Tuesday, November 30


To enlarge this picture, click on it. It’s a supercell thunderstorm in Montana. Unbelievable weirdness, almost like it’s on another, even imaginary, planet. Once again, it comes from good old Astronomy Picture of the Day, one of my go-to-first sites that I check daily.

UPDATE! Go here for much much more on this astonishing storm!

A Supercell Thunderstorm Cloud Over Montana
Credit & Copyright: Sean R. Heavey

Monday, November 29

Corn chowder and cat diet observation

Today it was cold, not a nice day to be outside for too long. Time to fire up the wood-burning stove and dream up something to cook slowly in a big pot. From last summer’s leftovers from the high ranch we had food that languished in the back freezer. Like a slab of thick-cut bacon. Premium stuff. In the fridge was a package with six pieces of corn on the cob. It didn’t take too much imagination to decide to make corn chowder, the perfect chilly-day meal.

I cooked the bacon on the wood stove to perfection. Then I sliced the corn from the cobs. Some of it popped off and landed on the floor. When food-like things hit the floor, Boots the cat pays attention. She glommed onto the raw corn bits as if she were starved! A veggie cat? Cats are strict carnivores, I thought, but then I remembered that Boots has also eaten bits of onion, potato, and even broccoli (kidding!). Earlier today I spotted Florence, Boots’ sister, eating fresh shoots of grass outside.

Am I to toss out the “knowledge” I have about cats’ diets? What if I related my personal observation to someone and had no way to back it up, authority-wise? Would I be dismissed as a mere anecdotal observer?

Cats are strict carnivores, period. I must be wrong. Forget what I said. Whew! Safe in the lap of established scientific dogma, I can sleep tonight.

Boots is wrong.

Stupid cat.

Sunday, November 28

’Nuff said

Some really nice pictures from Furnace Creek in Death Valley Nat’l Park, where it can get cold, too.

Friday, November 26

Why work doesn’t happen “at work”

This is a very provocative video from the good folks at TED. The speaker, Jason Fried, makes the case that most workplaces are antithetical to what’s supposed to be happening, namely, work. Highly recommended for showing at the next meeting at the office. Just make sure the manager is not in the room or there will never again be a video shown at a meeting if he/she has anything to do with it.

Fried’s premise is that truly valuable work can take place only if there aren’t a lot of interruptions. Interruptions happen in formal workplaces far more often than they do at home or away from “work.” So work at home. He answers the objections made by managers that work at home is interrupted too often, and that workers won’t have the discipline to use their time well. He calls the two things that are most destructive to real work the M&Ms: Managers and Meetings.

In our own experience, in the past 30 years at our business, we had exactly two meetings of the staff. Nothing came of either meeting.

Wednesday, November 24


Imagine being a creature that lives outside of a warm house all the time. It’s not my cuppa, for sure.

To some people, this kind of stuff is very attractive.

To me, it’s nice in a photograph, but it stinks in real life. When it gets frosty and icy, I steel myself to grab a camera and dash outside and take several snapshots as fast as possible. Then I dash back indoors and fiddle with the exposure and composition and try to reduce the shaking-hands blurriness.

The weather report on the radio this morning called our current weather “February-like,” and I totally agree. Below freezing and it’s only late November! This year we went from summer to spring, then winter. What happened to autumn? Must be global warming, or, as I like to call it, warble gloaming.

Aurora over Norway

On this morning’s APOD, we get to watch a near-three-minute time-lapse video of auroras over Tromsø, Norway. I’ve never seen an aurora, living at a too-low latitude all my life, though Karla once saw one while at the high ranch one summer. So I’ve never seen the speed of movement. You folks who have seen auroras: How fast do they shift and shimmer?

Image Credit & Copyright: Tor Even Mathisen; Music: Per Wollen; Vocals: Silje Beate Nilssen

Monday, November 22

Wikipedia fund drive

Answering the call of their annual fund drive, I sent my contribution to the Wikimedia Foundation tonight. I use the Wikipedia site almost daily for confirmation of something I thought I already knew, or to learn something I’m curious about. It’s a remarkable resource for us all and it’s free. Not always accurate, especially since anybody can edit any entry except for a very few that are protected—mostly the ones regarding famous personalities. Who, for example, would intentionally mess with articles about the making of shoelaces, toothpicks or Post-It notes? Aircraft carriers? Maybe.

Sunday, November 21

Close enough

The weather prediction was correct. It was snowing at the house by 7:00 this morning, and had been snowing up the hill a bit during the night. None of the snow stuck around by the house, though. Good. Up the hill is close enough.

Total moisture from the two-day storm is 1.82 inches, 46 millimeters. It was a gentle rainfall and most of it seems to have soaked in rather than running down the creeks. Storms like these keep the grass growing and the horses fat.

Saturday, November 20

Living room education

Last night we watched some fascinating television. With our limited choice of only 150 or so channels (we have the mid-level Dish Network offering), Karla managed to find one that showed how things are made. We spent almost two hours watching how ratchet wrenches, soda crackers, handmade paper, pole-vaulting poles, artificial Christmas trees, and motorcycle engines are made.

Inspired with the plethora of knowledge potentially available right here in our living room in High Definition, I’m hoping that tonight’s enlightenment will include how shoelaces, toothpicks and Post-It notes are made. If they toss in aircraft carriers, well, that’s a bonus.

Friday, November 19

Yucky forecast

It’s starting to look wintry around here. Look at that awful Sunday forecast. Yuck. Today we split a whole truckful of pine so we’ll be warm, but still—yuck.

The Knife Drawer

In our kitchen we have this awful thing we call “The Knife Drawer.” It holds all kinds of utensils. Oftentimes when I try to find one of the items, there is such a confusing mess I have to dig around to find it. A couple of days ago, I was looking for the melon baller and had a hard time finding it. I suggested to Karla that we should buy one that has a bright red handle so it would be easy to find. She agreed. Then I suggested that if it worked for the melon baller, we should buy all new utensils with bright red handles.

She thinks I’m an idiot.

Wednesday, November 17

“Look how big…

…Ben is getting!” is the subject line in an email from Hilary. It’s so simple to get pictures like this—you simply hold the subject in front of the computer screen, watch for a reaction to seeing himself which is usually a smile, then email the image. All of life should be so simple.

Tuesday, November 16

A good cable car article

I ran across a very well done article with accompanying photos about San Francisco’s cable car system, the only one remaining in the world. Twenty-four photos and a fascinating movie taken from the front of a cable car heading down Market Street toward the Ferry Building not too long before the 1906 earthquake.

Don’t click on the movie featured in the article though; go here instead for a much better version presented by the SFFilmMuseum. At the 7:35 point in the film, check out the wheels on the old heavy wagon to the right of the frame. I wonder if they fell off by the time the movie ended!

San Francisco is a very pedestrian-packed city today. The difference is that back then there were apparently no crosswalks and definitely no traffic signals. Horse-drawn wagons and buggies, cars, streetcars, and mobs of people are simply going every which way in this film. Even in 1906, there were tourists—one of the long streetcars crossing in front of the cable car is labeled SIGHT SEEING CAR. Very worthwhile.

Here is a more modern version of the same trip from 2005. In a hundred years, it will be as fascinating as the 1906 version.

As a side note, restoring a film made in 1906 is not simply a matter of removing dust and scratches. If you’ll look closely, the image seems to shimmer as if you’re looking at it through moving water. That is because film a hundred years ago was made of nitrate, a very flammable material related to the main ingredient of dynamite. It was very sensitive to its environment, and would shrink and stretch and respond to changes in temperature and humidity. The emulsion that held the light-sensitive silver nitrate onto the film was made of gelatin, the same stuff you eat in Jell-O: rendered bones and hooves (What? Your mom didn’t tell you that?). Many years ago at the high ranch I had a long discussion with Frank Thomas, Walt Disney’s head of animation, who was a guest along with his family. He explained how difficult it was to re-film old animation from the late 1930s. The “cells” were drawn and painted on a similar material: cellulose acetate. He said that after a few decades the cells would shrink and stretch and do all kinds of things; they wouldn’t fit on the registration pins anymore. I suggested that he talk to their suppliers and switch to polyester, the very stable film base we had just started using in the commercial printing business, which I had just departed to work at the resort ranch (and marry Karla). “You’d have to bang heads,” he replied, implying that the people at Disney were locked into doing things “the old way.”

Credit: CNET News

Saturday, November 13

More barn roof

Yesterday and today were days in which more things seemed to happen to get the job done.

Plumb, level, square. Note the plumb bob right exactly on top of the hold-down bolt on the pillar-to-be that will hold up the roof overhang support posts.

Loren, middle, says “Here’s how the pros do it Tom” as his helper, Eddie, looks on.

Eddie says “Get your last look at the sky from there,” before the metal roof sheets go on.

Detail work took a lot of time on this project. Here is some of it.

The view from up the hill showing the lower part of the roof sheathed in metal. Karla and I will pour more concrete tomorrow, finishing off the support pillars for the remainder of the roof. Loren and Eddie will return in December for more rafters, cross supports, and the last 20 or so feet (6 meters) of metal roofing.

Photos (most of them): Karla Hurley

Thursday, November 11

Roof extends eastward

The past few days have not been blogworthy, visually speaking. Mostly details, tweaking and tiny stuff. Today more dramatic progress was made as the eastward roof overhang was pushed out on temporary supports. Tomorrow we’ll pour the concrete piers for permanent supports. Earlier this morning I finished welding the reinforcing steel and hold-down bolts together (after Karla and I spent about an hour fixing the wire-feed welder!) for said supports.

Another view of the eastward roof and the reason to have an eastward roof: the ranch’s luggage/garbage boat pictured to the left. Yesterday Karla and I picked the boat up from the manufacturer where it had been for several weeks getting its keel reinforced (for the last twenty years it had been driven up onto too many granite shores at the lake and was nearly worn through) and its deck replaced with a gorgeous new deck. We plan to park the fast passenger ferry (at the left in the top picture) between the two trailers, and the luggage boat under the extended roof. Finally—we are treating them both with the respect they deserve during their winter storage! The big ferry boat has its own building at the lake where it’s kept during the winter. Lucky boat.

Friday, November 5

Delivery of more stuff

A pallet-load of concrete is placed in our “barn” for use tomorrow (if it doesn’t rain, that is). That was the first load to come off a truck driven up from Loew’s in Fresno with some of the essential parts for our new barn compound.

Next, a thick stack of steel roofing is offloaded. The fork lift truck is so amazingly maneuverable—all the wheels are powered, the back wheel is the main steering wheel, but the front wheels can be turned 90° so it can crawl sideways like a crab.

It seems unbelievable that a truck this long (28', 8.5 meters wheelbase) can get to our place, what with the tight curves and narrow gates on the road.

The delivery driver, Dennis, turns out to be an old acquaintance, the husband of the owner of The Horse Connection in Smallville.

We followed the truck out, noting that the nastiest curve/gate/bad deep gutter place on the road makes even the pro drivers have to back up and re-try getting through. This is a place that begs for a combination of culvert, ditch-fill and gate widening in order to get through. We’ll have to get ahold of the creator of the fence in that place, an absentee owner who only occasionally flies his plane up from southern California to shoot guns and play safari hunter. Dennis made it through with only one backup maneuver.

Tomorrow we’ll be lifting some of the roofing up to Loren to lay out on the rafters. Rain is predicted for the weekend, so we aren’t sure how much work will get done. Stay tuned.

Thursday, November 4

More on new barns

Today we put up the first half of the rafters for the roof that will cover the new trailer bodies and extend up the hill for a boat shelter. The trailers are far enough apart that we can park the 22-foot aluminum ferry boat between. Up the hill we will extend the roof to shelter the smaller “luggage boat” to protect it from sun and rain. The all-steel 29-foot boat stays up at the lake (thankfully!) since it would now be impossible to get it out from there, what with the Forest Service road having deteriorated so badly since the boat was first taken up over forty years ago. Even back then it was difficult, requiring anchoring parts of the trailer to large boulders along the road with winches in order to get it around tight corners.

We dug four holes for piers to support the overhanging roof for the luggage boat.

One of the holes was dug through almost pure red clay. The others were dug through mostly rock with red clay as binder to make it difficult.

Karla and I handled rearranging lots of the rocks that were unearthed during the making of the “flat place” (ha!). Without the addition of nine yards (12,700 pounds) of gravel, we would have ended up with an unworkable gooey red clay place for the trailer bodies. The gravel was of local origin, known as Sierra White from the Raymond Granite quarry about 15 miles from here. It is so much better than the crushed river rock that has been the standard for gravel around here for decades. Besides it’s the same rock used for the steps to the US Mint in San Francisco, most of SF’s old-town curbstones, the ancient city of Atlantis and 30% of the Moon. Kinda makes you feel good to walk on such hallowed rock.

Wednesday, November 3


For decades these two wheels from a mining cart have been lying around outside the house. Kinda neat, but more than they appear to be. To see them only as rusty cast iron relics from a distant past would be to short-change their true calling. If you strike them with a hard object they produce two different tones: Ding dong, a perfect third in the key of A flat, two octaves above middle C. Think of the first two notes of the spiritual, “Swing low, sweet Chariot” and you’ll know what I’m saying.

Also, think the two notes of nearly every doorbell chime in America.

Voila! These two old pieces of metal will become the doorbell in our new house. Now that’s repurposing!

Musical illustration from Wikipedia

Tuesday, November 2


Click on the photo for detail

This morning I was fascinated to see the Astronomy Picture of the Day showing what are called spicules on the sun. They are pipes of hot gas, as long as the earth is wide and as big around as a whole state (Rhode Island? Texas? They didn’t say.)

Wet hair on Geronimo, The World’s Greatest Horse

Drawing by Vincent van Gogh after his painting, The Starry Night

The solar photo reminded me of a picture I took of Geronimo’s hair after a rainstorm, and a drawing Vincent van Gogh made from his painting, The Starry Night. Click on the photo of the sun to enlarge it, then click again on the enlargement to make it even bigger. But don’t overdo it; you could eventually make it life-size, fall into one of the pipes, and be consumed by the hot gas.

Spicules: Jets on the Sun, Astronomy Picture of the Day;
Credit: K. Reardon (Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri, INAF) IBIS, DST, NSO.
Van Gogh drawing: Wikipedia

Monday, November 1

When do I get to be known as me?

As Hilary grew up and started impressing people with her remarkable drawings and sculptures, I was relegated to being called “Hilary’s dad.” Now Benjamin is charming the people of Furnace Creek in Death Valley and turning his mom into, not Hilary, but “Ben’s mom.”

Hilary’s dad; Ben’s mom. Hm-m. The cycle repeats.

Scary bear

Hilary sent this picture of Luke and Benjamin with the caption, “We found a scary little bear in the desert!” Happy dad, fascinated kid, and Great Pumpkin! Who could ask for more?

But I digress…

It’s odd how the mind works, especially when it’s slowly rotting. Karla and I spent part of the day finishing the splitting of a big heap of pine tree rounds down near our new house site. In a couple of hours we were done, and decided to mosey over to the site where our new house is to be built. We parked between the dining room and entry and enjoyed the panoramic sweep of the surrounding mountains and valley below. A never-ending breeze rose from the place we call Solar Hill. I turned on the satellite radio to some gentle jazz. I changed the channel to a bit of Tchaikovsky then mentioned that we could even listen to some old time radio. The Shadow was playing, an episode from May, 1940. As we listened to the fanciful story, we kept seeing a water boatman, an insect you would normally find jerkily darting about in a pond. It was flying onto the hood and beating against the windshield! Occasionally it would fly through the side window, land in my lap, and I would toss it outside again. It was single-mindedly insistent at trying to land on the hood when I suddenly realized what it was doing—the car is blue and shiny, like a pond. Same for the windshield, reflecting a clear blue sky. The boatman was trying to dive in to take a swim!

When the episode of The Shadow ended, we drove back to the existing house. We had left a pot of stew meat on the wood-burning heating stove and we needed to get back before it dried up. On the way I remembered that The Shadow, when I was a kid, was introduced by an announcer who said something to the effect that it was “brought to you by Roma Winery, the World’s Largest Winery, Fresno, California.” I remembered accompanying my father on a visit to that winery in the south part of town when he was proposing the sale of a fire alarm system to protect the huge place. We walked along catwalks over enormous vats of fermenting grapes. I almost gagged thinking that if I ever got old enough to drink wine, I probably wouldn’t because of memories of that powerful stench.

Then that reminded me of my very first paying job, at thirteen years of age, working for a neighbor who had a ranch with 20,000 turkeys. The neighbor’s house was an actual 1880s stage stop on the trail from the San Joaquin Valley to Yosemite. The ranch was a perfect location for raising turkeys since it was gently-rolling land with an amazing abundance of spring water. I experienced first-hand the antics of penned-in birds that seemed to be brainless, crowding against fences if a low-flying airplane scared them which suffocated the bottom-most birds; forming circles and gawking at a hapless snake that slithered into their midst, piling on top of each other and suffocating the bottom-most birds; hiding under the feed trailer and getting the soft spots on the backs of their heads bonked by the axle housing when the tractor started moving, then flopping about and dying; being culled because of “drop crop,” a condition where the outlet of the gullet is blocked and fills with food as the turkey starves—those birds had to be euthanized. I really hated even the thought of turkey meat and vowed that it would be right there on the list with stinky wine as something never to be consumed by me.

John, the turkey-raising neighbor, is a classically-trained pianist. Eventually he sold the ranch and with his wife, Donna, bought a motel on the Pacific Ocean side of San Francisco. When I was attending the Navy’s electronics school in the bay, I enjoyed taking the old green-and-cream-colored streetcar to the end of the line to visit them at their motel. I noticed that big black cars with really thuggish-looking men kept coming and going. They were caricatures of Mafiosi—dark glasses, black shirts and white ties. My friends told me they were part of the Mickey Cohen gang; Mickey himself was a permanent resident at their motel!

Later John and Donna bought other hostelries and became tourist guides to The City’s hot spots, eventually adding to their acquisitions the aging Zellerbach yacht, a wooden hole in the water into which they poured money. John charmed guests with his piano artistry as they cruised the bay. I hope they’re doing well.

Now…where was I? Oh, yeah, looking for a recipe for turkey breast poached in wine.…

Photo: Water boatman, Wikipedia