Odd to Even

For some of you (hi, Eamon and Sakura!), it’s New Year’s already. For others — the Brooklyn and Chicago Brekke crews and assorted friends and acquaintances — it’s coming soon. And then we’ll cross into the new year on the soggy coast, too. In lieu of something a deeper or more reflective — and because Kate and I are scurrying around trying to clean up the house before guests arrive two or three hours from now — thanks for reading and communing in 2005, and I hope all of you have a great ’06. The things we have to look forward to:

–An Italian Olympics.

–Only 1,100-some days until this W. is forced to vacate the people’s mansion.

–With the Red Sox and White Sox having broken their World Series jinxes, 2006 has got to be the Cubs’s year (just don’t’ bet on it).

Zeta (and Epsilon)

Amazing what happens when you’re paying attention to your own weather: “Tropical Storm Zeta Forms in Atlantic.”

OK, this storm will just be a footnote, since it is forecast to blow itself out in just a couple of days. But Zeta gets notice as the 27th Atlantic/Caribbean/Gulf of Mexico tropical cyclone this year. The AP story I link to above also conveys news that somehow evaded my very keenly tuned radar (either that, or I slept through it): the passage of Hurricane Epsilon earlier this month. Hi, Epsilon; bye, Epsilon.

For hurricane trivia junkies, Zeta is not the latest tropical cyclone on record. The National Hurricane Center says that distinction belongs to 1954’s Hurricane Alice II — yes, there were two hurricanes Alice that year — which spun up in the Atlantic on New Year’s Eve.

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My friend Ted is something of an evangelist for the benefits of biodiesel: usually vegetable-based oil — for instance, filtered fryer oil from the In-n-Out — that will burn in modified diesel engines either by itself or in combination with regular diesel. The arguments for biodiesel, to boil them down: It burns (mostly) cleaner than regular diesel. It’s cheaper than petroleum-based fuel. And it comes from recycling used vegetable oil or from natural sources. Berkeley’s one of the cities that has put part of its municipal truck fleet on biodiesel; it’s a little odd when one of the recycling trucks in town passes by and you get a whiff of something like overheated Mazola oil. So biodiesel is real. It’s practical where people have gotten into it to the point where they’ve set up fuel processing and filling stations; which is to say it’s not yet very practical.

But The New York Times on Friday features a story that shows how that’s changing: “His Car Smelling Like French Fries, Willie Nelson Sells Biodiesel.” The story talks about how Nelson is opening biodiesel fuel stations in several states, about his political reasons for undertaking the effort, and about how much he loves biodiesel:

“My wife came to me and said ‘I want to buy this car that runs on biodiesel, and I said, ‘What’s that?’ And so she told me, and I thought it was a scam or joke or something. So I said, ‘Go ahead, it’s your money.’ ”

She bought a Volkswagen Jetta with a diesel engine and started filling it with fuel made from restaurant grease. This is not uncommon. Home hobbyists make their own biodiesel by collecting used grease from restaurants and chemically treating it to turn it into usable fuel, or by outfitting their car or truck with equipment to re-form the grease.

“I drove the car, loved the way it drove,” Mr. Nelson said. “The tailpipe smells like French fries. I bought me a Mercedes, and the Mercedes people were a little nervous when I took a brand new Mercedes over and filled it up with 100 percent vegetable oil coming from the grease traps of Maui. I figured I’d be getting notices about the warranty and that stuff. However, nobody said anything.”

“I get better gas mileage, it runs better, the motor runs cleaner, so I swear by it,” he added.

The story touches on one downside of biodiesel, too: It could prove expensive and energy-intensive to produce.

Merry Honda Rat-mas


Earlier this year, Berkeley’s Honda dealership changed hands. The new owner reportedly laid off 15 unionized employees who had put in an average of 20 years each with the dealership; one of those let go was a technician with 31 years on the job. The union struck. The City Council voted to support a boycott. But six months later, they’re still on the street.

Sometime over the summer, the strikers deployed a large inflatable rat to make their cause a little more visible (I’m actually a little surprised, though pleased with, the free-speech space the strikers are enjoying; they’ve set up camp right at the entrance to the service department).

Befitting the season, the Honda Rat has been dressed up with a Santa hat and Christmas lights.

Christmas at the Cat Hospital, or The Passing of a Chill Animal

Our cat, Gulliver, died last night. It happened both suddenly and unexpectedly — I use both adverbs to appease my memory of an old newsroom colleague who once objected to the use of the first of that pair because “everybody dies suddenly.” Gullie should have a true cat lover write his obit. Instead, he’s got me, the cantankerous one with the unpredictable impatient streak.

Gullie was a big black-and-white tomcat who hailed from San Francisco’s China Basin area, right near the site of the then-unbuilt Giants ballpark. He was a foundling, picked up as a kitten in the spring of 1996 by someone working in my building and deposited for some reason in the first-floor coffee shop. A coworker and his wife adopted him and got him all his shots. They decided they couldn’t keep him, though, because they were thinking of returning to Britain. One of our two cats had recently been hit by a car and killed, and we thought the surviving cat, named Storm, would like a new companion. We adopted the black-and-white kitten and named him Gulliver. The moniker came from the silly codename of the Internet project I was working on at the time (it was meant as a reference to Yahoo!, our imagined competition).

Of course, we were naive in the ways of feline territoriality. Storm hated Gulliver and tried to attack him the minute we brought him in the door. We kept the cats apart, but they never became friendly. Storm was a small, active animal with an enormous degree of predator’s instinct and skill; I used to call her a “one cat ‘Silent Spring’ ” because of her efficiency at clearing the yard of small wildlife, from hummingbirds to the roof rats living in the abundant ivy across our back fence. When he was little, Gulliver liked to chase things and roll around and do the whole kitten act. But he grew fast and seemed to sense that all he had to do to own the place was be there, Storm or no Storm. I thought he was a little dense — more than a little dense, sometimes — but a friend pointed out once that as passive as he appeared, he always managed to be in position to get his own way. Storm started spending more and more time with our next-door neighbors, Brett and Christine, whose own cat had recently died. Eventually she lived there pretty much full time, and when they moved up to the Sierra foothills a few years ago, she went with them and has fit right into the much wilder landscape.

By the time that happened, Gulliver had long since settled in. He got big — at one point topping 18 pounds. We fed him generously because he always seemed to have an appetite. What we didn’t know was that he’d become a cadge whose begging some locals couldn’t resist. For instance, Gullie would cross the street early every morning just in time to catch our neighbor Bob making his daily tuna sandwich. The cat convinced Bob and family each day that he was starving, so they took pity on him and gave him their leftover tuna every morning.

Of his habits, well, everyone thinks their pet is out of the ordinary. But: Storm would confront a closed door as an object of terror. For Gullie, it was a chance to show his cleverness: If a door was closed but unlatched, he could always figure out how to open it, by pushing or pulling it open with a paw. He was big into stretching out on his back or side in the sun with his legs fully extended; he’d look for rough places on the sidewalk to scratch his own back. He had a comical habit of lying on ledges and letting his front legs hang straight down. He also had a penchant for enclosed spaces — occasionally deciding to camp out in a box or a closet or a shelf and disappearing for hours. A favorite sentinel spot: atop our cars. And not to be forgotten is what I called his suicide dash: He’d spot us driving up the street toward the house then bolt across the driveway just in front of the car. Not sure what he got out of it, but he managed to both alarm and entertain us with this odd welcome home.

But mostly he just liked to be wherever the people were. He seemed capable of spending hours parked in Thom’s or Kate’s laps, or on the couch with us while we watched the tube, or in bed. His general proclivity for just hanging out led Thom, who had become his principal human, to deliver the bottom line: “Gulliver, you’re a chill animal.”

Gulliver’s growth toward Falstaffian proportions drew the vet’s notice several years ago. Not only was he getting super-sized, the doctor told us he detected a murmur when he listened to Gullie’s heart. So he got put on a diet, which took us some time to figure out; we also got the neighbors to knock off feeding him, no matter how desperate he looked. Gradually, he went from 18 pounds to 16, then 15. Still big, but not as big. He ate all of what we gave him (the same diet cat food pellets day after day after day). Then this fall something changed. He seemed to lose his appetite and wouldn’t touch his usual food. He started losing weight — down to 14, then 13, then 12 pounds. Sometimes he didn’t seem to be able to keep food down. He had a seizure of some kind in early November. After that, he got what amounted to cat intensive care: The vet ran blood tests, which came back normal, and a chest X-ray, which didn’t. The pictures showed Gulliver had an enlarged heart, though the doctor was quick to say that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with Gullie’s weight loss or mean that he was in any immediate danger. But over the last several weeks, all the general symptoms of malaise and poor appetite continued. The vet saw him again last week but was still puzzled. He prescribed a diet of cooked ground turkey — genuine people food — and gave him a cortisone shot to try to calm down whatever digestive problem he was having.

Then yesterday, Christmas Day: Gulliver seemed OK early, but as the day wore on his energy and appetite vanished and his breathing seemed a little labored. We decided we’d go to a new vet first thing in the morning, but he got worse throughout the evening. Around 11, when it was obvious he was starting to have extreme difficulty breathing, we called the local emergency animal hospital and they told us to come right in. We did, and the tech who saw us walk in from the rain took one look at the cat and said, “I need to take him right away.” A few minutes later, the staff vet came out and told us that Gullie’s heart was failing and that his lungs had filled with fluid. Amazing what can be done when you have a little money and the willingness to spend it: They injected that cat with a diuretic to try to clear his lungs and applied some nitroglycerine paste to help dilate his arteries, both steps intended to ease the load on his heart. Then he was put into a little oxygen chamber to aid his breathing. The vet came out to the waiting room three or four times to tell us what steps were being taken. After no more than half an hour he told us it was apparent that nothing short of what he described as heroic intervention — essentially putting the cat on a ventilator until his condition stabilized — would keep him alive much longer; and even then, he cautioned that the odds of making it past the first very expensive 24 hours were probably 50-50.

(In the meantime, a younger couple had appeared at the hospital with their dog, a pug named Oscar. “Oh, my god, this is the worst Christmas ever,” the woman said. “He fell off our bed on his side and he just freaked out.” “Yeah, he like spontaneously took a shit when he hit the floor and started shaking.” The dog was still wobbly and apparently couldn’t stand on its own. The doctor said he’d check to see if Oscar had suffered a seizure.)

I went back to take a look at Gullie the last time the doctor spoke to us, because the alternative to aggressive intervention was to euthanize him. He was gasping for breath in this little Plexiglas-fronted box. I went out and told Kate that I thought we needed to let him be put to sleep, and she agreed. I went back to look at him one more time and told the doctor what we wanted to do. “OK — that’s a reasonable decision,” he said. As often as he and his staff see this kind of thing, they actually looked a little stricken.

So we signed a paper, and a few minutes later they brought Gullie out to us in his cat carrier, wrapped in a towel. He was still warm. Poor cat. Poor buddy. So now, while we have what looks like a dry afternoon, we’ll go out and bury him in our backyard, along with the budgie (a mean one called Rosie), the rat (Silly), the cat (Jordan, Storm’s brother), and the rabbit (Night).

Luminaria ’05: Maps


Last Christmas, I printed out a topographic map from a piece of software I have and traced out a map of the North Berkeley luminaria neighborhoods; I used different color inks to show the various years different blocks joined in. It’s not a presentation that translates to a digital format, so I’ve been thinking about how to do a map I could put online this year. There’s got to be something a semi-literate hack like myself can use to make a beautiful souvenir luminaria map; while I have faith that such a product exists, I haven’t found it yet. So back to the drawing board.

The map above is from the same software, Topo, that I used for my printouts last year. The streets that do the luminaria are traced in red using the software’s route tool. The big drawback to using the USGS maps for this purpose is that few streets are labeled. The resulting maps only make sense if you have an idea what you’re looking at to begin with.

My second option was to figure out how to present the luminaria using Google Maps. The maps are clear and easy to use and users can toggle back and forth between a regular street map and satellite pictures, or view a hybrid version. But making a Google Map from scratch using the available development tool would require more time to waste than even I have. So I decided to try to use an already-existing tool, the excellent Gmaps Pedometer, to trace out the luminaria street. As with the Topo versiion, that requires a lot of retracing to include every one of the contiguous blocks. But the result is pretty clear and you have the advantages of zooming in or out on the resulting map, and you have a very clear idea of what street is what. (Holly is in the northwest corner of the outlined luminaria streets). The biggest drawback is that the Pedometer doesn’t let you stop tracing in one spot and begin again in an unconnected spot. That means that I’ve left out several streets (shown in red on at the top of the Topo map above). This Gmaps tool also lacks any capacity (yet) for marking routes in different colors or for adding labels, so there’s no way of doing color-coding

So I’m playing with one more option: A site called MapBuilder.net that lets you build your own Google Map without recourse to any JavaScript or XML coding or access to a Web server to use the Google development resources. So what I came up with there is a Luminaria map (see if this link works: that highlights the chronology of the event (click on the arrow); and gives some idea of the geographic extent without showing all the streets involved. This is just a first try.

More later.

Luminaria ’05: Second Half, Game Summary


Kate and I came in around midnight from driving around to look at all the blocks that have luminaria set up in our corner of Berkeley. Partly that’s because Kate caught my cold and wasn’t up to hiking around all evening. And partly it’s a measure of how far the luminaria have spread. In addition to all the neighboring blocks that connect to ours, maybe 30 in all, we checked out a couple of other areas nearby — maybe a half mile from our neighborhood — where people have started to do luminaria (I’ll put up a link to a map tomorrow). Next thing you know, we’ll be on “60 Minutes.”

This is the 14th year that we’ve done the lights on Holly Street. Defying December expectations a little, we’ve only had rain on one Christmas Eve. That was a couple years ago, and the storm blew through about an hour before we started to put out the luminaria. Yesterday, the forecast was for rain tonight. But it became clear during our warm, clear day that rain was not imminent and wouldn’t happen until late tonight, if then. But about 8:30 or so the weather turned; first it seemed like it would rain any minute. Then a little fog blew through. Then it cleared again.

That’s it for tonight’s Luminaria ’05 broadcast. Merry nondenominational, all-inclusive Christmas to all.

Luminaria ’05: First-Half Action


It could be the case that if you’ve seen one luminaria picture — or at least one of mine, taken with the credit-card sized 3-megapixel Casio — you’ve seen them all. I’ll let the docents at the Ansel Adams Museum slug that one out. In the meantime: Just before 8 p.m., in front of our house, looking south (toward Cedar). Nearly all the lights on our street are lit; we hear from some of the many strollers coming through that all the other blocks are alight, too.

Luminaria ’05: Pregame Report


First of all, about the weather: Maybe it does pay to whine about it the way I’ve been doing lately. Today was mostly clear and what I’d have to call balmy: A high of 69 this afternoon. So much for our December gloom (while we await the next three storms the weathercasters say are lined up well across the dateline to dump on us).

Second: The surrounding blocks were all out early this afternoon setting out their luminaria bags for what has become — see last year’s posts — a big neighborhood event. There are about 25 or so contiguous blocks, stretching about half a mile from north to south and from east to west at the widest points — where I saw families running around doing their set up.


Here on Holly Street, we’re the confirmed laggards. All the other blocks look like they’ll be lit up by 6:30 or 7 at the latest. We won’t even have our luminaria set up by then.




Remembering Christmas, a poet said: “December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers.” The snow was like a living thing: “It came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss. …”

That was Wales. And this is California. December on the weather side of the East Bay hills may produce the odd sunny day. I’m not complaining that we don’t have more. But mostly, it’s gray, as gray as the sopping thick felted clouds stretching overhead from the hills a mile to the east all the way past Hawaii to the tropics. No sunset, no moonrise, no stars. Just the same blanket of heavy, sodden gray pressing down day after day.

At least it’s warm.

(Pictured above: Codornices Creek, where it exits the city storm drains for the Bay, during a heavy rain on Thursday; most of the year, the channel is just a trickle. Beyond the reclaimed soccer field on the right is a big new Target store, and beyond that is the interchange for Interstates 80 and 580.)