Monthly Archives: September 2015

Air Blog: New York

Just to note: A high approach to JFK about 5:15 p.m. on a beautiful early autumn Thursday. We flew over Scranton, Pennsylvania, then just north of the Delaware Water Gap and the New Jersey Meadowlands, then did a long, slowly descending pass over upper Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn and Queens again, finally looping back over the barrier islands and the western Long Island suburbs to the airport.

Oh, and by the way: It’s my brother John’s birthday today — the reason I was on the plane. Happy birthday, JPB.

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Coffee Stars (or Are They Flowers?): The Sequel

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Here we are: It was midday Thursday in the middle of a week off, and I was still looking to make a mark on the world. While idly pondering what that mark might be, I behold the very end of my morning coffee, resting cold at the bottom of a mug. I wonder for the one hundredth time why the half-and-half in the cooling coffee settles into flowerlike or starlike patterns. (Actually, it’s a little alarming to me to read one of my past speculations on this topic; my thinking on the question doesn’t really seem to have evolved at all, and I wonder whether that might be emblematic in some way of being sort of stuck in some kind of barren intellectual loop. On the other hand, coffee stars are kind of interesting.)

As in earlier musings, I more than half-expect that someone research chemist somewhere can explain this. Now I will go in search.

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Mystery Clay Blobs in Berkeley Neighborhood

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About a month ago, Piero and Jill, our neighbors across the street, presented us with a mystery: the seemingly ubiquitous appearance of tiny blobs of clay on their cars, their front porch, and on cars up and down our block of Holly Street, a couple blocks from North Berkeley BART.

Where had these blobs, probably in the thousands, come from? The theory I came up with: Maybe the dirt had been precipitated out from dust in the atmosphere. You know, dust that had been picked up in the Gobi Desert, say, and blown in the stratosphere clear to Berkeley, where it rained down on our street.

The idea isn’t entirely loony: Dust from Asia and Africa is known to play a role in precipitation over California’s mountains. But in that case, we’re talking about minuscule particles that serve as nuclei for ice crystals that later fall as snow or rain. (Yes, sometimes there’s so much dust in the air that it will precipitate as a muddy rain — but that’s different from what we were seeing on Holly Street.)

Kate, science teacher and certified California naturalist, appears to have come up with the most probable answer to the blob source: yellowjackets. Here’s what the University of California’s Integrated Pest Management site has to say about the nesting habits of these wasps:

Yellowjackets commonly build nests in rodent burrows, but they sometimes select other protected cavities, such as voids in walls and ceilings of houses, as nesting sites. Colonies, which are begun each spring by a single reproductive female, can reach populations of between 1,500 and 15,000 individuals, depending on the species.

The wasps build a nest of paper made from fibers scraped from wood mixed with saliva. It is built as multiple tiers of vertical cells, similar to nests of paper wasps, but enclosed by a paper envelope around the outside that usually contains a single entrance hole. If the rodent hole isn’t spacious enough, yellowjackets will increase the size by moistening the soil and digging.

The writeup doesn’t say what the yellowjackets do with the material they excavate. But a Georgia gardening website does. In trying to answer readers’ questions about the source of mysterious dirt balls, the site consulted an entomologist a University of Georgia entomologist, who said:

The yellowjacket is almost certainly the culprit here.

First is the time of year. Nests are expanded rapidly and grow almost exponentially during late June through September. To allow for this expansion the original nest hole must be greatly enlarged to accomodate the growing nest that will ultimately be at least soccer ball-sized and often larger.

After a good rain, excavating activity often approaches a frenzy level, and if you watch the traffic at the nest entrance 7 out of every 10 wasps will emerge with a chunk of clay in their jaws. They always airlift it generally out to within a few yards of the nest and drop the pellets like small bombs from several feet high, then immediately return to repeat the process. In this way they make room for their nest to grow, and it takes a lot of mouthfuls of mud to do so!

When Kate found this description, Piero said he’d been seeing a good number of yellowjackets around. Unknown, so far as I’ve heard, is whether the nest this industrious group has been working on has been located.

The photo above: a closeup of one of the clay blobs in question; below, to give an idea of scale, how they looked on the rear window of a Volkswagen Bug. More photos here. (Regarding the picture above: More alarming to me than the mystery blob is all the crud surrounding it; that, no doubt, is simply our normal urban fallout of dust, grit and particulate byproducts of burning hydrocarbons. We’re breathing that stuff.)

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Non-Natives in California: Snails and Other Species

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It’s September, and just about time for the chrysanthemums we’ve been nursing through the summer with buckets of dishwater to enjoy their autumn moment. Looking at the hundreds or thousands of unfolding buds this morning, I noticed a familiar garden visitor: Cornu aspersum, also known as the brown snail, garden snail, brown garden snail, European garden snail, or European brown garden snail (in French, its common name is apparently petit-gris, or little gray). Some of the snails were young, smaller than the just-opening buds they’re presumably feeding on.

The University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources reports there are about 280 species of snails and slugs here in the Golden State, of which 242 are believed to be natives. Cornu aspersum (formerly Helix aspersa) is one of the many non-native species, including eucalyptus, striped bass and Homo sapiens, that make California what it is today.

C. aspersum is native to the western Mediterranean, probably originating in North Africa and migrating millions of years ago into Europe. Thanks to much more recent human genius and/or carelessness, the snail is reportedly now at home on every continent except that very cold one well to the south of us.

How did this land mollusk come to California? I remember hearing when I had newly introduced myself into this bioregion that they were the same species as one served to gastrophiles as escargot. In fact, I was told that Bay Area locals had been known to capture snails, feed them cornmeal to cleanse their digestive systems of whatever vile material they might have been eating, then consume them. I can’t say I’ve ever met someone who claims to have done this themselves.

The April 27, 1900, number of the journal Science includes an article titled “Exotic Mollusca in California,” by Robert Edwards Carter Stearns of Los Angeles. Stearns related a very specific genesis story for the European snails in California:

“This species was intentionally introduced or ‘planted’ in Calfornia over 40 years ago by Mr. A. Delmas, of San José, Santa Clara county, who brought the stock from France and turned it out among the vineyards on the west bank of the Guadalupe, a small river that flows northerly through Santa Clara Valley and empties into the southerly end of San Francisco bay near Alviso. The soil where the snails were placed is a rich sandy loam and the place well shaded. When the summer heats reach the maximum, the Helices descend into the ground several feet, hiding in the cracks that form, as the ground dries, and the gopher-holes also furnish cool retreats and protection. The region above named is one of exceeding fertility. It was settled by a few French families. The introduction of H. asperse by Mr. Delmas was made for edible purposes, or in common parlance ‘with an eye to the pot.’ Mrs. Bush, of the Normal School in San José, informs me that the snails have thriven, and have extended their territory from the starting point on the west bank of the stream to the easterly side, and have multiplied to such an extent, that in some instances they are troublesome in the gardens.”

Stearns also reported Delmas had planted the snails in San Francisco, where they did not do well at first, and Los Angeles, where they apparently thrived. By 1900, it had taken hold in other locations.

“A. Delmas,” it turns out, was Antoine Delmas, a French émigré who had arrived in California in 1849. He established a nursery and vineyards in the Santa Clara Valley and is credited in “A Companion to California Wine” with being the first to import French wine-grape vines, including merlot and cabernet, into the state. Another claim for Delmas: that he brought an obscure varietal to California that became known as zinfandel.

Between the grapes, the wine and the snails, that’s a big mark for one man to have made on this place.

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Rough Fire: From 26 Acres to 138,000-Plus

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The Rough Fire has been burning in the Sierra National Forest and Kings Canyon National Park, east of Fresno, for six weeks now. It’s burned more than 138,000 acres, the biggest fire in California in — well, in just two years, when the Rim Fire burned more than a quarter-million acres in and adjacent to Yosemite National Park. The Rim Fire is No. 3 on Cal Fire’s list of the state’s biggest wildfires; the Rough Fire is currently No. 16, having moved ahead of last year’s Happy Camp Fire, which is still smoldering in the forests of Siskiyou County.

Among the many maps prepared during the course of a campaign to contain and control a wildfire are progression maps — sort of a historical chart of how a fire has spread over time. Above is the current progression map for the Rough Fire, current through Saturday, September 12 — click the image for a much larger version or download the super large, 10472×8092-pixel version on Inciweb).

What it shows, in a nutshell, is how the fire grew from a modest, lightning-caused incident that grew relatively slowly during the first week to the monster it has become. Weather has helped it gallop through the canyons and ridges near the Kings River, of course. But the common denominator in all our big fires this year is drought: four years of extraordinarily dry conditions have turned California into a landscape that’s even more ready than usual to burn.

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Valley Fire Video: Anderson Springs Road After and Before

The video above has been picked up everywhere, I think, as a first-person view of the Valley Fire as it roared through southern Lake County on Saturday evening. It was recorded by a resident of the Anderson Springs community northwest of Middletown, and all I can tell you about timing is that it’s after dark — so sometime after 7:45 p.m. or so. At about the 50-second mark in the video, the driver goes through a gate and you can make out the words “Anderson Springs” (in reverse). Not being sufficiently employed in more productive activities (I’m taking the week off from work, where I often do the same thing I’m doing right here), I checked to see if I could find Anderson Springs Road, and the gate, on Google Street View.

The image below is a screen shot of the gate and environs in happier times — June 2012, to be more exact (the gate had been erected sometime between a 2007 Street View sweep and the 2012 image).

One thing that’s clear looking at the entire video — it’s just under two minutes, total — is that most of the many homes along the road burned. The video shows one property after another in flames, and upon reaching the corner of Highway 175, just past the gate, a voice says, “Holy fucking shit” upon seeing a large home (visible in the Street View) images that’s being consumed by fire. Here’s the Street View link to the scene below

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Road Blog: Apparition

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The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, about 40 miles south of the Las Vegas Strip on Interstate 15. The towers you see (shot from the passenger’s seat of a car traveling about 70 mph toward Los Angeles) are each 459 feet high.

The simple version of how the plant works: Each tower is surrounded by an immense field of mirrors that focus sunlight on a collector at the top of the tower. Thus the beams of light made visible by the desert haze. That intense heat drives turbines that generate electricity. (This isn’t the first time this type of plant has appeared on this here blog.)

For the more complex version of what’s really happening at the plant, check out my friend Pete’s coverage of Ivanpah here and here.

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Road Blog: The Sports Book

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Thom and I are in Las Vegas on an adventure I’ll describe later. We’re staying at Caesar’s Palace, right on The Strip. Our arrival last night coincided with the beginning of the NFL’s 2015 season, Pittsburgh Steelers visiting the New England Patriots, and when we went downstairs to dinner, we could hear cheering and shouting from people watching the game in the bars, lounges and restaurants around us. It was a mixture of one part fan enthusiasm, I think, and four parts monetary self-interest for the hundreds or thousands of bettors gathered on the premises.

After we ate, we went over to the Caesar’s Palace sports book, where the house entertains wagers on all manner of sporting contests. The room is the size of a small concert hall, with screens showing games, highlights of games, and the current betting line on upcoming events, especially college football. By the time we got there, it was already the fourth quarter, and the Patriots’ lead seemed secure. But while the game’s outcome was no longer in doubt, the outcome of many bets — whether New England would cover the 7-point spread, for instance — had not yet been resolved. So the throng in the sports book was still hanging on every play.

At some point, I went to the restroom. Most men maintain silence while they go about their business in such settings. But as I stood at a tastefully style urinal, the guy next to me asked, “You have any money on that game?”

“No — we got here too late,” I said.

“I’ve got three thousand bucks on the under,” he said. He was referring to the over-under, a proposition in which you can bet on the total points scored in the game. Taking the under means you’re betting the total points will be lower than the number set by the house; betting the over means you’re betting the score will exceed that figure.

“What’s the over-under tonight?” I asked.

“Fifty-one.”

The score at the time of the restroom visit was 28-14, meaning the guy would lose his bet if another 10 points were scored. The Steelers had been moving the ball, and this guy was nervous he was going to lose his three grand.

“Well, it’s raining, anyway,” I pointed out — rain at the game might make it harder to score.

“Yeah — let the rains come. Slow everything down,” he said.

On screen in the sports book a few minutes later, the Steelers were driving again. Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh quarterback dropped back to pass. He threw an interception that killed a potential scoring drive.

I saw the guy from the restroom. “There you go,” I said. He had already launched into a celebration. He was going to win his bet.

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