27 December 2012

An Agent of Deceit

I read a lot of old stuff and don't always stay abreast of contemporary works. Recently, though, I came across Chris Morgan Jones' debut novel The Silent Oligarch (in the UK it is titled An Agent of Deceit). I'm not sure if a writer is complimented by comparison, but Mr. Jones reminded me of one of my all-time favorites, John le Carré. There's enough intrigue and simmering tension in The Silent Oligarch to please the staunchest of le Carré loyalists, but you can get that sort of thing lots of places. What sets le Carré apart from the herd is his ability to create memorable and sympathetic characters. And what made The Silent Oligarch a great read for me was the same thing. The story centers around a Russian gangster and oil tycoon named Konstantin Malin who poses as a mid-level bureaucrat in the Ministry of Natural Resources. His billions are laundered in a byzantine array of offshore holding companies, managed by a small crew of well-paid corporate stooges. Only a handful of people understand Malin's true wealth and stature, and one of them, a middle-aged lawyer named Richard Lock, tries to find his way out of the life of white-collar crime that has ensnared him. A former journalist and now corporate intelligence specialist, Ben Webster, is at the same time investigating Malin and sees an opportunity to bring the big man down with Lock's help. While one man's life unravels, the other is drawn in too deeply and finds himself in a fight against powers much too big to confront. Lock thinks he wants freedom, and a clear conscience, but he discovers that he's driven by much more basic needs like reconciliation with his estranged wife and daughter. Webster thinks he wants justice, but finds out that he likes the spy game too much, that playing with the big boys has its own thrills that pull him in despite the danger. Not to spoil it, but neither man gets what he wants. Despite the dramatic dénouement, Jones keeps the ending somewhat ambiguous, with no simple solutions and neat resolutions, much in the style of le Carré. The Silent Oligarch is timely in its look at corruption, greed, and corporate evil, and paints a scary picture of the high-dollar, well-dressed, well-educated drones that put a seemingly legitimate public face on international criminal networks. Jones makes you feel that there are cadres of these button-down Oxford types (he's British) happily selling their souls to mafia dons, magnates, potentates, and modern-day shoguns all over the globe. They don't kill anyone or even get their fingernails dirty, but they are as crooked as Lombard Street, and their amorality is perhaps even more frightening than the big shots they shill for.

n.b. I changed the title of this post from The Silent Oligarch to An Agent of Deceit.

24 December 2012

Crazy People

Yesterday I drove through a blinding snowstorm. Literally, it was blinding. The windshield wipers on my 1988 pickup were feeble and could not keep pace with the snowfall. My buddy in the passenger seat had to roll down the window and reach out a grab the right-hand blade and bang it against the windshield to free the ice chunks that built up. I would do the same on the left side while trying to keep the vehicle on the road and not veer into the considerable drifts and snowplow berms. The defroster had to labor to keep the window clear on the inside, made worse by the two of us opening the windows and allowing fresh gusts of snow inside. Each of us had a cloth and we would vigorously wipe our side to keep ahead of the endless condensate. Visibility at one point dropped to nothing--we had to stop, get out, and scrape the windshield before resuming! Good thing my Toyota 4WD hugs the road like a tank. I did not have to worry about slipping and sliding. I've spent a fair amount of time driving on snowy and icy roads and my technique is pretty good. My buddy is a four-wheeling expert and he has given me many useful pointers and tips over the years. Suffice to say we made it safe and sound to the parking lot at Mt. Ashland Ski Area after that harrowing ten-mile ordeal. I was so keyed-up I ran straight to the bathroom through the howling wind to empty my tortured bladder. I was so in need of relief that I was oblivious to the swirling snow that stung my hands and face like bits of sand. Back in the truck, we suited up for our day on the mountain. The southwest wind would smack us around with gale-like force, but we managed to get our skis on and point them in the general direction of the chair-lift. The overcast sky hung low and made it difficult to see much past about twenty or thirty feet. The wind scooped up the fresh-falling snow and spun it around and tossed it back down again, obscuring landmarks just as you made them out. We took the plunge nonetheless and made our way mostly by feel to the roped off lift-lines, joining about thirty others eagerly waiting for the chairs to start loading. All I could think of at that point was that everyone standing there was a crazy person. Crazy to drive up the mountain. Crazy to strap on skis and boards. Crazy to get on a chairlift and careen down a slope. Crazy to "chase freshies." Because that is why everyone was there--the piles and piles of new snow. Powder, or pow-pow in ski argot, is something of a holy grail to the alpine thrill-seeker. Done right, a run through virgin snow ("first tracks") is akin to floating, much like riding a wave to the surfer or free-falling to the skydiver. Done by intermediate hacks like myself, it can be a futile, frustrating endeavor. You really have to be a crazy person to pursue this activity. I even said so in the line: "everyone here is crazy!" No one argued. They just nodded and went on. Fortunately my skiing skills have improved over the last few years and I really can get down in the deep stuff and make some nice turns and even occasionally look halfway like an advanced skier. My buddy, an outstanding skier, always reminds me that I can keep up with him so that must mean I'm pretty good. Bit of a left-handed compliment, that, but I'll take it. In the end, despite some on-going equipment issues, I had a good time. In the lee of the trees the runs were protected and the cloudbank lifted enough so we could see, and we put together some good stretches. I surprised myself with some very nice sequences and kept up with another fellow we know who is always up there and is a very accomplished powder-hound. My screaming quads told me to quit long before the weather wore me down. With thicker thighs I could have managed another few hours and been utterly indifferent to the appalling conditions. I wonder if that means I'm now one of those crazy people.

02 December 2012

Hoka-Hoka-HEY! and other tidbits

I'm revisiting Larry Marder's Tales of the Beanworld, a weird yet accessible comic originally published in the late 1980s. Beanworld is hard to describe. It's black-and-white with bold graphics and simple drawings, yet features an oddly compelling story that's part satire and part ecological fable. Hell, I'm not really sure what it is! Beanworld is populated by the likes of Professor Garbanzo, Mr. Spook, Gran'Ma'Pa, the Chow Sol'jers, Beanish, and the Boom'r Band. They live between The Legendary Edge and The Proverbial Sandy Beach, above The Thin Lake and The Four Realities. Below that is the Bone Zone, the Hoi-Polloi Ring Herd, and Der Stinkle. And a bunch of other stuff that makes sense when you are there. Highly recommended--pick it up in digital or hardcover.

We recently watched the excellent 1996 film The Whole Wide World about Robert E. Howard and his ill-fated romance with schoolteacher Novalyne Price.(It's based on her memoirs.) Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, was the biggest thing in the pulps yet lived with his parents in a small town in Texas and was viewed suspiciously by the locals for his eccentricities. It's a sad tale, of course, but an uplifting story, mostly because the actors (Vincent D'Onofrio and Renee Zellweger) are superb and bring the characters to life. Add it to your next batch from Netflix, you won't be disappointed.

I came across a very nice used copy of A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad in a Mt. Shasta book shop. His poems are real gems and can be read again and again. His style comes across as quaint and old-fashioned but the insights are deep and thoroughly modern. His images are both dark and playful, and you seem to teeter on the knife edge in every stanza, never knowing which way you will fall. Like all great poets he turns the simple into the sublime with seeming effortlessness. Beautiful stuff--read it out loud during the holidays.

Finally, I just finished Pete Townshend's Who I Am (a birthday present!).  The old rockers are cranking out the tell-alls these days, it seems to be the new thing. I suppose they are all of that age where they can relax and reminisce. I loved The Who and was a big fan of Townshend's music, especially Tommy and Quadrophenia. The first 300 pages (yes, it is a huge book) are interesting, he's a candid and straightforward story-teller. I liked learning about the band and how their sound came together, and about "the scene" that spawned so many great acts. I also liked reading about Pete's musical influences and about some of the things that inspired his work. The final 200 pages are harder going, too much "and then this happened" that many autobiographies suffer from, which is why I generally avoid them. But it is still Pete, and his mates Roger, John, and Keith, and that's all good. I first saw The Who in 1976 when I was still in high school and they made quite an impression on my adolescent mind.

That's not all I'm reading or watching these days, just the highlights, but it's enough to write about. So, tell me, what are YOU reading and watching these days?

25 August 2012

". . . the Eagle has landed."

Neil Armstrong flew the lunar module over a hostile, unknown terrain, coping with guidance errors and faulty computer alarms, and visually picked out a new landing spot as the targeted area was strewn with boulders. His companion, Buzz Aldrin, was reading the computer outputs of their velocity and altitude back to Houston on the radio and not even looking out his window. Armstrong set the Eagle down in the Sea of Tranquility with his trademark sangfroid and made history. You had to be a cool cat to do that. You had to have some mad piloting skills, too. The first man on the moon and commander of Apollo 11 died today at the age of 82. Michael Collins, pilot of the command module Columbia, was quoted on the NASA website saying “He was the best, and I will miss him terribly.” As an explorer, astronaut, aviator, engineer, teacher, spokesman, leader, and role model, it's hard to argue. He was a hero of my youth--I was nine years old on July 20th, 1969, and the great moon adventure captivated me completely. The drama of human spaceflight launched my life-long interest in science. The Korean War veteran was the first civilian to fly a spacecraft--all the Mercury Seven and the first Gemini class were active-duty officers at the time of their maiden flights. His enduring legacy, both uniquely American and thoroughly universal, is etched in a plaque he and Aldrin left on the lunar surface:

We came in peace for all mankind.

Anchors Aweigh my boys,
Anchors Aweigh.
Farewell to foreign shores,
We sail at break of day-ay-ay-ay.
O'er our last night ashore,
Drink to the foam!
Until we meet once more,
Here's wishing you a happy voyage home.

19 August 2012

How Have I Missed This?

There's a blog out there called Beer & Whiskey Brothers. That's right up my alley. Their tag line is "Keep in good spirits and keep good spirits in ya." Love it. They have some cute and funny graphics about craft beer people. People like me. You should check them out. I posted one on my brewing blog, French Street Brewery. My title is a silly question, really, as I just don't spend the time on the inter-tubes necessary to find all the cool stuff. I don't reddit, digg, stumleupon, or any of that. I don't have a smart phone. (I barely use the cell phone I do have). I only facebook a few minutes a day. I'm mostly disconnected. What time I spend blogging, reading the news, keeping up on the Giants, and doing email is more than I want to spend in front of a screen. After all, it's just time away from drinking beer and whiskey.


31 July 2012

Dare Mighty Things

This Sunday, the 5th of August, at 2231 Pacific Daylight Time, the Curiosity rover is scheduled to land on the surface of Mars. The red planet, on average, is about 158 million miles away. That creates an interesting communication problem we don't experience here on terra firma. A radio signal--traveling at 186,000 miles per second--can circumnavigate the earth a little more than seven times in one second. The earth's circumference is about 25,000 miles, and geostationary satellites orbit at just short of that distance, or about 22,000 miles. Thus we earth-bound mortals do not notice any significant delay when we use phones or TVs. Rather, what I should say, is that any delay we do experience is not due to the speed of light. Even those large distances are nothing to an electromagnetic wave. But Mars is another story. Divide 158 million by 186,000 and you get 850 seconds, or about fourteen minutes. That's how long it will take a message from Curiosity to reach the army of scientists, engineers, technicians, and the rest of the people at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. When the spacecraft descends from orbit into the Martian atmosphere, it will take about seven minutes for all the stages to be completed and the rover to be set upon the surface. That means it will be seven additional minutes before they will know if everything was OK at the start of the descent. Add another fourteen minutes before anyone will know if the landing worked and Curiosity is intact and able to complete its mission. And if they need to send a signal to make a correction or initiate a program, they won't know if it has been received for another 28 minutes.

What agony! After months of planning, preparation, construction, and testing, not to mention the almost two years of space flight required to get to our planetary neighbor, the radio delay has to be an exquisite kind of torture. The Mars Science Laboratory is an ambitious effort, being ten times larger than the other Mars rovers and requiring a more complex deployment procedure. Unmanned, robotic space exploration is far better for science than putting people up there. When you use humans you have to spend so much time and energy keeping them alive that very little actual work gets done. These missions, nonetheless, are daring, sophisticated enterprises that ought to inspire awe and excitement amongst the citizenry. Here's something Americans are doing together, with public entities and private enterprise collaborating and cooperating. It isn't about party politics, and all the various ways we can divide ourselves into tribes and holler at each other about words and symbols are mercifully absent. Instead, our fellow humans are reaching for the stars, daring to do mighty things that will benefit all of us regardless of nation or creed.

I think it's fantastic, and I hope they succeed brilliantly. Some day Americans will return to space to explore beyond earth orbit, adding the drama of actual astronauts out there risking their necks in pursuit of our collective dreams. Right now, though, the pathfinders are charting the course for us, showing us the hazards, and revealing the engineering solutions we need to make the possibilities real. The men and women at JPL may not leave their seats, or go too far from their computer screens, but they are sowing the seeds for a 21st century Magellan to reap. Here's to a homegrown Cook emerging in the next decade or two! I can't wait much longer than that, I want to be young enough to jump for joy when he or she makes it, unlike those great captains, all the way safely home.

24 July 2012

edX and the Future of the Human Race

My alma mater is no longer dipping its toes in the uncertain waters of the 21st century--it has stripped off its clothes and taken the full plunge. The University of California's flagship campus at Berkeley has joined MIT and Harvard in the X University Consortium to deliver college courses for free to anyone who has access to the internet. The project is known as edX and was created as a not-for-profit online-learning collaborative between those two world-famous private schools from Cambridge, Massachusetts. UC Berkeley, of course, is a public school. The UC/CSU system was once the jewel of California, offering the finest and most affordable higher education of any state in the union. I was one of those ordinary citizens whose life was transformed by this remarkable, visionary creation. I earned my undergraduate degree at Cal and my teaching credential at Cal State Hayward (now CSU East Bay) in the years 1977-1984, which really marked the end of the golden era. Costs soared after that, and budgets were slashed, but more importantly the belief in the dream, the political will needed to grow and improve faded from the public consciousness. Anti-intellectualism is now in the fore, and the government commitment to public education for all citizens is under fire by a new breed of "every man for himself" yahoos who seek only their own hegemony and lack any sense of social responsibility. The Golden State has lost its luster, and has only itself to blame--its citizens gobbled up the pablum served by this new breed of corporate fat cats and their army of dupes.

Throughout history education has been a luxury reserved for the upper classes. The idea of universal education is a recent one, only emerging in the last century. At the time of the Second World War, about half of school-age kids in the US finished high school. My dad, for example, quit school at 16 to work, then joined the Marines a year later in 1948. In my own generation (I was born in 1959), dropping out was almost unthinkable, and damn rare as well. I've worked in the state's secondary schools for 28 years, and I've seen plenty of failure, but illiteracy is so unusual as to be remarkable, and the vast majority of kids complete at least some kind of high school program even if they don't earn a traditional diploma. The schools are actually victims of their own success--high school is taken for granted. This extraordinary accomplishment of the modern world, the mass education of tens of millions on a global scale, is not seen for the near-miracle that it is. Consequently, we have neglected to view it with the necessary awe and respect and have failed to infuse it with a proper spirit of growth and renewal. Schools are political battlegrounds instead, and every election cycle sees a new batch of politicos and talking heads determined to undermine what's been built for no reason other than to serve their selfish ambitions.

The internet has been likened to the printing press for its transformative effect on society. Luther owed a lot to Gutenberg, actually, can you imagine the Reformation without that new communication technology? If we are to bring the benefits of education to the masses, the brick-and-mortar school will have to evolve. The internet, most people forget, was a government creation. Its existence is a continuing collaboration between public and private entities, proof that we can work together and build something that benefits all of society. I love the delicious irony of survivalist and anarchist websites--what could be more communal and collective than the World Wide Web?

I'm proud of my beloved mother. They've seen the future, and it's not all about dorm rooms and football. When amazing things like The Khan Academy are out there free for anyone with a modem, the message is loud and clear: change or die. The dream of a university education available to everyone may never be fully realized, but that does not mean that the goal is not a good one. Too many people in the world lack clean water and adequate food, and live in constant fear and want, and what's worse, see little hope of change. I like to think it's those people--the oppressed and dispossessed--who will ultimately benefit from things like edX. Maybe I'm a dreamer, but I believe a new generation of the traditionally under-served and under-represented who get the chance to succeed will not forget their roots and will use their knowledge and opportunities to help those who are less fortunate. That was once the ethic of this country, and I think it can be again. The creation of a free on-line university education is a baby step, nothing more. It will take more than that to see the dream come true. But all journeys have to start somewhere. UC Berkeley's motto is Fiat lux, taken straight from Genesis, chapter one, verse three: Let there be light.


22 July 2012

O'Connor's Three Laws of Science

I often tell my students about O'Connor's Three Laws of Science. I was inspired by Newton, of course, as his Three Laws of Motion are the jump-off point for many explorations of mechanical phenomena. My laws are more abstract, and are about the nature of science itself, not about a specific area of study. Number One: all measurements are uncertain. I like to say the corollary to Number One is find the degree of uncertainty you are willing to live with. If you are rough-framing a house with 2x4s, being off now and then by a quarter of an inch is no big deal. If you are building cabinets, however, being off a quarter of an inch is a catastrophe. Measure as precisely as you need to. And please don't tell me the answer with the eight decimal places your calculator gave you! People on a diet care about pounds, not ounces. Number Two: science is a description of nature, not an explanation. As Alfred Korzybski opined, "the map is not the territory." Science does not concern itself with Truth, and at least, in my view, it should not. Leave that to philosophers and holy men. They can talk all they want about the subjective and the mystical, none of those things can withstand the rigors of experimentation. Science requires repeatability--if you can't get my results then one of us is wrong. I don't mean to say that subjective experiences aren't real, they just aren't amenable to analysis. Scientific "truths" are contextual, that is, they are only as good as the paradigm they fit within. (I use that word in the sense that Thomas Kuhn did in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.) All experiments operate within a theory of how nature works. Scientists don't investigate randomly--they look for things they believe they "should" find, that is, what the theory (or dominant paradigm) predicts. Or they look at anomalies, things that don't fit the theory, and try to enlarge their understanding so that these outliers will fit within the current models. Only when the paradigm fails to produce satisfying (i.e., consistent) results does a "revolution" occur. Think Copernicus, or Einstein. Nature doesn't change, only our way of seeing it. Number Three: correlation does not imply causality. The Romans would have said "post hoc, ergo propter hoc." That's a logical fallacy, and the Greeks (Rome's teachers) would have drilled that notion into their rhetoric students. Just because A happens after B does not mean that A causes B to happen. The sun rises after my alarm goes off. If I turn off my clock, will that plunge the world into darkness? We see this sort of thinking every day, especially in politics. So-and-so got elected and then the economy (or whatever) did this-or-that, obviously so-and-so deserves the credit or blame. I remember when everyone got excited that sunspot cycles appeared to correlate with drought in California. That's it! Explanation! Mystery solved! Until the drought persisted, of course, and we were left once again with the complexity of the global climate system.

So that's it. Science in a nutshell. And I like to end my talk with my favorite line from Shakespeare:

               There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
               Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
               (Hamlet, Act I, scene V).

To me, this means never underestimate nature. The vastness of the universe should awe us and keep us humble. Science is a product of the human mind, and is thus subject to all the vagaries and frailties of humankind. It is also the most powerful and most fruitful of all human endeavors. Without science, I would like to note, religions would have nothing to talk about. The pope, for example, spends a lot of time on birth control. The pill wasn't invented by priests, man. I'm not religious, as you might imagine, but I also don't really see the supposed conflict between science and religion. After all, religion is about things that cannot be measured or experimented upon. Religions don't have "testable" questions. If people want to believe that tablets with God's Laws on them were handed out to Moses or discovered by Joseph Smith, that's all fine and dandy. Science can't respond to such notions because they cannot be falsified. Many scientists possess religious faith (like Newton, for example), and that seems to make the point moot, don't you think? A belief in the afterlife won't prevent anyone from determining the chemical composition of nebula, and reading the gospels won't stop a polymerase chain reaction.

Sorry for the long-winded rant, I got inspired this morning when I dropped in the on the website BETTER EXPLAINED and read their delightful thumbnail sketch of Bayes' Theorem. Good stuff, check it out!

02 July 2012


I love that movie. And Jason Statham is my favorite "action hero" as he combines all the fabulous kung-fu stuff with an epic dry wit (being English helps) and easily the most likeable mug of the lot. If Jet Li and Bruce Willis had a child, he'd be Jason Statham. But this isn't about Mr. Statham, or even the aforementioned film. No, this is about "Transporter." That's the official name of the famous Volkswagen van. The old hippie buses from back in the day were Type 1 and 2 (T1 and T2 in VW jargon) as those were the years from 1950-1979, with the changeover happening in 1967. The T1 was mostly a Beetle with box around it. The T2 was a little larger with a new chassis and new motor options. The T3 was called the Vanagon in the US and production ran from 1979-1992. It was redesigned but still featured the air-cooled, rear-mounted engine unique to VW. Gradually that motor was phased out and replaced by a more conventional water-cooled one. The T4, or Eurovan, appeared in 1990 and was completely redesigned with a front-mounted, front-wheel drive configuration. It eventually came standard with a six-cylinder water-cooled engine that could put out 139 HP! That may not seem like a lot, but it is positively nuclear compared to, say, a '69 four-banger that putted along at less than half that. The Eurovan was phased out in 2003.The newest VW van, the T5, is not sold in the US. Apparently there is a T6 in the works as well.

We recently purchased a 1999 Transporter, specifically a Eurovan camper (Winnebago). It has yet to be adventure-tested, but we are pretty excited about it. We don't know quite what to call it, and every vehicle gets a name and nickname around here. Maybe re-watching The Transporter will inspire me.

18 June 2012

LA noir

The late Douglas Anne Munson (who wrote under the pseudonym Mercedes Lambert) worked the mean streets of Los Angeles much like her literary predecessor Raymond Chandler. Her heroine, Whitney Logan, does not have Philip Marlowe's wise-cracking self-assurance, and she's an attorney, not an investigator. But in the great pulp tradition of amateur sleuths she nonetheless gets involved in solving mysteries, and much mayhem occurs along the way. Dogtown, and its sequel, Soultown, are both set in the aftermath of the 1992 riots and have been re-issued as a double by Stark House. I recently enjoyed both. One of my favorites, Ken Bruen, wrote the introduction. Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and Marcia Muller get much of the credit for re-imagining the crime and detective novel with female protagonists. They weren't the first--Agatha Christie, for one, pre-dates them all--and there were occasional heroines in the early pulps. But noir, historically, is a man's world, unless you're a femme fatale or a victim. Fortunately douchebags like Norman Mailer are no longer around to say stupid shit like "you have to have balls to write" (he was the president of PEN for a while, believe it or not). He meant that literally, not figuratively, and clearly had never read anything written by females. Ms. Lambert surely has the necessary chops. Here are samples of her literary cojones:
This is a town of pathological liars. Everyone is making a deal.The boulevard is paved with stars and percentage points. Box Office Boffo. Even my gynecologist has Variety in her office.
. . . 
The palm trees wept in the moonlight. There were no new jobs. No new schools had been built. I am a member of the National Lawyers Guild. I had believed in equality, fraternity, and the Bill of Rights. What had the Rebellion changed? Now the city was a burned-out Stonehenge of bricks and asbestos.
Whitney Logan is an insecure loner and a recent law school grad still clinging to her liberal ideals who barely manages to pay the bills working the bottom of the legal food chain. She pumps iron, studies tae kwon do, and keeps a bottle of Southern Comfort in her desk. Her landlord is a former big shot lawyer now a hopeless pothead ("Harvey Kaplan looked like he'd been dead for twenty years. At least since Woodstock."), her father an alcoholic, and her reluctant sidekick a hostile, foul-mouthed ex-hooker. All the right ingredients for noir. Lambert's writing is crisp and engaging, both funny and somber, and the adventures are gritty and evoke the bizarre, shifting landscape that is the City of Angels. It is unfortunate that cancer took her at age 55, just before her work enjoyed a renaissance.

19 May 2012

Ring of Fire

We should get a good look at tomorrow's annular eclipse. Annulus (or anulus) is Latin for ring. With the moon at apogee, the apparent size of the disk will not entirely block the sun, thus giving viewers in the path of annularity a chance to see the "ring of fire." Here in Yreka I expect to enjoy it in my back yard. The State if Jefferson, in fact, is the place to be to experience the event. Sky & Telescope lists the duration times for both Medford, Oregon, fifty miles north (2m 46s), and Redding, California, 100 miles south (4m 35s), so I think we are in the right spot. The National Weather Service gives me "mostly sunny" as the daytime forecast and "partly cloudy" for the evening. The maximum eclipse predicted for Medford is at 6:25:56 PDT and for Redding at 6:28:38, so the sun will still be well up in the western sky. I've prepared a big pinhole box projector (from the Dell box my computer came in) which gives me a solar image of about one centimeter in diameter. I also have some mylar eclipse glasses for direct viewing. Toss some steak and veggies on the BBQ, drink some beer, kick back on the patio, and look west is the plan for Sunday afternoon. I hope you get to enjoy this unique opportunity as well!

16 April 2012

Creeping Charlie

A plant with weird little purple flowers is thriving in my lawn. I can tell it is a mint--the square stems and opposite leaves are diagnostic when identifying forbs in the field. As are the bi-labiate (two-lipped) flowers. I was taught the botanical family name for Mint was Labiate, but I see now it is called Laminaceae. Taxonomists are fussy sorts and are always renaming things. The stalks and leaves are reminiscent of cilantro, if cilantro had a hardy, mountain man version of the stuff you buy in the produce section. It is Glechoma hederacea, also known as ground-ivy, cat's foot, or creeping Charlie. The venerable Philip A. Munz called it Gill-over-the-Ground and said it had "retrorsely puberulent" stems which means "backward or downward with very short hairs." How I love botany talk! I note that Munz' magnum opus A California Flora is out of print, so I'm hanging on to my copy. It, like me, came to life in 1959. According to the Wikipedia entry, Saxons brewed with Glechoma hederacea before hops became commonplace, thus one of it's common names is ale-hoof. My encyclopedia of poisonous plants lists it as toxic to horses, but it is supposedly edible by humans either as a salad green or brewed in a tea. Those of you who'd like to help me get rid of it are welcome to all you can pluck out. Bon appetit!

11 April 2012

The Ugliest Boots in the Shop

Today I bought the ugliest boots in the shop. These weren't lizard skin boots, or cowboy boots, or python boots. No, these were alpine ski boots. That's "downhill" in American. I decided that comfort was more important than looks. And these Nordica Fire Arrow F3s were the most comfortable. The easiest to get on and off. And with three instead of the customary four buckles, the easiest to adjust as well. Fit trumps style, I told myself. These boots really clash with my green snow pants, my gray and green jacket, my black helmet, and my mostly black skis. Plus I hate red. But I went "all in" on these babies because I felt like a human when I walked in them and felt like they'd help me ski a little better. I got ten years out of the other pair--it was time. I had to get new poles as well, as I bent one of my old ones. They were hand-me-downs when I bought the boots, so again, it was time. The new ones are Rossignols, black with green like my Rossignol skis. See what I mean about the boots clashing? I'm looking for happy feet, though, so I'll have to live with it.

24 March 2012

Death by beer

You don't usually see Death personified as a woman. Neil Gaiman's The Sandman series is a notable exception. Death, in those lovely comic books, is a scrawny-but-sexy goth with punk overtones. Very cool. Sierra Nevada Brewing has added another Lady Death with the label on their new Ruthless Rye IPA. She's in cape and cowl and is carrying a scythe, but she's dressed in dark brown, like a monk. And the hood is pulled back enough to show shiny black hair and a beautiful profile. High thunderclouds are behind her, with a farm house and sown field in the background. In the foreground are stalks of rye and what appear to be sunflowers. It looks like an Ingmar Bergman film, only in sepia tones and set somewhere in the Great Plains. It's a tasty beer, too. Full and sweet at first, then dry and hoppy on the tongue, finishing with a spicy rye flavor reminiscent of Canadian whisky. I've often said that the wonderful brews from Chico are like mother's milk to me. I've been drinking them since they hit the shelves way back in the day, and they are still great. The new Ruthless Rye IPA is killer!

28 January 2012

Thirty-First Situation: conflict with a god

Georges Polti wrote a book not quite a hundred years ago called The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations. When you consult this manual you are amazed and fascinated by the classification scheme. You probably have to have a touch of madness to be a taxonomist of any sort. Not that I don't appreciate such things. I suppose I'm more of a 'lumper' than a 'splitter,' but I love reading this bizarre little book. It is a lot of fun to play the game and think about all the various situations he describes. Stories are about love and death. Not much more than that. I could have said sex and violence, but it's the same thing. Squeezing thirty-six different plots out of those four fundamentals is an accomplishment. Nutty, but that's OK. The clincher for Polti, though, is the impossibly overwrought prose, leaden with allusions and drowning in names and references in foreign tongues. You can hardly get through three sentences without gagging or guffawing, which makes it brilliant. I picked up my copy for fifty cents or some pittance at a the local library book sale. I love discards. Where else can you find treasures like this? Here's part of the discussion of the Thirty-First Situation, or "conflict with a god":
This remarkable grouping has been in our day almost entirely ignored. Byronists as we still are, bon gré mal gré, we might yet dream of this superb onslaught on the heavens. But no! -- we treat even the evangelical subject of the Passion, while we pass by, this genuinely dramatic situation, and content ourselves with sanctimoniously intoning the idyllo-didactic phrases which preceded the sacred tragedy, -- itself left unseen.
I think they invented WTF as means of textual commentary far too late. Isn't that fabulous? It's the sort of writing, because of the fact that it is actually real and has been reprinted as recently as 1973, that makes me believe crazy stuff like what Dan Brown cooks up in his DaVinci Code books. Part of the problem is that that original work is in French, and this is a translation (by Lucille Ray). But only part. This Polti guy is a kook, but a well-read one, and it is hard not to enjoy his obvious sincerity. I've actually learned a bit about literature as well. He uses examples of his plot types or "Situations" that reference the famous Greeks like Euripides and Sophocles, which inspired me to get some books and read them both. Here's a few of the other Situations: Ninth, Daring Enterprise; Sixteenth, Madness; Twenty-Fifth, Adultery; Thirty-Sixth, Loss of Loved Ones. There are a lot of ways one could slice-and-dice the various forms into which most of our stories fall. It would be pointless, because you cannot classify the infinite. The human heart, head, and soul make a lethal combination. That trinity can generate quite a variety of mayhem, be it good mayhem or bad mayhem, and it all makes for good stories and plots. Whoops, I mean Situations.

16 January 2012

Speed's Trail

West of me, about a mile and a quarter as the crow flies, is a high knobby peak. It didn't have a name until today. The USGS topo for Yreka says it is 1154 meters (3786 feet) high, which is 344 meters (1129 feet) above my house. We hiked up there in honor of Martin L. King, Jr., and discovered a sign that read "Speed's Trail" and below that "Speed Jones, 1923-2007." I guess we'll call it "Speed's Peak" from now on. The combination of roads and trails that zigzag to the top could keep you busy for months, but we managed. Speed's Peak is the highest of a northwest-to-southeast trending group of four knobs that drop successively to 947 meters (3107 feet) in about three-quarters of a mile. It's a funny little fingerling ridge that seems only remotely connected to the commanding Humbug-Mahogany Point-Gunsight Peak prominence that marks the eastern terminus of the Klamath Mountains. This little cluster of steep, rocky hills is a popular playground. Kids paintball in the lower parts, dirt bikes crisscross the midsections, hardy mountain bikers leave tracks at the junctions on the wide saddles, and a few hikers push on to the top. There are abandoned party spots and homeless hideouts amidst the scraggly cedars and skinny pines. It's not in the guidebooks, but it is a hell of a view and a good workout. I got lost trying to make sense of the geology. I could see cobbles of quartzite, and broken masses of phyllite, chert, and possibly schists. The rocks were green with what I think was chlorite, and there was lots of serpentinization. Large clusters of dark stuff bewildered me. The map was no help, lumping it all into "Mezosoic meta-sediments" and other non-committal verbiage. I suppose it's not the rocks that matter, but the story of how they got there. We got there by putting our boots on and huffing and puffing and sweating on this cold but calm and sunny day.