Thursday, August 25, 2016

Clean Air Day

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Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"
Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"
God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"
God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin' you better run"
Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"
God says, "Out on Highway 61"

--Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited

This morning on KQED radio I heard a mother tell an interviewer that, although her child had asthma, she believes clean air is too expensive. 

“We all want cleaner air,” she said. “My son has asthma, I get it. We all want to work on policies that will improve the environment. But the question is at what cost?”

When I heard the mother – Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen of Modesto – say those words, I did a mental double-take. God asked Abraham to kill his son, but a lesser god, the almighty dollar, only asks us to give our children asthma.

When the time comes that there are more "Spare the Air" days than "clean air" days, will we still think it's worth it? Is making our children and ourselves sick in the pursuit of making a living a necessary evil?

On one side we have Ms. Olsen advocating for the status quo, for business as usual, even though it harms her own son. On the other side we have another politician, Senator Kevin de Leon of Los Angeles, saying, "We know that we can grow and prosper without poisoning our communities or the lungs of our children."

I know we don't look to our politicians to be heroes, anymore than we look to our business leaders to be heroes. But here's hoping that the heroes among them will find the ingenuity to one day make "Spare the Air" days a thing of the past, and healthy prosperity a thing of the present.

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Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Cat Food Caper

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I started putting food out for a neighbor's cat after noticing one day while I was petting him that he was very skinny. Figuring a hungry cat is going to bring more hell on birds than a full cat, I decided to put out a little kibble in what passes for my back yard. 

The skinny cat's name is Ren. He's black-and-white and full of personality. Often when the neighbors take their frisky young German shepherd for a walk, Ren follows them. And I don't mean for just a few steps. He'll follow them on a long walk around the neighborhood, ducking for cover here and there, then catching up again. Sometimes the dog will playfully pounce toward Ren, and Ren will return the pounce, taking no guff. If Ren encounters someone else walking their dog down the sidewalk, he sits on his haunches and stares them down. The dog-walker usually crosses the street to pass. I watched out my living room window late one night as Ren did the same thing with a huge raccoon. They had a quick boxing match before going their separate ways.

So back when I started doing this I put the trail camera out back to see if Ren would find and eat the cat food. I found that he did in fact find and eat it, and on a couple of occasions he would even be waiting for me when I set it out in the morning. However, two other neighborhood cats also got in on the free lunch -- a small, short-haired black cat, and a large, long-haired gray cat. (Squirrels and birds seemed to ignore the cat food.) Using the clock on the trail camera, I took notes on when each cat showed up. Ren and the black cat came by every day, usually multiple times. The long-haired cat showed up too rarely to set a pattern, but Ren and the black cat invariably came during the day, probably because their owners let them inside at night.

Any cat food left out overnight became fair game for rats and raccoons. Ren didn't like other critters eating his food, so he started scooping sand and leaves on it after he was done. That was making a mess, so I started putting the food in my other neighbor's yard, which is just a slab of concrete. (There's a tall fence separating my yard from Ren's yard, but nothing between me and the concrete yard.) After seeing the night action, I put out only as much chow in the morning as the cats could completely eat during the course of the day.

Just on a whim, I decided the other day to start putting the food back in my yard, laying it out on a stepping stone. I was surprised to come home from work to see the pile still there. I checked it again in the morning and it was all gone. I noticed I hadn't seen my neighbors in a few days and figured they might have gone on vacation, and that would explain Ren's absence. But I don't know where the black cat lives and thought it was strange that the food would remain uneaten all day. I did not believe the rat would eat that much so I set my trail camera out there to see what was going on. Why was the food being left uneaten all day? Where were Ren and the black cat?

When I went out to check the camera after work, I saw that most of the cat food had been eaten. Usually it is all gone, so I knew something unusual was still going on. 

Well, the camera found out. The night life was having a party. Ren might indeed be wherever his owners put him when they go out of town, but the black cat had obviously been gone to get medical care. You'll see in the last frame of the video that he walks right past the chow before coming back and finally spotting it. He usually shows up early in the morning, but he didn't show up this time until just after noon, and he didn't return later for seconds, which is why there was still some food left.

My trail camera has been sitting in a drawer since the water hole on Mt. Tam dried up. I was glad to find a use for it by uncovering a back yard mystery.

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Aug. 21 follow-up (Ren returns):

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Sunday, August 14, 2016


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"The unique properties of the Golden Rectangle provides another example. This shape, a rectangle in which the ratio of the sides a/b is equal to the golden mean (phi), can result in a nesting process that can be repeated into infinity — and which takes on the form of a spiral. It's call the logarithmic spiral, and it abounds in nature."

--George Dvorsky, Gizmodo

While my wife hunts for sea glass along the shoreline, I'm usually drawn more to the beach pebbles. I'm attracted to the variety of colors and patterns, and to holding one in my hand and knowing that each one is the expression of physical processes that may have begun deep in the earth or deep in the ocean. We gathered these stones on Rodeo Beach. I placed them on the sand and enjoyed the colors but didn't care for the shape I'd made. My wife rearranged them into this spiral.

Also found along the beach were these varied hues of layered serpentine, chert and other minerals. The original image is 24x53 inches. Shot with 105mm lens, I focus-stacked each vertical frame, then stitched the six resulting frames into a panorama.

My favorite stone was this interesting little pebble with patches of what I thought at first glance might be rose-colored quartz. Looking at it under a 10X hand lens, though, the reddish color looks like it could be embedded chert. In any event I enjoy the complexity of its construction and thinking about its formation over perhaps millions of years. (Then again, if you think about it, everything from the pebble to the fingers that picked it up off the beach, began to form at the very beginning of time itself.)

I photographed the pebble in a small abalone shell that brought me back to my wife's spiral on the beach and to thoughts of a nautilus shell she has at home. The nautilus is often used to describe the correlation between the Golden Ratio in art and architecture, and Fibonacci numbers in mathematics -- places where spirals are found.

The spiral is an interesting shape, expressed in nature from molluscs to galaxies, in art from petroglyphs to Andy Goldsworthy. Water spirals down the drain in our sink and spins into hurricanes over the ocean. Spirals occurred in sacred form from the Celts to the Aztecs. They are hardwired into our DNA and even occur, in a manner of speaking, in the depths of our psyche.

"The way to the goal seems chaotic and interminable at first, and only gradually do the signs increase that it is leading anywhere. The way is not straight but appears to go round in circles. More accurate knowledge has proved it to go in spirals: the dream-motifs always return after certain intervals to definite forms, whose characteristic it is to define a center.... The development of these symbols is almost the equivalent of a healing process. The center or goal thus signifies salvation in the proper sense of the word."

--Carl Jung from Psychology and Alchemy

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Saturday, August 6, 2016


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"At Riobamba, the town about a hundred miles south of Quito where the disastrous earthquake of 1797 had been centered, the travelers stayed for a few weeks.... Here Humboldt had the opportunity to inspect some sixteenth-century manuscripts written in a pre-Inca language called Purugayan, which had been translated into Spanish.... [T]he manuscripts related the dramatic story of a volcanic eruption and the religious and political significance that the local shamans had ascribed to it....

"The priests of those ages [Humboldt wrote to his brother] possessed sufficient knowledge of astronomy to draw a meridian line and to observe the actual moment of the solstice."

--From Humboldt's Cosmos, by Gerard Helferich

Plenty of people still believe that natural phenomena like floods and earthquakes are some sort of divine retribution for their sins (or someone else's sins). And we can't just write off such belief as a mark of stupidity, as evidenced by Humboldt's shaman astronomers who could ascribe religious significance to an eruption on one hand and calculate the solstice with the other. There is something deeply human about our sense of connection with the world, a connection that has both physical and psychological dimensions.

How do you feel when you're alone in nature? Do you feel invigorated and at ease, or constrained and anxious? Physically, the environment is the same whichever way you feel about it, but psychologically, your thoughts are busy coloring the landscape. These colorations, or projections, seem real, and we believe the place itself has attributes that exist only in our imagination. One place makes us feel at ease and happy, while another makes us feel anxious and troubled. We believe our "sixth sense" -- or maybe even our so-called common sense -- is telling us something true about our surroundings.

I like to do a little test when I have these feelings. I try to let go of whatever I've been thinking about. Just be there with my senses alert, letting the world inform me rather than coloring it with my own thoughts and ideas. Nine times out of ten, whether I'm in nature or in the city, I find the sense of foreboding was a projection of my own thoughts or bias, that my anxiety was unfounded. 

Once I was in a wilderness skills class where we were going to kill a couple of chickens by wringing their necks. We had only two chickens, so only two of the dozen or so students were going to do the deadly deed while the rest of us observed. It was a sunny day in a rural part of Santa Cruz. Birds were calling in the woods. Down in front of my feet, ants were hauling grass seeds toward their subterranean nest. A gentle breeze blew. I wondered if nature would react to our killing of these chickens. 

The killing time arrived, and the chickens' necks were broken. Their bright, beautiful combs faded and wilted as they perished. But the breeze did not change. No cloud obscured the sun. Songbirds did not fall silent. The earth did not tremble. The ants marched on with their seeds. Nature did not pass judgment. It neither condoned nor condemned our killing. If nature inflicts moral judgments on people, it does so simply and without malice. Over-consumption of natural resources leads to depletion and scarcity that affect human lives. Injecting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere changes climatic regimes that can turn cities into swamps and bread baskets into deserts.

As for my sixth sense, I sometimes wonder if it is actually a subconscious awareness of physical phenomena rather than some sort of supernatural communication. So much is always happening around us that we can't possibly put our mental finger on it all. Our sixth sense alerts us to some danger, whether small or great, that we then manage to avoid, and we believe we have been favored by supernatural means. 

It might have been luck, but it doesn't feel that way. We feel like we were tipped off -- and I believe we were tipped off, but I believe what happened is that we became subliminally aware of physical cues. Sounds that vibrated our eardrums, light that struck our retinas, molecules that sailed into our nose. And all of it acted upon by a body that wasn't about to wait around until it could put the whole thing into words for the benefit of consciousness. Interrelatedness happens.

You could say I'm a strict materialist. But if you look at what we know about material these days, you find that trouble abounds. The more deeply we probe into matter, the less "material" it becomes. That pair of jeans you like? It's just atoms, subatomic particles, and forces. And according to our own modern mythology, before there was any material, there was an infinitely small "thing" called a singularity. A singularity cannot be imagined. How can we imagine that the germ of 100 billion galaxies, including the one we're riding on right this minute, was once an invisible little speck? Even if you do away with the mathematical concept of a singularity (since infinities are generally taken to be errors), or trade it in for "space-time foam," you are still left scratching your head about how "all this" -- the entire cosmos -- came from basically nothing.

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