Warm and clear. Our most fog-free month. Our warmest month. Nothing in the yards and gardens wants to quit. The fauna, the flora, they just keep going as the light gets shorter, the dark gets longer, the world cools toward what even here we call winter.

Journal of Airline-Seat Photography: Cross-Country Energy Tour


I flew home from Chicago earlier this week and was glued to the window, taking pictures, as usual. I don’t feel like I’m trying to capture anything particular in the pictures. I’m just observing the flow of the landscape as it slides by seven miles below. Still, you hope something will jump out at you that you didn’t expect–a passing aircraft, maybe, or a glimpse of some remote locale you’ve visited before.

On this week’s flight, the unexpected happened as we flew across western Nevada, just north of Tonopah. My eye had been drawn to light falling on some mountains and dunes, and I took a couple of frames. Taking the camera away and looking down again, I saw a big circular construction on the desert floor with some sort of pillar structure in the middle. I’ve read about massive earth art installations out there, and for a second I wondered whether this was one of those. Then I realized I was looking at a rather exotic solar energy facility: a circular field of mirrors focused on a collecting tower. (Later research showed this to be a facility called Crescent Dunes, a name referring to the dunes just west of the installation.)

Then, looking through pictures of the flight, I realized I had a collection of pictures of latter-day (non-fossil-fuel) power facilities: the nuclear plant in Oregon, Illinois; a hydroelectric facility outside Ogallala, Nebraska; windmills along the Colorado-Nebraska border southwest of the town of Sidney, Nebraska; and Crescent Dunes, just north of Tonopah. Here’s the slideshow (and the map that goes with it).

Equinox, 1771 Edition

Yesterday was our autumnal equinox (no, I will not surrender my boreal chauvinism to call it “September equinox”). I’ve seen this day from Berkeley’s latitude for decades now, and it never really feels like fall. While the days are getting shorter and the light is slanting in more acutely day by day, it’s the warmest month of the year there, non-fall. The real herald of the seasons in the northern half of California is the arrival of the first substantial rain, and that can happen any time from now through the end of October in what we like to call a “normal” year.

Still, on every equinox, I go through the same exercise in my head of trying to imagine our planet in space, its axis tilted roughly 23 and a half degrees to the plane of our orbit around the sun (I think I have that right). And while I can recite what’s supposed to be happening out there from equinox to solstice to equinox to solstice, I honestly have a hard time wrapping my brain around it (believe me, I have done the kitchen table demonstrations of the axial tilt and how first one pole and hemisphere, then the other are inclined toward the sun (and how the inclination accounts for our terrestrial seasons). And I’ve played those demonstrations out mentally hundreds of times; maybe I have trouble imagining all this happening in 3D or something.

Anyway, it struck me yesterday that it might be amusing to compare how the equinox was defined by, say, Samuel Johnson when he compiled his dictionary in the second half of the 18th century and maybe compare that to some contemporary definition. I looked–by way of Google Books–and I didn’t think it was that amusing. But I found something better: an article on astronomy from the 1771 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. And in the course of the long, long recounting of late 18th century astronomical knowledge–hey, they knew a lot back then–I came upon this: “Chapter VIII. The different Lengths of Days and Nights, and Vicissitudes of Seasons, explained.”

The chapter starts:

“The following experiment will give a plain idea of the diurnal and annual motions of the earth together with the different lengths of days and nights and all the beautiful variety of seasons depending on those motions. Take about seven feet of strong wire and bend it into a circular form, as abcd, which being viewed obliquely appears elliptical, Plate XLI fig. 3. Place a lighted candle on a table and having fixed one end of a silk thread K, to the north pole of a small terrestrial globe H, about three inches diameter, cause another person to hold the wire circle so that it may be parallel to the table and as high as the flame of the candle which hould be in or near the centre. …”

Read the whole thing for yourself, or just as much as you can handle, and let me know how you make out causing another person to hold your stiff wire circle. Just for fun, up above is the plate referred to in the suggested experiment, the description of which goes on and on.

Riding the Rails, Again


Continuation of the foregoing: Well, Amtrak made good on its promise to get me to Chicago on the train from Washington. The sleeper car–I loved it except for the “sleeper” part. I liked the “roomette” compartment I had–a private compartment with facing seats that was perfect for sitting and watching the landscape roll by. The attendant on my car pulled out the bed and made it up at 10 p.m., and even though the accommodations are on the spartan side, the setup was comfortable enough. But the rocking and rolling and horn-blasting and occasional stops take some getting used to, and then I made things a little harder by not closing the curtains because I thought it was so cool to watch the countryside pass in the dark. A couple times–once in Cleveland, once in Toledo–I woke up with bright lights shining in the window from station platforms.

One surprise to me: The train fell a little bit behind schedule on its way through Maryland, but we actually pulled into Pittsburg 10 minutes or more ahead of the published arrival time, seven hours into the trip. We left Cleveland right on time or even a couple minutes ahead of time, about 3 in the morning. South Bend, Indiana, is the last stop before Chicago–about 80 miles out–and we seemed to be on time leaving there.

Then we hit Gary, maybe 30 miles from the end of the trip, and we stopped. A conductor explained the delay was due to “freight congestion.” (There’s a long history of conflict between Amtrak and freight railroads about which trains get priority on the routes the passenger trains use.) We sat for more than half an hour, then rolled forward slowly for less than a mile and sat for another 10 minutes. And that was what it was like the rest of the trip–it took about two hours to do that final 30-mile leg, and a nearly on-time trip was turned into one that was an hour and a half late. I wasn’t a big deal for me–I was in my nice little compartment and wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere, and I actually liked taking a look at the urban scenery as we headed into the city. But watching the crowd of coach passengers exiting at Union Station, I’ll bet there was some complaining going on back there.


Top photo: The Potomac River in western Maryland. Bottom: The Dan Ryan Expressway, Chicago.

Riding the Rails

I was in in Washington (District of Columbia variety) for a work conference the last couple days. I was all set to fly to Chicago to visit the homeland when things wrapped up. But a little while after our meetings ended early this afternoon, I wondered whether I could take the trip by train instead. I checked Amtrak online, and the Capitol Limited–you don’t take it for granted these trains exist anymore–was scheduled to leave in about an hour. I thought it over for a few minutes as I had coffee with one of my San Francisco radio colleagues. The conclusion of my deliberations: Sure, why not? So I went and grabbed my suitcase from the hotel and walked down to Union Station. I bought a ticket on one of the sleeper cars, and now I’m nearly seven hours out of Washington and twelve from Chicago.

It’s my first overnight train trip since one I took in 1976 after an attempt to hitchhike from Berkeley to Chicago ended with an unfriendly encounter with police in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I decided to catch the train east from there, called my folks and had them wire the money for a one-way ticket. I hiked to the Western Union office, then the train station, and paid my fare. It had been a miserable road trip–rides few and far between and never really long enough to make a dent in the 2,000 miles I was trying to cover. And there was other unpleasant stuff I’ve kind of put out of my mind over the years. A scary ride ride with a couple of drunks who I was scared were too out of it to make the long plunging descent on Interstate 80 from Donner Pass to Reno. The guy who picked me up in Reno and became very threatening after I declined his invitation to come home with him. (Very threatening? When I insisted he let me out of his car–we were now near some desolate place about 10 miles outside town–he complied. But a few minutes later he stopped on the other side of the interstate and called out to me that he had a gun and was going to shoot me. Yeah–I ran down the embankment off the road as fast as I could and stayed there until I saw he was gone. But for the hour or so it took for someone else to stop out there, I expected every approaching car to be this guy coming back to get me.)

When I got on that train in Cheyenne, I was drained and decided I should have a beer. One beer in the middle of the afternoon. It knocked me out, and when I came to I was alone in a coach car, which was filled with a beautiful golden light from the setting sun. For maybe 30 seconds, I had no idea where I was or what I was doing on a train car. It seemed a lot longer. Then I put it together–this is the Chicago train, we’re stopped in Denver, and everyone else has gotten off to have a smoke or stretch or grab a cup of coffee.

This trip is tame compared to that. I’m sitting in the lounge car writing on my phone–Amtrak seems to be a WiFi-free zone, and this is the only way to post. I’m ready to turn in–that’s my mini railroad bunk in the picture. See you in the morning.

Riding the Rails

Hotel Blog: View

I got in late, slept too short, and now I’m up. I’m in a new-ish kind of nice chain hotel. My sense is that I’m looking south from my hotel window over a new “loft” building (with a swimming pool on the roof), a Metro train yard, and then, in the early sunshine in the distance, a squashed cupola that memory tells me is the Library of Congress. Scanning the skyline, another familiar fragment: the statue at the very top of the U.S. Capitol, standing atop its little columned structure at the top of the dome, rises above the roofline of a much more recent building.

Hey. It’s Washington.

Air Blog: Texas Landing


I flew to Washington, D.C., from San Francisco on Wednesday. It’s business: a bunch of people from KQED, my employer, are attending a training at National Public Radio. Most of my colleagues seem to have contrived to fly direct on Virgin America. Not me. I managed to put myself on a one-stop, with the stop being at Dallas-Fort Worth. That’s a piece of Texas pavement pictured above, complete with a Boeing 757 shadow.

If you haven’t been to DFW, it’s huge. Many airports have tram/train systems now, and Dallas-Fort Worth is no exception. What was exceptional, however, was the length of the train ride, as only one of the two lines was running. When I got on, at one of the Terminal A stops, another passenger who’d just gotten off a flight from out west was fretting about whether he’d make a flight that was scheduled to leave in 45 minutes. I assured him that he’d be OK. Not that I really knew, but what are the chances that once you’re on the airport train rolling from terminal to terminal that you’ll miss a flight with so much leeway?

Well, he (and I) made our flights easily, really. But it was a bit of an odd trip. From Terminal A, we went to Terminal B (two stops there). From B, we went to D (two stops there). From D, we went to E (another two stops). And from E, we went to C (my stressed-out fellow traveler and I both got out at the first of the two Terminal C stops).

If I fly through DFW again any time soon, I’m going to see whether it’s possible to walk between some of these terminals.

Today, Twelve Years Ago

Borrowing from Michiko Kakutani in this morning’s New York Times:

“A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now. It is too late. The Evacuation still proceeds, but it’s all theater. … He’s afraid of the way the glass will fall–soon–it will be a spectacle: the fall of a crystal palace. But coming down in total blackout, without one glint of light, only great invisible crashing.”

–Thomas Pynchon, “Gravity’s Rainbow”