarts of olives and ran them through our normal processing and found that the bug bites don’t affect the quality of the finished product. The olives just have a tiny bit of that mouse-eaten, rat-chewed, bashed, pummeled-by-meteorites, shot-by-vandals look. Otherwise they taste great. Just don’t look at what you’re eating.

This afternoon Karla and I picked half a bucket-full. I dumped in a gallon of sodium hydroxide-infused dihydrogen monoxide to start the multi-part procedure that ends in edible olives. There are so very many olives left on the trees since we only picked the low-hanging fruit. Our main limitation is rounding up enough jars and lids so we can pack them and start distributing them to friends and neighbors.

It is so hugely satisfying to receive this gift of nature every year. We figured that we had planted the trees about 25 years ago. They were probably two or three years old then, so they have at least another thousand years of productive life. Some trees in the Mediterranean are supposed to be 2,000 to 3,000 years old according to this Wikipedia entry. I hope I don’t have to process olives for that long; I could get really tired of dealing with dihydrogen monoxide and sodium hydroxide.

And that’s no lye.

Wednesday, October 20

Don’t get a crease in your butt

Hilary called last night and said she was waiting on the edge of her seat for my next blog which would be about our new barns. I told her to not do that or she’d get a crease in her butt. In the above photo, ranch friend Loren guides the driver through one of the tight spaces where we widened the road because we couldn’t cut down a tree.

This day was a gut-wrencher. We had spent a couple of days preparing our primitive road for the delivery of a couple of big containers we would be using as barns to store hay and other stuff. We had traveled along our roughly three-mile drive with a pole saw that could reach up about 16 or more feet, trimming trees so a couple of trucks with modified former highway-mobile 28-foot-long trailers with their wheels and other stuff removed could be hauled in. There were a couple of places where the trees leaned in toward the center of the road, trees we couldn’t remove because they were on neighbors’ land. So we took our road grader down and widened the road by several feet (the neighbors don’t mind us working on their parts of the road). We tilted the road away from trees on some places. We thought we had it all in great shape.

Then the trucks came with their loads. It was like the trailers were forty feet high! What we thought was a fine place to drive through still had branches the diameter of a weight-lifter’s forearm leaning across the road. The branches were torn out by the first truck, leaving a couple of deep dents in the container he was hauling. He made it in with few problems. The second driver had some problems with the fact that his load had a more rounded bottom and kept tipping from side to side. He had already broken one of the wide tie-down straps holding the load. He rigged a chain to keep the container tied down to the truck, which then came loose soon after. He re-rigged the chain and kept going. The containers hung out behind their trucks so far they “fish-tailed” around the corners, making maneuvering between trees even more difficult. Despite all that, they considered our road only slightly problematic, and described some of the places they’d previously gone where the roads got so narrow their trucks tipped into ditches along the sides.

When the trucks finally arrived, everything went smoother and we ended up with the two containers exactly where we wanted them, with a wide space between them where we can park a boat.

Next, a roof to cover them both and provide a space for another boat. Stay tuned.

Finally having arrived, now we had to back the container into place on our carefully positioned railroad ties.

The driver was an expert, having done this stuff hundreds of times.

Drop it into place, then pull forward. Done!

Shifting it from side to side got it in place exactly where we wanted it.

The second container arrived in a cloud of dust kicked up by the truck’s cooling fan. The fans cooled the road more than the engines!

Karla and the famous Blind Dog Coffee mascot, Sioux, took in the festivities in the cool shade.

My sentiments exactly! After being the pilot, leading in two of those things tipping and rocking along the road, almost smashing into our trees, I was nearly exhausted. But very happy with the results.

Sunday, October 17

The amazingness of immediacy

Yesterday I was reading an article on the computer that mentioned a book, The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs: Insanely Different Principles for Breakthrough Success. The article had a link to where the book was described. One click and I got to Amazon. I read the description and decided I wanted the Kindle edition. One more click, a pause, and I had it on both my computer and my Kindle Reader. I’ve been reading (and re-reading) it to myself and to Karla and to anyone who will listen, including the cats. Tomorrow if it isn’t raining, I’ll read it to any horse who happens to be bored and will listen to my chatter.

It is an awfully well-written book, outlining the seven secrets to success in any endeavor, with the first secret being “Do what you love.” I highly recommend it to anyone who wishes to follow in the footsteps of a brilliant innovator.

Wednesday, October 13

The new black

Neighbor Bill sent this link to a USA Today animation showing the sequence of the construction of the International Space Station over its thirteen years of existence. The STS (the shuttle) was the primary freight truck in the building, with the Russian Soyuz rockets doing some of the work also. Too bad we’re going to toss away the remaining shuttles and turn them into museum pieces while they are still the main freightliners to low orbit, but that’s the way governments work. I mean, nobody in charge had to pay for anything, so who cares?

And besides, it only cost Billions when Trillions is the new black.

(Note: I just checked the link and it was broken. Maybe USA Today took down the link. Sorry.)

Monday, October 11

Ben likes water!

This morning Benjamin was introduced to the fish barrel. He loved the moving water and played with it for a long time. He was also fascinated to see his reflection when the water was still. The ten darting goldfish got his attention too.

The grass is up…

…and Benjamin is down. Hilary came by to pick up some hay to take down to Furnace Creek. She remembered to bring her son so we could use him to give scale to the picture of our emerging grass. After over three inches of rain, we’re fortunate to get some free horse feed.

Sunday, October 10

Still got the touch

By the way, today’s date is 10/10/10.

Years ago I graduated from the Navy’s electronics school at Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay. I was then sent to the USS Enterprise, CVA(N) 65, the navy’s biggest, newest and first nuclear-powered surface ship. The ship had just completed its very first deployment to the Mediterranean, and still had that new aircraft carrier smell. My job was to maintain about 30 or so pieces of electronic equipment, mostly radar stuff. I was assigned to the Combat Information Center, the secret space where all the nifty war-fighting strategy was implemented. The rest of the people in my shop were Data Systems Technicians, so named because they maintained the computers and peripherals that supposedly made war-fighting more certain (ha!).

I always had an interest in how things worked. When I was a little kid, my Mickey Mouse watch quit working, which gave me the opportunity to take it apart and find that one of the spindles on a gear had bent, probably the result of my rough handling. I straightened it and felt good that I made a dead watch live again. On the Enterprise, it soon became known to the crew that if something electronic broke, I could probably fix it. All of my radar equipment came with detailed manuals and schematics; the stuff I fixed for my buddies had nothing to refer to, schematic-wise. Radios, tape recorders, and even the admiral’s personal television set fell into that category.

On one of our cruises, we had a television crew aboard ship filming a story for a news show. For the audio portion of the film they used a fancy portable tape recorder, made in Switzerland, that I had only heard about. It was so expensive you could almost buy a new Porsche for the same money—honest! It had broken and the TV people were desperate; they were out at sea with no way to get a new recorder and no one to get theirs fixed. They took it to the officer in charge of electronics on the ship, and he said, “Take it to Hurley.”

I was thrilled to dig into the guts of something so exotic. Each of the transistorized circuit boards in the recorder was contained in its own little steel box with wires coming out: motor-speed control circuitry, oscillator for the FM modulator to the recording head, amplifier and pre-amp were all in their own little boxes. Of course I didn’t know beans about what was wrong, so I just used the knowledge I had from fixing radar repeaters, recognizing things like amplifier classes, oscillator types, and so on. Long story short, I got it working and NBC finished their filming. I never saw my name in the credits at the end of the story, though. (Actually, I never saw the story, either.)

Today I rehabbed the old fixit ability and tore into the air conditioning controls of our Toyota Highlander. I had previously ordered a Toyota manual on CD to find out how to get to the circuitry that controlled the A/C unit. The manual said to remove the entire dashboard! Gad! Not that! Many screws and fasteners would have to be located and carefully removed, and I just didn’t want to get into that nonsense. So I did a quick search on the Internet and discovered that to get to the combination radio/climate control, all I had to do was pry away a bezel that conceals the fasteners. I used a broad knife that was made for spreading cake frosting to gently pry the bezel off, then took out six screws and unplugged about six wire harness connectors. Voila! After removing another couple of dozen screws I got to the several circuit boards that control the A/C unit.

The next part reminds me of an old-time radio show, where a newlywed couple is stranded in the countryside, a menacing UFO is right in front of their car, and they’re trying to turn on the radio to see if anyone else has spotted such a thing and reported it to the local radio station. Of course, the radio doesn’t work. The guy (it’s always the guy) crawls under the dashboard and finds the problem—a broken wire. Well, it happens in real life too. A wire from the temperature control knob to the main circuit board was broken off right at the surface of the board. How I spotted it was almost by accident. How it broke, I couldn’t say. It must have been broken from Day One, and just managed to keep in contact till it got jiggled or oxidized or something. I got a new piece of wire and soldered it in, bypassing the broken one. After reassembling the unit and reinstalling it in the dash, I started the engine, turned on the A/C, and for the first time since June, cold air came out the vents! A miracle! The Toyota agency had charged $55 to diagnose the problem and wanted another $947 to install a new control board. I had saved us almost $1,000 and it only took about an hour and a half. Karla was unbelieving until she felt the cold air. Frankly, so was I.

All reinvigorated now, my next project is to figure out how to close the lid on the composter.

I just noticed something…

Yesterday’s blog post was number 900! Making today’s post number 901, on the way to 1,000. Or even a million, or, the new big number for Americans, a Trillion. Wow. That’s a lot of pecking on a keyboard.

Saturday, October 9

Distraction-free writing

I downloaded the free version of a writing program that is simplicity itself. When launched, the computer screen is wiped clean—no menu bars, task bars, any bars. Depending on your choice, you can have a white background that encompasses the entire display, or a snowy scene with sparse leafless trees at the bottom of the screen, or the display I am currently using, a soft textured gray background. The writer is freed from the mechanics, the nonessentials that are always present and in your face when dealing with a standard word processor or writing program on a computer. Here the display is only about the words, not the word count, the font size, or the margins—just the writing. How wonderful to not have to be confronted by all that extraneous stuff. How nice to not see even a tiny bit of the computer’s interface. It is the closest thing I have experienced to writing on a blank sheet of paper, but with the addition of contemplative soothing musical sounds.

If you need a word count, move your mouse or stroke your trackpad. The word count shows up as a figure at the bottom of your composition. It isn’t labeled; it is simply a number, in this case, 163. (Now 164, since 163 counts as a word. But this can get circular and feed on itself, like now it’s 184, not counting the number 184 itself, which skews the count—you get what I mean, I hope.) When you move the mouse, six small round icons appear on the right side, offering you the options of changing the size of the display, the font, the background sounds you’re hearing, and other parameters. Once you’ve made your selections, the icons disappear.

The sound accompanying my current writing is a temple bell, being struck by either a felt-covered hammer or maybe a frozen yak butter wand wielded by a young monk seeking penance for having the forbidden thought of wishing he owned the latest iPod touch with the Retina Display instead of his scarred brass rice bowl and ill-fitting saffron robe. Pray for his soul.

You needn’t pray for my Apple stock because this wonderful program is currently available only to Macintosh users. I’m using the free version, but may opt for the paid upgrade unless I’m seduced into believing that simplicity truly is the essense of simplicity.

Friday, October 8

Gross oversight

We bought a composter. It took about 45 minutes to assemble the pieces into a nice unit that has a big wide mouth to toss things in, and it sits on a base with rollers making it easy to spin around to mix the contents.

There’s one problem though, as shown in the lower picture. It shows you which way to turn the lid to open, but says nothing about how to close it. Even the otherwise thorough instruction manual has not even a mention of closing. Do I have to contact the maker and ask them to clear up this gross oversight? How many people with fewer abilities to figure things out for themselves than I have will be totally flummoxed by this? I shudder to even think of it!

Monday, October 4

The evidence…

Normally only the yellow apricot leaves fall to the ground.
These were assisted by hail.

We lost a few hundred olives

but a few thousand held on to the trees.

Finally, the wind was powerful enough to tip over an entire cheap plastic lawn chair!

It was a pretty violent storm for placid, serene central California.

“Overnight rainfall was reported in the Valley, with Fresno receiving 0.06 of an inch, Merced 0.10, Madera 0.22 and Visalia 0.07. In the Sierra, Yosemite Valley reported 0.41 of an inch, Mariposa Grove 0.98, Oakhurst 0.66 and Shaver Lake 0.82.” —The Fresno Bee, October 4, 2010

Here in our little valley we got 1.55” (40 mm) of precipitation. Lots of trees got trimmed by the hail, and Chocolate Creek (so named for its color when a fake gold mine above our land used to flood) was roaring for a while. We still have electricity since we make our own. But we hear only a hum on the phone line. More thunderstorms are predicted for today.

An hour of violence

Last night between midnight and 1AM we experienced almost constant lightning, at least 200 to 300 flashes per minute. Around 12:30 the wind started and built up to a crescendo making us get up and close windows. Trees were shedding leaves which were swirling around and hitting the house, along with small twigs. Then the banging started! No tree has enough falling twigs to make the noise we heard—it was hail! I opened the front door to see hail stones bouncing across the front porch, stones that were the size of nickels. The noise was deafening! Thunder was a constant roar and the incessant crashing of hail stones made for a time when conversation was impossible without shouting. I turned on a radio to an AM station and heard what sounded like frying bacon, with loud pops accompanying a steady background sizzle.

I know, I know, you’ve either experienced or heard about storms that produced baseball-size hail, or lightning that was constant, making the night look like arc-light daytime, but that’s Texas stuff. Here in central California we usually get silky zephyrs, sweet honey-drizzle-gentle precipitation and faraway lightning. I doubt that anyone in our valley slept through any of this.

Then around six o’clock it started again, only closer. The lightning strikes were fewer, but they were flash-boom close. We have hundreds of feet of buried pipes here, for water, gas and electricity, and they were acting like a huge antenna bringing even farther-away strikes up close and personal. When this storm is over, I am going to take apart an electrical outlet in the bedroom that snapped loudly at each lightning strike. Its ground wire must be loose. It was like having a cap pistol (remember those?) snapping only a few feet away with every flash of lightning.

When the sun is up, I will take some pictures of all the tree parts now on the ground. Stay tuned.