Monday, October 31

How to make it rain

This is one of the oldest tricks in the book, but when you need rain you’ll try anything. It’s been awhile since it rained and the grasses and forbs shot up and it looked lush. Now they’re looking pretty tired and the outlook is bleak. But the old trick should work, I told Karla—let’s put the top down and leave the Bentley out of the garage.


Ghostly spooks are watching you from out there in the constellation Cepheus. Happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 29

Our brush with fame

For a few weeks we have been listening to the radio station in Fresno that has a feature called Valley Legends and Legacies, short stories that are played a couple of times a day during their news hours. The stories are repeated several times over a period of more than a week. For a couple of weeks we heard about Frank Thomas, Walt Disney’s lead animator and native of Fresno. In one of the stories it was mentioned that he along with his wife and children spent two weeks every summer at the Diamond D Ranch, later to become the Muir Trail Ranch. He studied the movements of wild animals, later using his observations in his animations, including Bambi. (Karla and I visited him once at his home in Flintridge after he retired from Disney. In his studio, we were especially drawn to the marvelously lifelike wooden puppet, Pinocchio, that he used to model his drawings for the movie.)
We received a phone call from the Legends author, Catherine Rehart, who has been writing about the history of Central California for several decades. Cathy wanted to chronicle the history of the Sierra in the Huntington Lake area and its surroundings, and was planning to include the Muir Trail Ranch and its history. We referred her to Ed Selleck, the biographer who had interviewed Karla’s mother, Adeline. He would have a more comprehensive viewpoint since he was documenting the history of a larger area of the Sierra for the Central Sierra Historical Society.
Cathy’s stories are compiled and published as books, but first they’re produced and presented by Fresno’s KMJ Radio. A few weeks ago we started hearing her stories about Andy Ferguson, Karla’s great-grandfather, and his role in planting the Golden trout throughout the Sierra. Next came Andy’s son, Edgar Smith, Fresno County’s engineer who was responsible for planning and building the Tollhouse Grade, a road that at the time was considered impossible to build. Then the stories moved to Edgar’s son, Karl Smith, who graduated from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and whose trombone skills gained him a close friendship with jazz musician Al Hirt.
In the summer of 1947, Karl’s wife Adeline drove him and his friend Sam Peckinpah, later to become a famous movie director (The Wild Bunch), to the east side of the Sierra so they could start a hike over the crest. During their hike they came across the remnants of a plane crash, and Sam cut his hand rather badly on the wreckage. They had to find a way out of the mountains in a hurry, and after checking their map decided to drop out at Florence Lake. The trail led them through the Diamond D ranch. Karl got acquainted with the ranch’s owner, Jack Ducey, who gave him a tour of the ranch.
Karl fell in love with and wanted to buy the ranch to balance his “other life” as a musician and librarian with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, but the ranch wasn’t for sale. So he and Adeline bought the nearby Florence Lake Resort from its owner, Dick Morrison, who had diabetes and was going blind. Sam Peckinpah and his wife, Marie, helped them run the lake operation in their first year of ownership.
Meanwhile, Jack Ducey sold the ranch to Nate and Pansy Combs who five years later sold it to Karl and Adeline. When Karl died, followed thirty years later by Adeline’s passing, Karla and I ended up running the ranch.
Cathy spread the family’s history over several episodes. Nothing grand and historic has happened under Karla’s and my ownership; we are simply mentioned in the conclusion to the story.
You might ask what it feels like to be part of an interesting story, even if our role is only seen as being the period at the end of the last sentence. Fifteen seconds of fame? Maybe in thirty or forty years we’ll be recognized as titans of industry, at least that which involves service to backpackers on the John Muir Trail.

Friday, October 28


Those who have followed this blog know that I live amongst horses. This story doesn’t involve horses, but cows.

When I was about 18 years old, I had been working at a television station in Fresno for roughly a year. During one summer the station’s owner, a well-known cattle and cotton baron in the San Joaquin Valley, sent his grandson to the station to get some work experience. The kid was about my age, and we connected immediately. Since we were both unpredictable (even though I was dedicated to being responsible), we decided that the TV station’s elaborate chemistry set was way underutilized. I have no idea why a TV station had such a thing as a chemistry set, but that’s irrelevant. We read up on rockets, and decided to make one. We wrapped several layers of newspaper around a broomstick and secured it with masking tape. That made a sturdy and lightweight rocket body. We slipped the tube off and attached an aluminum foil nose cone.

The chemistry set provided all the necessary ingredients to make, essentially, gunpowder. We packed the paper tube with our mix, went out behind the studio to its manure pile (remember, the owner of the place had plenty of manure for gardening around the station), then carved a groove in the pile, placed a broken fluorescent light tube in the groove, put our rocket in the tube, and made a fuse out of a long string of crumpled newspaper.

It was early afternoon when we set a match to the fuse and were thrilled to see our rocket shoot out across the empty fields surrounding the TV station. It must have gone a thousand feet! Cool!

We made more rockets that afternoon and adjusted our manure-pile-fluorescent-tube groove to get more elevation. More successful launches only fed our desire to achieve more-spectacular results. As evening approached, we weren’t sure we would be able to see where our rockets were going, so I had the idea that we needed a tracer, something that would illuminate our rocket in flight when it was dark. Aha! Add some powdered magnesium to the mix. Magnesium burns hot and very bright. So our last rocket of the day had its usual gunpowder mix plus magnesium.

It was probably 7 or 8 o’clock when we launched it. Actually, it didn’t launch—it exploded! Turns out that magnesium powder burns really quick, and instead of the steady burn of our gunpowder mix, we had made a bomb. A really loud bomb. The manure pile, our faithful launch pad, was blown to oblivion and within an hour the sheriff was at the TV station, asking if we knew anything about the huge explosion that had the neighborhood in turmoil.

Denial was rampant. The on-duty director of programming pleaded ignorance of even hearing the explosion. The owner’s grandson had driven off in his expensive car, and I was only a low-level kid, obviously innocent.

A few days later the manure pile was replenished by the owner’s ranch hands.

Tuesday, October 25

More magic from an Apple alumnus

Tony Fadell, the engineer who designed the iPod while at Apple, has come up with a terrific innovation, a smart thermostat. His thermostat is different from others because it learns as you use it. It could save a tremendous amount of energy if several million of them go into houses and replace the old dumb thermostats we’ve been using for most of a century. “Smart” thermostats have been around for decades, but people don’t bother to get the Ph.Ds necessary to program them. I am sure other companies, like Honeywell, will try to come up with a competing product, but can they make them simple and gorgeous? Not likely. Mr. Fadell has Apple in his DNA.

Read a good article with a video here, and a more comprehensive one without a video here. Order now and be the first on your block to have one!

Thursday, October 20

Idiocy is cheap

Maybe that’s why there’s so much of it. The City of San Francisco passed a law requiring cellular phone retailers to post warnings about health risks from radiation. That’s about as relevant as warning about the risk of light reflected off the screen at a movie theater. Lumens from a movie screen could be potentially more harmful to human health than the radiation from a cell phone or a bluetooth dongle hanging on someone’s ear.

Radiation causes damage to living cells by ionization. When electrons are torn from the molecules making up DNA, it causes replacement cells to be altered from what they should be. Two things are required to make radiation harmful: Frequency and intensity. The frequencies at which cell phones or bluetooth devices operate are orders of magnitude lower than that required to cause ionization. Intensity, or power, of cell phones or bluetooth devices is millions of times too low to cause even localized heating of flesh. A bluetooth device hanging on your ear, which operates at the same frequency as your microwave oven, is putting out the power equivalent of a gnat compared to a whale.

The Board of Supervisors in San Francisco should be ashamed of their unanimous vote to require the posting of power levels of cellular phones. The city is surrounded by bright people who actually understand radiation—Silicon Valley to the south, UC Berkeley, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Stanford University. People at those places know that it is far more dangerous to lie with your skin exposed to sunlight on the warm sand of a beach than it is to use a cell phone. Ultraviolet light, cosmic rays, and X-rays cause ionization; cellular radio waves don’t. Being at high altitude exposes you to even more radiation from the cosmos. Hiking in the High Sierra exposes a person to radiation from the atomic decay present in granite. (An aside: Are granite countertops contributing to cancer deaths? There’s a whole new regulation pursuit for the Board of Nannies!)

San Francisco’s government is straitjacketed by its perceived mandate to control and manage its citizens’ lives at all cost, with total disregard of scientific evidence. In the supervisors’ minds the citizens must be protected from evil corporations that are so eager to kill all of their customers in their ardent pursuit of profit. The city’s principal source of income, like that of Athens, Greece, is tourism: Keep it attractive and amusing—a playground. The Board of Supervisors should be recruited from Disneyland, not from home-grown despots.

Idiocy is hard to fight. Especially when it has the imprimatur of official decree.

A couple of interesting links:

Wednesday, October 19

What did they expect?

An odd thing happened yesterday when Apple Inc. reported its earnings for the quarter. When the numbers came in lower than “Wall Street expectations,” the stock fell in after-hours trading. In fact, Apple exceeded its own prediction of earnings, but fell short of outsiders’ expectations. Since the company has exceeded outsiders’ expectations for the past 20 or so quarters, but came in below them (for good reason, by the way) this one time, the stock was punished by “the Street.”

What a bunch of bogus nonsense. The actual earnings and profits were the highest ever. The reason for not being as high as “expectations” was that Apple was preparing to introduce a new phone in the following quarter. Potential buyers of a new phone stopped buying the older model and that reduced sales for the reported quarter. This is to be expected—if you know a brand new magical gadget is just around the corner, and you don’t need a new phone right now, you wait to buy the new one which, by the way, set an all-time sales record—Four million units in the first three days worldwide.

But most distressing were the headlines of the articles, all of them implying that Apple was on the skids and everybody had better get out NOW. We are staying in for the long haul. We’re not going to abandon the company we watched pull out of almost certain bankruptcy to grow and become the most valuable company on earth. Our personal stock in Apple has increased in value by about 300%, and our daughter’s cache of shares has gone up over 5,000%.

Not bad for a fading star of a company.

Monday, October 17

Jury duty

Early tomorrow morning Karla heads off to Madera, the county seat, for an appointment with the criminal justice system. Perhaps she’ll end up sitting in the jury box at a trial to decide the fate of a robber, a rapist, a murderer.

The best way to get on a jury is to deny any knowledge of the case, sound like you understand the English language, have no preconceived notions regarding criminal justice, and look like you’re intelligent.

We’ll see if she’s selected to be one of the twelve, out of hundreds of thousands of county residents, who will have the fate of a human soul in her hands.

My experience with being a jury member leaves a sour taste. When my team presented the verdict of guilty of first degree murder, we all wanted to go home and hide under the covers for a week to diminish the guilt we felt for coming to that verdict. None of us felt good about it, and each of us probably blamed our decision on the perceived inviolability of the orders from the judge: If so-and-so is proved, then so-and-so must be the verdict. On reflection, we as a body should have rejected the judge’s instructions and nullified his orders. Problem is, the court system is rigged. Juries are told that the judge is the boss, and his or her instructions are to be followed. You would have to be on a jury at least once previously in order to game the system.

So why have a jury if that’s the case? One thing that is never told to the jury before they go in for deliberation is the instruction to “Vote your conscience.” Probably no judge in the last fifty years has used that phrase, which was routinely spoken a hundred years ago. Had we voted our conscience, the kid we sent to prison would be doing a sentence of a couple of years for bad behavior instead of twenty-five years to life for a really minor part in a crime committed by a dozen youngsters. I’m sure the prosecutor was interested only in enhancing his image of toughness, hoping to advance in the ranks of nasty bastards so he could get a higher-ranking position in the political game he was into.

Shame on me. I won't commit that crime again.

Update: After being held for hours, the prospective jurors were released around 3:00 in the afternoon. Thanks but no thanks.

Sunday, October 16


It’s been more than a whole 24-hour day since I relied on what has to be some powerful Honest-To-God trust. Karla and I had hiked up to check the level in our water tank and to gather a few of the empty Crystalyx drums to return them for the deposit. On the way I spotted a really big puffball, a ground-growing fungus that grows all over the ranch. It was the size of a medium orange, and heavy. I wondered if it was something we could eat, and Karla said “Audrey said yes.” Audrey is our organic/holistic/young friend who studies local Indian lore and has spent time in Alaska counting migrating whales and is heading to Ethiopia in order to teach prenatal care to women. She’s a nutritionist and yoga instructor and is beautiful besides. We trust Audrey.

I took the puffball home. I planned to make it part of a really exciting gourmet breakfast—fresh wild mushroom and eggs. Karla demurred, deciding to have Grape-Nuts cereal instead.

Slicing into the puffball was delightful, its texture firm and smooth like a young banana. The first slice I consumed raw. The rest was cut into rounds and sautéed in butter. Then I fried a couple of free-range vegetarian-diet-hens’ eggs and flipped them in the pan without a spatula, a skill which I am always willing to demonstrate to anyone within eye-shot.

I laid out the tender golden puffball slices, overlapping them in a C-shaped curve along the plate’s edge, then slipped the skillfully-flipped eggs into the C’s negative space. As I sat down at the dining table next to Karla and her Grape-Nuts with milk and Greek yogurt and locally-produced honey, I felt like gloating. What a prize! What a brave guy! I was actually going to consume a wild mushroom after only hearing an anecdotal “sure, you can eat them” from Audrey through Karla. What if Karla had mis-heard? What if Audrey had actually said the Indians had used them to kill people, not fill them? After all, the local natives had done some pretty potent things with wormwood leaves and crushed buckeye nuts and mistletoe berries.

As it turned out, this meal wouldn’t top my list of requests for a last meal that I’d submit to the executioner, but it was good. I had a lot of attention on my liver as I swallowed each bite. Once during the meal I felt a gas bubble stab my abdomen but dismissed it as mere coincidence. After all, how often does that happen even during a perfectly safe federally-approved meal? Often, I assured myself. The twinge of pain I felt in my big toe was something I had experienced before, the result of stubbing it on a rock during our hike. Nothing to do with this meal. I assured myself that the slightly giddy feeling I was becoming acutely aware of had to be caused by my recently-consumed cup of strong black coffee. The entire dining experience consisted of me assuring myself that everything was just fine, and there was nothing, absolutely nothing that was going to keep me from really enjoying and relishing this wonderful natural organic meal. Nothing!

Hours later I was mildly pleased that I felt no bad after-effects. But it could take time, I thought; not every poison is fast-acting. Sometimes the effects can take hours, even days to manifest. Decades in the case of radium salts or mercuric oxide or fibrous asbestos or bad booze. Millennia in the case of bad karma.

But that was yesterday. This is today. And I’m still here, proving that putative puffball poison is at least very slow-acting. I even went out this morning and plucked a few more of them. This time they’ll be used in tonight’s salad.

Karla says she’s also going to try something new for dinner—Grape-Nuts.

Saturday, October 15

Just add water…


…and a little time, like a week. The greenery is popping out all over the place. The grass is three or four inches (75 to 100 mm) high in many places, but the real treat for horses is what we call filaree, a forb that they love. They discovered the filaree when it was barely out of its seed form (mm-m-m! filaree sprouts!) and have continued munching it wherever they can find it, which is almost everywhere.


As a testament to filaree’s appeal, we put out six drums of Crystalyx, a hardened molasses-and-protein-and-other-stuff mix, in various places around the ranch. Each drum weighs about 250 pounds (113 kg) and the horses found them quickly. Being hierarchical (kind of like chickens) the meanest horses get to eat first, then the second-third-and-fourth meanest horses, and finally the wimps get in a lick or two before the meanest ones get hungry again. Usually the Crystalyx is gone after a couple of weeks, but we found three drums with some of it still uneaten, and no horses around! All we need now is more rain in order to keep the green stuff growing.

Or we’ll have to spend the other green stuff on more Crystalyx. Or feed hay. Or move onto a more rewarding way to make a living, like raising worms or chinchillas.

Wednesday, October 5

A rousing night’s deluge

The center tube, measuring one inch, is full and has spilled over
to the outer tube.

Starting around midnight, the skies opened up and by 8 o’clock in the morning had dumped nearly an inch and a half of rain on us. A record-setting storm for sure, giving us what normally falls in the entire month of October in just eight hours. Later in the morning, another five hundredths fell giving us a total of 1.52 inches (39 millimeters). The grass will definitely start very soon and be ready to eat in maybe a month.

Can we take our hay back? We contracted for 120 bales and loaded 60 of them in the barn last night. Oh well, there are always bad-weather years to come. And hay keeps well without refrigeration.

A bonus was the thorough washing our solar panels got from the heavy downpour. Since they’re up where it takes two ladders to get to them, and I don’t do ladders without another person steadying them, they didn’t get washed all summer. I checked the power when the sun poked through the clouds and was happy to see 2,475 watts coming from them into the thirsty batteries.

So we now have early upcoming grass and tons of solar electricity. Who could ask for more?

Update: Storm total—1.93" (49 mm)

Tuesday, October 4

Please! Rain!

What a disappointment. Checking the Internet for weather forecasts, looking longingly at radar pictures of storms, hoping that the dark green—or even better, the yellow and red (even, if I dare, purple)—portions showing rain intensity fall over your location. So far, nada. Disappointing. The forecasts were so much more encouraging. What happened? Why aren’t they coming true? Who do you believe? Is the tooth fairy a myth? Is there no justice? Will mediocrity overcome deep thought? Is nature capricious? Should the government never be in charge of anything important? Was I lied to?

There is one consolation. Hilary is bringing up a load of 60 bales of hay tonight. We have to get it out of the trailer and into the barn before it’s ruined by rain. It would be nice of it doesn’t rain during that time. Let’s hope. Please! No rain! I take back all my pleadings!

Please! Don’t rain!

Monday, October 3

Rain! Yay!

I stepped out of the house yesterday evening and saw to the east some nice cumulous clouds, with brilliant white tops lit by the sun shining through low clouds to the west. The lower parts of the clouds were in graduated shades of lovely pearly gray. You know the kind of moment, when the skies get together and say to themselves, “Let’s give ‘em a light show!”

Of course, we humans who need to record this kind of stuff for broadcast to friends need to grab their cameras and capture the moment. In my case I was too late. By the time I had ripped into the camera case, yanked off the lens cap, flipped on the power switch so forcefully I was surprised I hadn’t broken it, and arrived at the scene with the smell of burning rubber from my sandals assaulting my nostrils as I dashed out of the house so fast I could look back and still see my fading streaked image lingering in the air, the sunlit scene got dull and dark. I must move faster!

So instead I took a picture of the clouds to the west.

The latest weather forecast says that by Wednesday we should have RAIN. Not a 30% chance, or even a 70% chance—just RAIN! That’s exciting. While many people consider rain as something either nice to look at or maybe a commuting nuisance, we who are closely connected to the soil and the elements consider this an important moment. We have literally tons of horseflesh on our near-square-mile ranch and early rain means free horse feed. If the horses find green underfoot, we find green in our bank account. People in our neighborhood stocking up on hay are lamenting the high price, almost double what it was a year ago. To hedge our bets, we are filling some of our new barn space with a few tons of grass-alfalfa-mix bales that we found at a decent price locally. If we don’t need them this winter, they have a long shelf life and we will have them for next winter. It’s always a crap shoot. People whose lives closely depend on weather are the real gamblers.