Category Archives: Berkeley

Marmalade + Winter = Ants


It’s been a little colder than normal here in Berkeley — and as wet as the weather annals say we have a right to expect — so ants are looking for warmer, dryer digs. They like it when you give them a little extra encouragement. An open sugar jar or compost container might attract an overnight bug invasion. And so might a smidgen of orange marmalade left over from breakfast.

It took a few hours, but the ants found that little bit of sugar, which had spread out into a nice globule on the stainless steel at the edge of our range top. They gathered around the marmalade like they were at a trough. There weren’t a lot of them coming and going; mostly, this group found the good stuff and I think they were forgetting to run back and tell their pals about it.

Unfortunately, I have to acknowledge wildlife was harmed after I made this picture. I got a sponge and wiped up the marmalade and the ants with it. Their cousins are still around, though, scouting out the next feed.

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Above: From NASA’s Worldview site, an image of California’s first real storm of the wet season (click for a larger version, or check it out on Worldvew). Here’s (a slightly edited version of) how the National Weather Service’s San Francisco Bay Area forecast office described the weather system as it was shaping up early Sunday:


The rain started here in Berkeley about 9 p.m. or so. It’s been more than a drizzle: .29 of an inch in the last couple of hours, on the off chance that the backyard rain gauge (which I got just after the last rain of the spring) is correct. That seems to line up with other rain gauges around town that report on Weather Underground. We’ll see how accurate it looks tomorrow.

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


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


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


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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A July Surprise: Actual Rain

The fact it’s July notwithstanding, the National Weather Service forecast rain for Thursday. Our seasonal but only faintly known monsoon — it occasionally brings heavy rain to the Sierra and other ranges but rarely visits the lowlands with rain — has been potent this year. Despite that, it was a surprise when rain began pattering on the roof early this afternoon. And just as surprising when showers started up again about nightfall.

How much did it add up to? Our rain gauge, which has gotten very little use since we set it up in the spring, recorded .05 of an inch. Other weather stations around town — I find it hard to find the “official” reading here — recorded up to about .10.

Checking the Western Regional Climate Center records for Berkeley, it appears the official record for the date here was .10, in 1974. The average monthly July rainfall for Berkeley, in records that go back (though with some gaps) to 1893, is .03 of an inch.

And the wettest July day ever recorded in Berkeley is actually kind of surprising: 1.40 inches, on July 8, 1974. That was part of a storm that swept the region and yes, made headlines. Here’s the front-page portion of a story from the Marin Independent Journal (and below that, the PDF of the entire front page, which features a six-column picture of a flooded U.S. 101 in Corte Madera as well as some better-known history):

Screenshot 2015-07-10 00.58.36.png


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The American Community Survey and Me


So, this came in the mail last week. It’s the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. As a journalist who sometimes tries to extract useful information about my community, state and nation from the census data, I thought, “Cool! Now I’m going to be part of that data.” Of course, the envelope, with the notice “your response is required by law,” makes it sound less cool. Still, I am a sucker for some (not all) of the rites of citizenship, so I dived into the survey.

One glitch I encountered: One is encouraged to fill out the survey online. No problem — I live online. But after you sign in with your unique ID at the outset of the process, a personal identification number is displayed with an advisory that you’ll need it if you need to sign out in the middle of the estimated 40-minute process. Of course, I didn’t write down the PIN, had to sign out, and then was unable to sign back in to finish the survey. The Census Bureau can’t (or won’t) reset the PIN. So if you want to continue, you have to call and get the agency to reset the survey and start over.

Wanting to provide the response required by law, I called, got the PIN reset, and started the survey over. It was all pretty simple stuff –information on race, ethnic background, how long I’ve lived where I’ve lived, whether I rent or own, how much I pay for utilities, how much I pay for housing, income data. Then there was a series of questions about disabilities, including this:

Screenshot 2015-07-05 13.21.01.png

I’d suggest a third choice for the answer: “Not yet.”

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Along the Road: West Sacramento


Earlier this month, Kate and I drove up to Woodland, a town west of Sacramento, to check out some pickup-truck campers. And since we were up there near the Sacramento River, we took the opportunity to explore a little, driving east and south on Main Street, then Old River Road, to West Sacramento.

We stopped at the junction of Old River Road and Yolo County Road 126 so I could take some pictures of the Sacramento Weir — a structure designed to let high water flow from the river just north of downtown Sacramento into the Yolo Bypass. So I did take some of those pictures of the bypass, which hasn’t had water flowing through it in several years.

But there was also this roadside memorial, for one Jesus Martinez Mora, who died in a traffic accident on this stretch of road in March 2009. Here’s the story from the Sacramento Bee:

The man killed in a fiery two-vehicle crash Monday night in Yolo County has been identified as Jose Jesus Mora Martinez, 65, of Sacramento.

Robert LaBrash, Yolo County’s chief deputy coroner, said cause of death remains under investigation.

The crash occurred on Old River Road about 7:15 p.m. just south of County Road 126 and west of the Sacramento River, said Robert Lagomarsino, a California Highway Patrol officer.

Witnesses said a 1997 Chevrolet pickup truck, driven by Martinez, speeding south on Old River Road, failed to negotiate a curve, Lagomarsino said.

The vehicle went onto the shoulder and spun toward the northbound lane and into the path of a 1996 Toyota Corolla carrying four people, including two babies.

The driver of the Toyota was John Ostergaard Jensen, 25, of Woodland. His passengers were Adrienne Day, 24, a 1-year-old girl and a 3-month-old, Lagomarsino said.

Ostergaard Jensen braked when he saw the out-of-control vehicle but struck the truck’s right side, causing it to flip onto its roof and burn, killing Martinez.

The Toyota also caught fire, but all four people inside escaped. Ostergaard Jensen and Day complained of pain, and Day suffered an abrasion to her shoulder. The two children suffered minor injuries.

It’s easy to see how something bad could happen at this spot. The approach from both directions is straight and fast, followed by a short, compressed S turn with a marked 35 mph speed advisory. While I was standing there, I saw a couple of drivers struggle a little to keep their cars in their lane.

And just out of curiosity, I checked for media accounts of other accidents at the same spot, and found these:

February 2013: A motorcyclist loses control on the curve and slides into group of pedestrians.

October 2014: Husband and wife killed in motorcycle crash after losing control on the curve.


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Death and Life in the Sunday Obits

Sometimes on Sundays, I’ll go through the newspaper obituaries. I generally don’t have time during the week to do that, and I may be reverting to a family habit of perusing “the Irish funnies.”

I’m not looking for anything in particular. I notice ages — between the San Francisco Chronicle and the conglomeration of papers published by the Bay Area News Group, I found three recently deceased centenarians. I take special note of people my age or younger who have died recently; there are more and more of those.

One obit from last Sunday stood out for me. I won’t mention the name, but it was for a man who had died a few days after his 50th birthday. The death notice was accompanied by a picture showing a robust guy with a handsome smile.

I’m morbidly curious about cause of death, especially for someone who died relatively young. Did cancer get him? That information wasn’t disclosed. But the obit hinted at something disquieting. Here’s how it begins :

[John Doe] passed away April XX, 2015. Let’s get one thing out there. [John] was no fan of turning 50. He often talked about the monumental birthday as the other side of life, the decline. We talked a lot about it at family gatherings and how life is so much more than an age. But he was stubborn. And, in this case, he really wanted to be right.

The way I read that — go ahead, call me too ready to jump to conclusions — is that this man took his own life and that whoever in his family wrote this notice did a remarkable job of framing the event without coming out and uttering the agonizing truth. There’s some other evidence to support that conclusion in some of the remembrances attached to the online version of the obituary.

But of course, maybe that’s not what happened at all.

There was a very high-profile Silicon Valley death last weekend, that of David Goldberg, the CEO of an online survey company and husband of Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg. That news item went rocketing around the Bay Area, but it was conspicuous for its lack of detail. Here was a 47-year-old man who died suddenly, whose family announced its shock at the passing (on Facebook, no less), but said nothing about how he died or even where he died.

Not that that’s anyone’s business, necessarily. But when you put the word out there, people will wonder what the heck happened. I think that’s as much out of simple empathy as it is out of anything lurid or morbidly curious. I think most of us substitute ourselves into a situation: How would I feel if that tragedy had befallen me, my spouse, my child, my parent?

Anyway, I wondered whether Goldberg had taken his own life, and I said as much to Kate, who gets to listen to way more of my hypothesizing than anyone should have to.

I brought this up when I went to work, in my public radio newsroom in San Francisco, on Monday. To my surprise, virtually everyone was having similar thoughts. There was a strong shared feeling that the lack of details was strange, that the family was reluctant to say what the manner of death was, and that manner of death might well have been suicide.

Of course, details did emerge. And they were terrible and tragic — way beyond but also very different from our speculation.

And the lesson there is — what? Not to speculate? To leave people alone with their grief? No. I think it’s in human nature to wonder, and simply wondering is a far cry from prying. Being curious about death, about how people died, about the lives they led — I think all that’s natural, too, and nothing to be ashamed of.

The ritual of the obituary is a two-way communication: We put out word to family and friends about the death of a loved one and in some corner of our hearts hope the strangers who scan the death notices will see the merit in the life whose end we’re observing. And being curious about those strangers’ lives is a way of honoring that life. Or can be, anyway.

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Berkeley Chickens: Friends and Would-Be Roommates


Among other happenings in 2014, Kate and I became chicken farmers. Or at least fowl cohabitants.

Kate has a work friend who last spring needed to find a home for two chicks. We had thought about getting chickens — we have a neighbor who has three and several friends who have them, too and poultry is probably the fastest growing segment of the Berkeley population — so we said yes.

I won’t go into the chickens’ full joint biography other than to relate their names, Millie and Rhoda (it’s a pretty straightforward ’60s-’70s pop culture reference, if you want to play). Kate found a coop on Craigslist and designed a nice little enclosure for the birds, and they’ve been enjoying what seems to us a fairly happy chicken life out in our backyard. Most days, we give them the run of the backyard, and we’ve discovered that one of the things people say about chickens is true — they crap everywhere.

But they’re also surprisingly personable, and it’s way too easy for them to get the idea that they are pets instead of farm animals whose highest calling is to meet our demand for protein. We started giving them rolled oats as a treat, and they caught on right away: As soon as they saw us walk out the back door with the bag, they’d come running over in a manner that is both charming and insistent. “Look at how we run! It’s kind of funny! What’s that in the bag? When are you going to give us some?”

Right, I’m anthropomorphizing.

But so are they. They’ve noticed that we go in and out of the house, and they appear to be very curious about what goes on inside. At first, they’d track our movements through the house, running from door to door as they saw us walking back and forth past windows and doors. We generally leave the back doors open a crack when we’re home, but the chickens have shown a desire to explore the indoors. They’ll come into the back hallway and look around, maybe enjoying the relative warmth. I’ve tried to get them out as quickly as possible when they come inside. And I don’t leave the door open anymore, because we’ve discovered they’re just as likely to crap indoors as out, and you have to draw the line somewhere.

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