Wednesday, March 30

Snow! Annihilation! Sickness! Stupidity!

This morning I heard on the radio that the Sierra got over 60 feet(!) of snow this season. (For the rest of the world outside the US and Borneo, that’s over 18 meters.) It’s the second-highest snowfall in recorded history, and it’s likely that a mobile-home park for elderly people located in the San Joaquin river bottom north of Fresno will finally get annihilated. It is close to criminal that any county planning commission could approve such a stupid use of land, but, well, Fresno sets lots of records for worsts.

Just to the north of Fresno County is Madera County, where we live in our off-season. On this morning’s news I heard that it has been declared the unhealthiest county in California. I don’t know how much credibility I should give the radio station, though. One of the reporters has been saying all week that the water being released into the river from Friant Dam is flowing at the rate of “7500 cubic square feet.” The correct term is “cubic feet per second.” Nobody at the station has corrected her after three days so far. They’re probably not listening.

The rest of the country must think the core of Central California is full of the dumbest, laziest, sickest, fattest, worthless-est people in the whole state, or maybe the whole nation. Oh well, on the positive side we provide material for the jokes told by late-night television talk show hosts.

Tuesday, March 29

A bloomin’ good day

Hilary sent some iPhone pictures she took of Ben in a field of flowers they found on their way back to Death Valley. Amazing how a desert can bloom so suddenly.

Outside our kitchen window is a large apricot tree. It was planted maybe 30 years ago, and every year it fills with the most brilliant blossoms. Unfortunately, there are no other apricot trees within flying range of the average honeybee, so we get maybe six apricots a year if we’re lucky. If we got another apricot tree, we’re told, we’d get tons of apricots from the big one. Worth considering, but then it’s a whole ’nother tree to irrigate through the hot summers.

I’ll think about it.

Sunday, March 27

Five days of bliss

We were visited for the last five days by Ben. He brought along his mom, since she is the one who knows best what he wants to eat. She’s also pretty good at diaper changes.

It rained every day they were here, except the first and last days. We were enjoying their company so much we kinda forgot to take tons of pictures, so the one accompanying this post is going to have to do for now.

Thursday, March 24

Mathematically enabled arachnid?

We two-leggers (humans) invent all kinds of explanations for natural phenomena. But some of our eight-legger buddies skip the math and just do their thing. A good example is this cobweb that I felt I should photograph before annihilating it in order to maintain a nice clean house (the web had been abandoned, so no spider was made homeless by my crass act). Its shape is intriguing; it resembles an inverted elliptic paraboloid, also known as a paraboloid of revolution.

The spider probably just calls it a dining room. Either way, it’s a fascinating shape. If it were two-dimensional, it resembles an inverted catenary arch, the shape a chain makes when suspended from its two ends and allowed to hang free. It turns out that a catenary is only superficially similar to a paraboloid, but you sure could have fooled me.

I wish the spider web were saddle-shaped, because that’s called a hyperbolic paraboloid. I love that term. Think the shape of a Pringles™ potato chip. Just eating them boosts your mathematical abilities I’m sure, and for sure your daily intake of sodium.

Picture credits: The cobweb is mine, the other two are from Wikimedia Commons

Saturday, March 19

Welcome to spring!

It’s still March, and I guess we need April showers to bring May flowers, but this is ridiculous! I thought La Niña was going to mean we were in drought conditions, but it’s become an El Niño year instead. Rainfall and snowfall have surpassed normal so far this year (it snowed during the night here in the foothills!).

We got word that the high mountain reservoirs, including Florence Lake, will be held near-full for the entire season since the Edison Company is still working on Shaver Lake dam and they want to keep that lake empty in order to get clear to the bottom of the dam’s face with their waterproofing project. That’s both good and bad news for us; good in that we can have our docks kept close to the store and trail ends of the lake, and bad that the nearby Jackass Meadow Campground will probably be closed because water will be going over the Florence dam’s spillway. If the Forest Service had listened to the locals and put the campground on higher ground, people could have a nice camping experience from spring to fall. But important decisions and plans are made in Washington, D.C. and those high mucky-mucks don’t listen to us rubes in the boonies. Oh well.

Thursday, March 17

Home remedy

Today I was outside walking past some really tall stinging nettle plants. I brushed the back of my hand against one and knew I would soon feel the sting. I wasn’t sure if I could find some spray-on sting-stopping stuff we usually have in the bathroom cabinet and decided instead to invent a home remedy.

I had no idea where to start as I opened the kitchen cabinet and poked around. Let’s try some bicarbonate of soda. I wet the stinging area and sprinkled on some baking soda. Nope. Maybe I should try the opposite, some acidic thing. Vinegar produced the same non-relief. Well let’s try oil. Even extra-virgin olive oil had no effect. Ketchup? Nope. Same for prepared mustard. Well now, it’s time to get really creative. How about salt from the sea harvested by barefoot Frenchmen—fleur de sel. Surely something that costs so much would have magical powers. Nope. I licked that off the sting so as not to waste it. Tasty!

Maybe there’s something magic in the fridge. A leaf of bok choy? A carrot? Some three-day old creamed chicken on egg noodles? Hmm-m. This is getting ridiculous. Mayonnaise? Lemon sorbet? Ice? None worked.

Back to the kitchen cabinet. Worcester sauce doesn’t work either, and I decided against opening a new jar of chunky peanut butter. Okay, I give up. Oh, by the way, I just noticed that the stinging has subsided. Which of these remedies was the one that worked or was it the combination? I looked at the clock. I had been trying all these things for about fifteen minutes; was it time instead that did the trick? I’d better write that down so I don’t mis-remember and later think the magic remedy was—Thyme.

Tuesday, March 15

Leapin’ Lupine!

Spring has sprung
The grass has riz
I wonder where
The birdies is?

My favorite kind of plants in the foothills are the ones that take care of themselves. I don’t have to worry about covering them when it’s going to freeze, and I don’t have to water them during a heat spell. They’re kind of like rats; survivors regardless of circumstance.

This bush lupine is one I have trimmed every year in order to keep it off the ground high enough so that when the inevitable wildfire comes roaring through it may avoid catching fire. I’ve given the same care to some others, one of which is at least twice the height of a horse (one-and-a-half times the length of a horse; six times the length of the biggest rattlesnake we’ve seen in three decades; forty-seven times the…). Many of the other plants are a dime a dozen; there’s so much yerba santa and horehound they don’t merit care. If an acre or so of them perishes, so what. They’ll be back.

But bush lupines are so special they deserve to get huge.

Monday, March 14

Get over it—it’s ALL subsidized

Debate rages over the prospect of high-speed rail transportation in the US. It isn’t happening yet, and many politicians are working hard to make sure it doesn’t. Why? Because it’s SUBSIDIZED by GOVERNMENT. It’s being SHOVED DOWN OUR THROATS by those who want a FREE RIDE on EVERYBODY ELSE’S MONEY!! Just like those leftist socialist Europeans!!

Well, guess what—I contend that all means of travel in this country are subsidized. As a matter of fact, public transit all over the world is subsidized!

Let’s start with airlines. They navigate by GPS, a subsidized system of satellites built originally for military purposes, but now essential to nearly everyone who travels. Aircraft navigation aids dot the landscape all over the country. The entire air traffic control system with its thousands of radars and approach controls and humans staring at radar screens is subsidized; it’s not directly paid for by either airlines or passengers or private non-commercial pilots. Free subsidized weather information is fed into the air traffic system with a degree of detail unknown to the weather clown on your evening TV news broadcast. Here in the San Joaquin Valley to get airline service to a smaller city like Visalia or Merced, the servicing airlines are subsidized up to half a million dollars a year.

Next, highways: The 40,000-plus-mile Interstate Highway System was initiated during the Eisenhower administration of the 1950s after the president was impressed by the defense-enhancing capabilities of Germany’s Autobahn. In Eisenhower’s proposed highway system the overpasses had to be high enough off the roadway to allow a truck carrying a Redstone missile to clear, an essential national defense requirement. Federal subsidies keep the system maintained and expanded even now.

Rail: Amtrak is subsidized, as are the freight railroads. The expensive-to-build tracks were made possible by the government giving the railroads an entire square mile of land along each mile of track in order to entice them to make the huge investment to connect the entire country by rail. Where roads cross railroad tracks, the expense of building and maintenance is subsidized by the city, county or state, not the railroad companies.

Buses: In addition to passenger fares, bus service lines from cities like Fresno and Merced to Yosemite National Park get a subsidy to provide the service. Every city’s streetcars and buses and light rail are subsidized.

(When I was a kid living in Fresno, I could travel anywhere on the bus for a silver dime which is now worth about $2.50. Today a bus ride costs about a dollar even though the city is probably ten times bigger. The subsidy has obviously gone up.)

Cars: We have roads that are paid for by state and local government so we can get around in our cars. Fuel taxes and license and registration fees come nowhere close to covering the amount needed to maintain the roads.

Bicycles: There are subsidized bike lanes along the roads and even off the roads, sometimes getting exclusive use of abandoned railroad rights of way. Bike stands in shopping areas and parks are subsidized, not paid for directly by users.

Pedestrians: We all walk on subsidized sidewalks, and are helped to get across busy intersections by painted pedestrian lanes and subsidized pedestrian traffic signals.

So what’s the big beef about High Speed Rail? Some critics say “Nobody will ride it.” Here in the central valley of California, the Amtrak San Joaquin line is the fifth busiest in the United States. Whenever Karla and I have taken any of the five trains a day to San Francisco it is busy, and between many stops very crowded.

Today I checked the round trip airline price from Fresno to San Francisco. $592 to $612, requiring a plane change and layover in Las Vegas, and taking an average of four to six hours each way. Passengers must get to the airport a couple of hours before the flight. Prepare to have your body examined and don’t take too much stuff or you pay even more for the privilege. If you park your car at the airport there’s additional cost (not cheap!). When you “get to San Francisco” (Burlingame, actually) you’re still a very long way from your destination since airports just don’t fit inside cities. You can take a cab, an “airport limo,” or ride on a subsidized BART train to complete your journey. At extra cost of course.

Today’s Amtrak price from Fresno’s downtown right to the doorstep of the Moscone Center in San Francisco (or the Embarcadero, Union Square, or Fisherman’s Wharf)—$63 round trip ‘cause I’m a geezer and get eleven bucks off the regular adult ticket price. Parking at the Amtrak station is free. The trip time is between four and five hours and I don’t have to change trains, just get on a nice Amtrak bus to cross the Bay Bridge (which is part of the price anyway—and the view is wonderful). While on the train I might choose to sit in a wide comfortable seat at a big table so I can use my computer. There’s an electrical outlet at every row of seats on both sides of the car. Plenty of overhead storage space and a big area on the lower deck for bulkier luggage costs nothing extra. The lounge car has café tables and chairs and a galley that can serve anything from a pastry and a cup of coffee (refills free!) clear up to a whole, pretty good-tasting meal at decent prices. I’ve never encountered a line at the restrooms on a train. (On a plane, it seems the first thing that happens when the seat belt light goes off is a big rush for the restrooms, probably because passengers have been jammed bolt-upright in narrow no-legroom ten-across seats for an hour or more.) Walking to the lounge is only a dream on a plane. Walking around on a plane is itself regarded as suspicious behavior. Taking a short- to medium-distance flight is generally not a desirable experience when compared to a train, especially when you feel how much lighter your wallet is.

Oh, and one more thing you can do on a train but not on a plane—if there’s a shrieking kid in the seat behind you, you can simply pluck your destination tag from the overhead clip and move to a whole ’nother rail car!

The high-speed train is expected to go 220 miles per hour. Amtrak zips along now at 85. Plans call for the tracks through Fresno to follow an existing railroad right-of-way but with a major difference—they’ll be 60 feet in the air for several miles. That’s as close as it gets to flying.

Compared to airplanes, electric-powered trains produce 30 to 60 percent less carbon emissions, depending on source of fuel. (If powered by love, good intentions and solar/wind/geothermal/cosmic pixie dust, it’s 100% less!)

There are recent proposals that the two federal mortgage agencies, Fannie May and Freddie Mac be shut down. They are the biggest holders of 30-year fixed-rate (subsidized) mortgages. Banks hate 30-year mortgages and loathe fixed rates. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle suggested that if fixed-rate-30s go away it will simply be too expensive to live in the city unless you’re wealthy (or homeless). How will middle-class expatriate citizens commute to work on the Bay Area’s already-jammed-beyond-capacity transportation systems? With high-speed rail, their options increase exponentially.

One valley congressman is suggesting that the federal money proposed for high speed rail be allocated instead to upgrading State Route 99 through the San Joaquin Valley. He would like to see it become Interstate 99. (Fresno is the nation’s largest city not served by an Interstate highway.) He is facing at least two big expensive problems: 99’s shoulders are too narrow, and the majority of the overpasses are too low to meet Interstate standards.

Toughest of all—he’s gotta make room for those (subsidized) Redstone missiles.

Subsidization disclosure: This blog doesn’t cost me a cent. It is subsidized by Google.

Thursday, March 10

Ben’s friend/trampoline/dog

Hi. My name’s Ben and this is my friend slash trampoline slash dog, Bella.

She lets me do all kinds of things like crawl over her whole body.

And she never gets angry even when I kick her in the stomach really hard, right Bella?

Thanks for the workout.

Now, did you hear the one about the priest, the rabbi, and the pastor who walk into a bar.…

Tuesday, March 8


From a nice hot spring-fed swimming pool at the Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley to the cold snowy slopes of the Sierra, Ben is getting a taste of the variety available in a relatively short distance here in California.

Reflecting his grandfather’s tastes (that’s me), he loved the warm water, but Hilary says he cried when placed in the snow. Way to go, Ben! You’re on the right track.

Thursday, March 3

An Amazing Support Experience

I have used Apple products for most of my computing years, and have always liked how they work (except for the first one, back in the pre-Steve-Jobs-returns days. I joked that by the time the computer was finally working right, the only thing that hadn’t been replaced was the paint).

I had a problem feeding my Sirius satellite radio receiver’s sound output into my computer so I could listen with the computer’s speakers. I logged into Apple support's Express Lane and clicked a few buttons roughly describing the problem. I entered my email address and password. Up popped the three Apple products of mine that are still under warranty—a desktop, a laptop and my iPhone.

I clicked on the iMac I needed help with. Then I was faced with three ways to contact a support person. I clicked the Call Me Now button and in less than 30 seconds the phone rang and the support guy was right there! I hadn’t even given them my phone number!

What other company on earth offers such a quick seamless well-thought-out help system? No wonder we keep buying their stuff!

(By the way, the support guy was from the United States of America and spoke just like regular folks.)