Embarcadero Pedicab


Short version of this post: A very cool pedicab driver gave me a free ride a couple weeks ago, and I want to say “thanks again.” I’m also including a pretty picture of the Ferry Building taken on another night altogether, because I like it.

Longer version: Most Fridays, I try to end the work week by walking from my office in Public Radio World, located on the west side of Potrero Hill in San Francisco, over to the Ferry Building, at the foot of Market Street on the Embarcadero, to catch the last boat of the night to Oakland. The favored route is across the summit or upper northern slope of the hill and over to Third Street, then north past AT&T Park and up the waterfront to the ferry. But since it’s a walk with a deadline–the boat has a schedule, and it leaves on time–the route can be adjusted if I’m getting out of the office a little late. I’ve developed a nice zig-zag route across South of Market with what I fancy to be shortcuts through alleys and parking lots. The longest version of the route might be four and a half miles, the shortest is just 100 yards or so under three miles, and the version I usually take is four miles, a distance I can reliably cover in about 55 minutes.

Of course, another variable I can change is speed. I like to stop and take pictures along the way, but I’ll keep that to a minimum if I haven’t left myself a lot of time. Or I can run part of the way. As fun as that sounds, I’m not fond of it because I’ve turned what started out as a relaxing stroll and turns it into a race and I have occasionally wound up at the boat with zero seconds to spare (the captain saw me running up to the dock once and waited for me) and soaked with sweat.

A couple of weeks ago, I had left the office a little late and knew I would be cutting it close. Still, it was a gorgeous evening and I really wanted to go over the hill, longer than the shortest route across town. I can sort of gauge my time and how much I have to hurry by my arrival at the ballpark. When I got there on this evening, I knew I’d have to hustle. So I alternated jogging and walking with backpack and camera up the Embarcadero. About half a mile or so from the ferry, heading to a sweaty finish, I saw three guys who’d just come out of a bar talking to one of the pedicab drivers who work the waterfront. I jogged past. A minute later, the pedicab guy was pulling up alongside me.

“Sir, you look like in kind of a hurry,” he said. “Yeah, yeah,” I said. “Where are you going?” “Just up to the Ferry Building.” I would have liked to have jumped aboard. “You know, I don’t have a dime on me,” I said. “Well, just let me give you a ride,” the driver said. “I’d like to do something nice for you.” So I got in.

The driver’s name was Bill Cummings, and he rides and manages the shop for Cabrio Taxi. He told me he’s had the pedicab gig for two and a half years, and the business has been good enough to him that it’s his only job. Tourists going up to Pier 39, the Alcatraz Ferry, and Fisherman’s Wharf make up a lot of his business, as do people going to and from the ballpark. The Embarcadero bike lanes and weekend traffic congestion around the tourist spots means he can get back and forth faster than people in cars or on public transit. On the other hand, the three guys I saw him talking to before he picked me up were going out to 19th and Mission, several miles into the a heavily driven part of the city–not a terribly safe or attractive trip just as it was getting dark. I had noticed he had the look of a competitive cyclist, and I asked him whether he raced. He said he does Ironman-length triathlons (140.6 events, to the cognoscenti) and that he was in training for one–in New York state, I think.

When we got to the Ferry Building, I offered to go inside to an ATM and pay him. He said no, he really just wanted to do something nice, and it was something he tried to do every day. OK, then. Something nice done, and noted. And below is Bill’s card.


Berkeley Home Biology Lab: Silkworm Sex


While the rest of the world reacted to today’s Supreme Court health care decision, we were witnessing the miracle of insect sex here in North Berkeley. To wit: Kate has been raising silkworms as part of her science teaching. We had a little plastic storage container that has become home to about a dozen silkworm cocoons, and today, silkworm moths emerged from two of them. Amazingly, or perhaps because these creatures have evolved to give themselves the best chance of procreating (or both), the two emergees were a male and female who immediately found each other and went to work mating. We’ll have some exciting video later (the picture above catches me shooting Kate recording the event with her iPad), but I have to say how impressive it is to see how quickly, purposefully and efficiently these pale, flightless creatures attended to their business. The male, the smaller of the two moths, fumbled around a little amid bouts of love grappling, but then hooked up (literally, it looks like) with his female friend (the female is at left in the photo below). Now, about an hour later, they’re quiet but still connected.


Lest We Forget …

Most Amazing High Definition Image of Earth - Blue Marble 2012

… What a beautiful place.

Was just thinking about whether there might be some interesting satellite pictures of the fires in Colorado. I'm sure there are. On my way to finding them, I encountered the shot above, which is a NASA mosaic of our planet taken this past January 4. See the really big version of the image here: Blue Marble .


Compost Community News

compost062712.jpgWe have a compost bin in our backyard. It's had its ups and downs over the years. Sometimes it has actually supplied organic-fertilizer-type material that we have used here on our extensive North Berkeley estate. More often, it has been a way of dealing with food scraps that we and the rest of enlightened civilization are trying to keep out of the landfill.

The principal visible engine of decomposition in our compost is red worms. When there's a steady supply of food and water, they seem to thrive. At some times of year, I'll actually see balls of them working on some hors d'oeuvre we've dumped out there.

But other critters are at work, too. I recently came across a piece of compost literature that talked about "FBI" as the components of a healthy waste pile–fungi, bacteria, and invertebrates. I'll take it for granted that fungi and bacteria are doing their thing out there and are perfectly happy with their lot.

That leaves the invertebrates. I've mentioned the worms. We get a few flies out there, and close inspection discloses some in larval form (maggots by another name). Another population that seems to enjoy the decompositional milieu is what I believe is a form of mite. When I pull the cover off the bin in the daylight, you see them as a shiny mass shifting minutely over unidentifiable food bits and everything else. I don't know whether they're a sign that things are just fine in the compost community or a little off. They've never invited themselves inside, so they're welcome to just do what they do. (Above: the "mites" in question, feasting on a stale bread crust as nearby smallish potatoes look on. Click for larger versions of the image.)

Live at 16th Street BART


Here’s Dennis Blackwell, a guy who was playing at the 16th and Mission BART station on Friday. It does not look like a nice spot. The crowd’s hustling by, you have a little pigeon dung to deal with, and station agents who take in the whole thing with a cold eye.

Blackwell says he’s been playing for spare change for about a year. “I’ve been messing around with a guitar for 20 years. I’m 60 now.” He said he “came into manhood” on the streets of Berkeley, that his target audience is “aging hippies like me,” that he worked most of his adult life as a cook, and is on a fixed income now.

He played a little U2 medley, talked to me for a couple minutes, then launched into “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” by Bob Dylan. I didn’t bring him any luck–I didn’t see a single person stop and give him anything while I was hanging around with my camera and recorder. Hope he did better afterward.

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Weeping in My Cappuccino


The other adult in our household teaches school. She happens to work in a community where many families are intimate with poverty and some of its associated experiences, including a poor diet, lack of access to regular medical care, limited opportunities for exercise because of generally dangerous surroundings, and the health consequences that come along with all that. But thank goodness someone is looking out for these people. Scholastic, the publisher of youth literature, is distributing child-rearing advice from a beloved and widely respected source:

“Rice Krispies Treats® is pleased to offer a few practical tips for fostering those moments with your child when he or she has a flash of brilliance, laughs out loud (LOL), or creates something new and original while relaxing and enjoying the warm and comforting feeling of time with family.”

LOL? I’m so touched at the generosity of Rice Krispies Treats® and so tickled by its warm yet cool concern for family togetherness that I’m WIMC (weeping in my cappuccino). One hardly notices all the reminders that Rice Krispies Treats® is sponsoring the message (my favorite subtle reference: the “you’re the best” message written on the Rice Krispies Treats® package).

Elsewhere this morning, I encountered this:

‘The Smallest Minds … The Cowardliest Hearts’

Current reading: “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian,” by Wallace Stegner. It’s a biography of John Wesley Powell, known popularly for making the first boat trip through the Grand Canyon (in 1869), for being among the founders of the U.S. Geological Survey, for his thorough and sympathetic study of Native Americans and their culture, and for promoting a rational approach to the settlement of the arid West. (Among other details I didn’t know, Powell was also a faculty member at the college that became Illinois State University, in Normal, and lived in Bloomington).

Anyway, at one juncture, Stegner stops to contemplate federal government policy on the West. He quotes Mark Twain’s “portrait of the Congressman: ‘the smallest mind and the selfishest soul and the cowardliest heart that God makes.’ ” Harsh, but apt for our time, I thought (and sure, there are some who would say it’s a description with eternal currency).

I wanted to know the source of the quote. One’s first Google search turns up the fact it’s widely cited (to express disgust with today’s crop of solons) though the source is hard to come by. The closest you can get is along the lines of “an 1891 letter to an unknown correspondent.”

Twain died in 1910, and in 1912, someone named Albert Bigelow Paine came out with a massive biography that reprints the letter in full (or nearly full–there’s no salutation, thus the name of the recipient, if any, is unknown, and it begins with an ellipsis). The letter appeared five years later in a collection of Twain’s letters. The subject is the Twain’s real-life experience and how it has fitted him for the profession of novelist. Here’s the paragraph that’s the source of Stegner’s quote:

So, the quote was more expansive and changed somewhat as it passed through the many hands between Twain, Paine, and Stegner. Or maybe not. Stegner cites an edition of “The Portable Mark Twain” edited by his friend and mentor, the historian Bernard De Voto, as his source, and De Voto’s quote was identical to those printed earlier. Stegner appears to have cleaned it up and narrowed the context to fit his needs.

In any case, the original message was: Those lawmaker-government types–they’re all bums.

Journal of Self-Promotion: Water and Power

A long, long time ago (sometime last fall), one of my fellow editors at KQED radio asked if I’d be interested in doing a story for a series on water and power in California. The series would look at the close relationship between water and energy in the state: on one California needs to move immense quantities of a very heavy substance over very long distances, and that requires a lot of power; and on the other, a lot of water is needed to help generate power.

To go back to last fall: Yes, I was interested. And today, a mere seven or eight months later, we have the first part of the series. If you wonder what I sound like climbing a steep hill with 60-some pounds on my back, it’s a must-listen.

Front-Porch Visitor


This specimen, an Indian Walking Stick, showed up on the front porch this past Tuesday (Election Day). Or maybe it was there earlier and we took no notice. It’s certainly unobtrusive. In fact, we didn’t try to identify it until today. And when we did, we found out that this is an exotic and not entirely welcome transplant to California. Here’ s an excerpt from a UC Davis writeup:

“Walking stick insects, order Phasmatodea, are mostly tropical insects that are considered an entomological curiosity because of their remarkable mimicry of twigs and leaves. Several species are popular in the pet trade and for grade school demonstrations and thus get moved extensively with some, such as the Indian walking stick insect, Carausius morosus, becoming established in many parts of the world. The Indian walking stick is native to southern India, but the precise time of its establishment in California is unknown; the first official finding occurred in San Diego County in 1991 and shortly thereafter in San Luis Obispo County. There has been an increase in homeowner reports of walking stick damage in the last 10 years along the Central and Southern coasts of the state.”

Kate has, in a science-teacherly way, captured the Walking Stick, put it in a small terrarium with some fresh leaves. It appeared to have deposited about a dozen eggs on the porch floor, immediately below where it was just hanging out on the wall. She scooped up those, too. Now we’ll wait and see nature take its course.”

Hill Climb

Yesterday, to demonstrate a point–water is heavy and it takes a lot of energy to move it–I walked with a cubic foot of water on my back up Marin Avenue, a well-known hill here in Berkeley. A cubic foot of water is 62.4 pounds. To get it into a relatively manageable state–water has a mind of its own and is the ultimate shape-shifter when you try to confine it–I poured a couple gallons of water into several reasonably leak-proof plastic bags, double-bagged those bags, then put the bags into a single-compartment backpack. In the event, I had some leakage, but I’m pretty confident from weighing things out the gross mass of what I was hauling was pretty close to 62 pounds.

I chose Marin and a single cubic foot of water as a humble analog for a famous section of California’s State Water Project. Down below Bakersfield, the SWP has a facility called the Edmonston Pumping Plant. It’s job: Move water that’s been pumped uphill from the San Joaquin Valley up and over the Tehachapi Mountains. “Move water” is a bit of an understatement. Edmonston’s big lift blasts water from a battery of 14 pumps up 1,920 feet, over the top of the Tehachapis, through several miles of underground pipelines. It’s a waterfall in reverse–4,450 cubic feet per second, 2 million gallons a minute–made to defy gravity. Once it’s over the top, the water flows into a network of aqueducts and reservoirs for mostly residential customers throughout Southern California.

So, my single cubic foot of water, going up 650 vertical feet over three-quarters of a linear mile in about 20 minutes–my power output was probably several hundred watts (I’m trying to work out a calculation, but so far I don’t believe what I see). In human terms, I was breathing hard and sweating freely before I was halfway up. I wonder if those Edmonston pumps, which each operate at 60 million watts, ever get tired.

Anyway: Above is a little bit of what the effort looked like, shot with my iPhone as I headed up Marin; below is “the top”: