Saturday, March 1, 2008


... in our yard.

What cheerful things they are!

Weird Stuff...

While on my walk this morning, I found this stuff near the bottom of a fairly large oak tree. I've never seen anything like it before. It seems to be made of very fine fibers, something like very sparse cotton. In the photos it is covered with heavy “dew” from the mists of the morning. The photo at upper right is a close-up of one piece of the larger mass, all of which is visible in the lower photo.

I didn't want to touch it, as I was afraid I'd damage it – it looks very fragile. I have two thoughts about its nature: (1) it could be a filamentous fungus of some kind, or (2) it might have been produced by an insect. Whatever it is, it's strange. And quite beautiful, when it's covered by dew.

If you're reading this, and you can identify what this is, please leave a comment!

Odd Stones...

On our neighbor's property, there's a hill that lies due west of our home. Near the top of this hill, on its eastern slope (facing our home), there's a sloped expanse of exposed granite with a peculiar collection of rocks on it. The oddest one is in the foreground of both photos; it actually has a sort of “tripod” that it rests upon.

I don't actually how these rocks were formed, or how they came to be where they are. I can imagine both an entirely natural process (boulder falls from above, rolls to a stop where it is today, then erodes into this odd shape) and an entirely anthropomorphic process (a gang of kids or adults rolls a nearby boulder into place, then shapes it with sledges). I'm inclined to favor the natural process, as there's nothing about this rock that looks “manufactured” to me. But who knows? Maybe the perpetrators were drunk!

In any case, this exposed stretch of granite with its odd sculptures is a place we often stop at the mid-point of one of our walks. There's a fine view from here, including one of our home seen from a perspective that's very different than our usual one. In the photo above, you can see Gaskill Peak (to the left) and the several peaks that form Lawson Peak (to the right). The hill in the middle distance (with some large pines jutting up from it) is the hill we live on, below and to the left of what's visible in the photo, on the north face.

A couple of years ago, I heard (and I've forgotten where) about a fascinating study done of balanced rocks in our area. Some geologist had a very bright idea: that the balanced rocks could be used as a sort of recording seismograph. It's possible to compute the force (and therefore the size of the earthquake) required to dislodge a balanced rock. From other evidence, one can make a good estimate of when a rock was dislodged. On the other hand, one can also infer the absence of earthquakes from balanced rocks that have not been dislodged. By studying thousands of these rocks all over the southern California and northern Mexico, the geologist was able to develop maps of major earthquakes over the past 150,000 years. The connection: the two rocks above were part of that study.

Algae, Lichens, and Mosses...

These three families of organisms all live in the chaparral, and they either disappear or are dormant anytime the chaparral is dry. The lichen (which are fungus and a symbiote, either an algae or a cyanobacterium) mostly shrivel and change color (often to black) when it's dry. The algae completely disappears. The mosses shrivel and turn black or a very dark brown. The bright, vigorous greens you see in these photos only appears for a short while – a few weeks at most – during and just after our rains.

In the lower left of the photo at right, you can see a bright green blob of algae, growing with great enthusiasm in a trickle of water from a seep just a few feet above it. Just to its right is a rich green moss, growing from sopping wet soil watered by that same seep. If I come back to this same spot in a couple of weeks, most likely there will be little sign that either of them ever existed.

At right is a fine example of the most common lichen in this area. It grows prolifically on the exposed granite of our hills. Most of the year, its colors are muted and its structure is dry and brittle. Now those lichens are leathery and strong, and sometimes I think I can actually see them growing. A time-lapse series of one of these would be interesting to watch...

For someone like me, used to the dehydrated appearance of the chaparral most times, these few weeks of wetness are full of beauty and surprises. This is especially true, I suppose, in the first wet year after a prolonged drought...

Here are a few more photos of these short-lived jewels:

Signs of Spring...

It's only the first of March, but here in the chaparral we're already seeing some plants acting springy. At right are the flowerbuds of a plant commonly called the “lemonade berry”, a member of the sumac family. This is one of the few chaparral plants whose leaves remain a rich green color even in the worst drought. Of course this is not an issue this year, with all the rains we've had.

Below, on the right, is the flowerbud from another native evergreen: a ceanothus, commonly called a “lilac” (but it's not a true lilac at all). Finally, the photo at left below is new growth on an eight foot tall manzanita. This is notable mainly for its size – we're seeing an inch to two inches of new growth on many manzanitas (and as much as four inches on some individuals), more than we've seen for years. I hadn't realized before just how dependent the new growth of a manzanita was on water. This spring's heavy rains are proving the point!

Patriot Plumbing...

When you've been a consumer for as many years as I have, you know that you need to remember and cherish a vendor who delivers good service and good products at a fair price. When you find a vendor like that, you tell your friends about him.

That's what I'm doing here. We've used Patriot Plumbing several times over the past few years. They've fixed a leaking shower fixture, unclogged our sewer line (twice!), and (most recently) replaced our water heater after it sprang a leak.

Each time they've been out here, they did everything right: they were fast (especially refreshing for us, as we live a long way from town), they fixed the problem right the first time, they made smart suggestions (such as replacing the shower valve while repairing the leak in the wall) but didn't try to sell us things we didn't want or need, they installed quality parts, their people were very pleasant to work with, and the price was very fair, without even a hint of taking that extra pound of flesh from you when you're desparate.

One thing that I particularly appreciated: on the first occasion we used Patriot, I wasn't at home, and my wife (who knows absolutely nothing about plumbing) had to handle it. The plumber who came out here could easily have taken advantage of her ignorance to sell us all manner of things we didn't need – but he didn't.

So my recommendation for a plumber (if you live anywhere in San Diego County) is, without reservation, Patriot Plumbing. Their little refrigerator magnet is on our microwave. You can call them at 619/579-8929.


Last week's puzzler had more wrong answers than I usually see – chaparral esoterica must not be the repertoire of most of my readers! But, having said that, I must also say that more than half (about 57%) of you got it right: chaparral plants are generally of uniform size because they're all about the same age. They're all the same age because many of the chaparral plants require fire for their seeds to germinate – so they all sprouted in the year or two following the last fire that burned over the area. In the case of Lawson Valley, where I live, that last happened in 1973.

This week's puzzler is on a technology phenomena. There are only a few choices of technology that can light your home in the absence of sunlight: flames (candles, gas lights), materials heated to incandescence (incandescent bulbs, halogen lamps), fluorescence (fluorescent lamps, CFLs), photonic emission from plasma (neon lamps), and light-emitting semiconductors (LED lamps). All of these technologies produce light, but the light produced is not all the same.

This is something anyone can readily observe, without any instruments: observe any ordinary, multi-colored object under the various kinds of lighting and they look different under each kind, even if the brightnesses are the same. Women know that their makeup looks different under incandescent lighting than it does under fluorescent lighting. Similarly, photographers and painters are picky about their lighting sources, because their subjects will look different under different kinds of lights.

When people can freely choose the type of lighting they want, without being constrained by cost or considerations of efficiency, they will almost always choose high-brightness incandescent lighting (such as halogen lamps). Several studies have tested thousands of subjects in side-by-side tests. The study that most impressed me put people in a room where light was “piped in” in such a way that they could not determine its source. The test subjects were given a switch and a dimmer control that let them choose between incadescent bulbs, halogen bulbs, CFLs, traditional fluorescent lamps, and LED lamps (though the test subjects didn't know which kind of lighting corresponded to which position of the switch). They were asked to choose the kind of lighting and the lighting level that they though was most pleasing. The room contained furniture, pictures on the wall, and a table full of magazines. Over 98% of the test subjects chose halogen lighting at within 10% of maximum brightness.

Here's the question: what exactly is it that makes one lighting technology more pleasing to the eye than another?

For Once, the Students Win...

If you've been reading this blog for a while, then you know how I despair about the state of the American education system (both primary schools and secondary schools). One of the major contributing causes to the sorry state of our primary (K-12) schools is the way that the teacher's unions have turned our schools from places that concentrate on teaching kids into places that concentrate on delivering benefits to teachers and the enormous bureaucracy they've managed to build. By any metric one can imagine, the performance of kids coming out of our private schools is just plain awful. If you want proof that it's the schools fault, just look at any alternative to the public schools: Catholic schools, charter schools, private schools, home schooling ... in every case, the students graduating from those alternative schools humiliate the public school graduates – and on average, they do it for a small fraction of what we spend (per student, per year) in our public schools.

Obviously, there something badly broken in our public schools. Reason TV (hosted by Drew Carey) recently published a short documentary on the web that explores one particular example of a failing public school. Like most such stories, if you have any interest in seeing our kids well-educated, your blood will boil as you listen to teacher's representatives fighting hard for their interests – and not at all for the kids' interests. But unlike most such stories, this one has a happy ending. Go watch it. If you have kids in public schools, think about the real hope for change that story demonstrates.

Obama, that self-proclaimed minister of changeyness, unconditionally rules out the sort of positive change happening in the school that Reason profiles. I guess he likes the support of the teacher's unions (which he has) more than he cares about our kids' interests. Of course, those kids (a) can't contribute money to his campaign, and (b) can't vote, which leaves them pretty vulnerable to being out-lobbied by the rich and powerful teacher's unions...

A Baby!

Pictured at right is something we don't have very many of in our area: baby manzanita. This particular one appears to be about three years old, and is perhaps 3 inches (8 cm) tall. It's growing in a bare, sunny patch along the side of a seldom-used footpath. Compare it to the big one that's in my back yard.

The reason that we don't have many baby manzanitas is that normally their seeds only germinate after a fire has burned over an area. The heat and smoke of the fire are a trigger to the seed, telling it that now is a good opportunity – lots of sunshine, very little competition, so go!

I have just five young manzanitas (their age varies) on 3.5 acres of cleared area on my property. Apparently a few seeds germinate even without a fire, though the rate must be very low. There are several dozen adult manzanitas in that same cleared area, each producing thousands upon thousands of berries each year. All those seeds, accumulated for the past 35 years, are in the topsoil of my yard. Sometimes I think about starting a small fire somewhere in my yard, just to see if a bazillion manzanitas pop up afterward!

Webs in the Mist...

This morning we were in the clouds – the sun didn't burn them off until about 9 am. Just a few minutes after the sunshine broke out, I went for a walk (with our oldest field spaniel, Lea) in the hills behind our home.

The chaparral is home to a great many spider species, most of which are specifically adapted for the dry climate. We often see their webs, especially those of the many species that build webs to trap insects near ground level. Even without being misted, these webs stand out brightly – but today they sparkled and glinted like diamonds cast on the earth. The display only lasted about 30 minutes, as by that time the warmth of the sun (and the suddenly arid air) had evaporated every trace of the droplets left by the morning's mist.

But for that brief period we had a real visual treat! My favorite effect is captured (poorly, I'm afraid) in the photo at upper right. We saw this when looking at a web near the shadow of our head: a sort of rainbow effect, with all the colors from purple through red showing up across the web...