A Walk in the Park

Since we moved here, people have been raving about the Sunday In The Park concert series. Marta and I missed the first one, because we were exhausted with the day’s unpacking labors. But this last Sunday we went, and it was one of the sweetest times we’ve had together since moving here.

The music itself was very good: these aren’t garage bands. Nor are they oversold hype machines. They are practiced and talented musicians, doing what they love and what they do best.

But the real magic was the gathering itself. I don’t know how many people go to these — I’ve heard numbers like a thousand or so, and that doesn’t seem unreasonable. It’s a big crowd, but not crowded. There’s plenty of room for the children — and there are lots of children — to run around, throw beach balls, fall down and cry, then run around some more. People bring a bottle of wine, blankets, folding chairs. The event starts at 6:00, which is just as the edge is coming off the heat of the afternoon, yet with hours to go before sunset. Vendors from some of the local restaurants set up to sell everything from burgers to burritos, saag to samosas, ice cream to rice wine. Yes, they sell wine in the park. It’s California. Temperature in the mid- to upper-80’s, no wind, no mosquitos….

I caught a few pictures while we were there. The videos are nicer, but I haven’t yet figured out how to get them up here….

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The Gentle Embrace of the Hot Oven

California — cali-forno, a reasonable sixteenth-century Spanish cognate for “hot oven.” Here’s the forecast for the coming week:

WeatherYou can see that on Thursday, the high is predicted to be 105°F, which is — well, pretty damn hot.

There are a couple of interesting things about the weather.

The first is visible on the temperature chart: it cools off in the evening. Every. Single. Day. Last night it got into the mid-50’s. Toward the end of this scorcher of a week, it will be in the high 60’s at night. The evening spells R-E-L-I-E-F.

But the thing you can’t see from the chart is how the heat feels.

Marta lived in Texas for many years, and I’ve visited there in the summer, when the heat is brutal. You get out of the car and limp to the nearest air conditioning, trying not to actually let your foot touch the baked ground, cringing against the oppressive blaze from above. I’ve been to Phoenix only once, and I thought I would die of heat stroke walking from the airport to the rental car shuttle. In North Carolina, you have trouble breathing on a hot day: I once opened a car that had been sitting in the sun, and steam poured out the door and fogged my glasses; and good luck wiping off the fog. I remember living on Long Island, when summers sometimes got so hot and humid that it was impossible to eat.

I’m not going to pretend that 105º here is pleasant. But it feels different from any other place I’ve been.

The chart above says that the high today was 82º, but it actually reached the low 90’s. The morning was cool, with birds singing in a very light breeze. By noon it had warmed up, and Marta and I had lunch on the deck in the shade of the neighbor’s big oak tree: absolutely perfect picnic weather. I spent the afternoon in my office, window and door shut, and the air conditioner kicked on a few times. Now, the sun has set, a cool breeze blows the length of the valley, and my office is cool with the door open. Some fool bird — I’m guessing a fledgeling — is making a racket in the back yard. The sky is a perfect cotton-candy blue, and apart from the bird, it’s so very quiet….

I can’t say for certain if I’ve come Home, or if this is just the honeymoon: only time will make that distinction. But at this point, I love it here….

The Bracelet

inside_green_colorsAn article in the Siberian Times describes in detail a 40,000 year old bracelet found in a cave in the Altai Mountains of Central Asia. Archaeologists believe the bracelet was crafted by the Denisovans, members of an extinct branch of the hominid tree parallel to both Neanderthals and modern humans.

There are a couple of details about this bracelet that I was ruminating on while in the shower this morning, specifically the hole drilled for what archaeologists think was a leather strap, which held an additional ornament that swung freely and caused the strap to wear away some of the stone below the hole. The tool marks in the hole indicate it was made by a constant-velocity drill.

There are lots of ways to make a constant-velocity drill: today we use an electric motor, and for something like a drill-press, we use a rubber belt and pulleys of different sizes to connect the motor to the drill to provide different speeds. You can easily use leather straps instead of rubber belts (you have to replace them more often) and drive it with, for instance, a water wheel. The simplest method, of course, is a jig in the center of a foot-spun potter’s wheel to hold a drill bit — or a jig to hold the part while you hold the sharp tool, using the wheel like a lathe.

The point I was pondering this morning was not so much the technology, but the existence of the technology 40,000 years ago.

I am a toolmaker by trade. They’re all software tools, but they hold a few things in common with all tools.

For instance, we don’t normally craft a subroutine in a piece of software unless we need to do the same thing at least twice. A subroutine is a piece of code that can be reused: we refer to the act of separating it out from the overall flow of operations as modularization. By drawing a line around a set of actions and calling it a separate “module,” or subroutine, we’ve created a reusable tool.

Think about opening a bottle of beer. There are lots of ways to get the beer out of the bottle, one being to break off the neck of the bottle against a rock. If you’ve never seen a bottle or bottle cap before, and you’ll never see one again, this is probably as good a way as any to discover what’s inside. But if you’re going to be opening beers every night, and cleaning up the mess every night, you’re going to think about this process, and will eventually come up with some kind of bottle opening tool that removes the cap without breaking the bottle. This idea of “removing the cap” is modularization, and once you’ve modularized the problem, it’s fairly easy to build a tool to help you perform that modularized procedure.

So someone, 40,000 years ago, built a constant velocity drill. Someone, 40,000 years ago, had the need to make more than one hole in a piece of rock; the time to think through how this differed from cutting stone, or polishing stone, and thus, of modularizing the drilling process; the time and resources to build a drill; the time and incentive to perfect their skill to the level of making this bracelet, which is quite elegant even to the modern eye. It’s all-but-certain that they made more than one such bracelet; it’s not unlikely they made dozens, or hundreds, or even thousands, using stone quarried at least 200 km away from where the bracelet ended up.

That, in turn, speaks of a complex society with physical stability (making or moving a potter’s wheel is not a small task), differentiated labor, a food surplus, a local economy, and some system of long-distance trade; a society made up of a race of hominids who were no more human than the Neanderthals.

I grew up when human history was divided neatly into Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Civilization (Greece and Rome), an unfortunate Dark Age caused by religion, Science (which resumed Civilization), and then the pinnacle of everything, the Modern Age. The so-called March of Progress was both natural and inevitable, and all that had come before us was merely blind cave-dwellers seeking the light of enlightenment we now live in. In particular, Stone Age people grunted instead of speaking, feared fire and lightning, and barely had the sense to live in caves, out of the rain. This is our Modernist mythology.

This is very different from the mythology of the Abrahamic religions, which declare that everything started in perfection and has been running downhill into death and corruption ever since.

Only the fringe has ever talked about intelligent races prior to modern humans: the Atlanteans, the Lemurians, and various other fanciful folk said to have lived in the ancient past, about whom we know nothing but “channeled” information from psychics.

So it always comes as a slight shock to me to see hard evidence that we weren’t the first species on the planet to invent civilization.

What were the Denisovans like? Warlike, or peaceful? Religious, or secular? Why did they become extinct? Were they wiped out by our warlike strain of modern humans? Were they pigheaded and so set in their ways that they got run down by glaciers? Did they “breed out” into the modern human line, or did they just stop reproducing fast enough? Did some nasty disease that only afflicted Denisovans take them? Did they perhaps choose to die out, as the fictional aborigines in Mutant Message Down Under?

If they were around as a distinct genotype for 600,000 years, when did they form their first civilization?

Modern humans showed up only about 100,000 years ago, just as the previous interglacial warming ended and the last ice age began. Our own story of civilization only goes back 10,000 years, to the end of the Great Melt and the beginning of the current interglacial warming period, and our written history is no more than 4,000 years old. We have no idea our ancestors did for 90,000 years.

The Denisovans lived, as a species, through at least six ice ages and warming interglacials. Could they have formed entire civilizations as much as a half million years ago, long since erased by ice and wind and water and long spans of time? We know they didn’t use fossil fuels, because those were still around for us to find and burn. But they could have built wooden ships and circumnavigated the earth. They could have farmed on every continent. They could have built stone temples that crumbled to dust two hundred millennia ago. They could have mapped the stars, measured the precession of the equinox, computed the circumference of the earth, learned the workings of the Denisovan (not human) body, developed medicines and surgery.

All we really know is that in the twilight of their species as the last ice age started dipping into its deepest freeze, high in the mountains of central Asia, they were using a sophisticated constant-velocity drill to make beautiful jewelry.

Vacation Ending

20150530_072606I thought I’d lead with the picture I just snapped outside our vacation rental a few moments ago. This is the view we’ve been waking up to every morning for the last two weeks. There is a lot of birdsong at the moment, but otherwise, it is very quiet. The other day, we startled a deer in the tall grass, walking along the road down to the little pond just below us: the deer was less than ten feet away from us when it leaped up and bounded away. Frogs and crickets grace the evenings.

We’re coming to the end of this interlude, and are both looking forward to settling into our new home on Monday.

As vacations go, this one has been mixed. We are living out of suitcases, which is normal for a vacation, but we’ve got two cars packed with junk we’d never take on a vacation, such as our work computer equipment. Which we’ve both been using, since this has been a working vacation.

It’s been doubly busy for me, since — in addition to an elevated degree of chaos at work that has demanded long days — I’ve also been in the process of changing jobs, which is now far enough along I can talk about it. So in addition to filling out rental agreements and setting up bank accounts for our new home, I’ve been filling out I-9 forms and reading new employment contracts.

Fun vacation.

Still, the environment has been idyllic.

Last Saturday morning we went to the farmer’s market, which was a delightful affair. The farmer’s market is held every Saturday morning (except Christmas, if Christmas falls on a Saturday), and I understand it gets pretty big in late summer and fall as the harvests roll in.

mashup1Stephen and Jessye joined us late Saturday afternoon, and stayed over until Sunday. It was a sweet and relaxed time.

On Monday, we had the Memorial Day parade. I remember going to the Cheyenne Frontier Days’ Parade when I was a little kid, and it was quite the big deal. It was very hard to find a place to watch: the streets were lined with people, some of whom showed up hours in advance to get good seats, and for a child, your choice was to worm your way to the curb, or spend the parade watching some adult’s butt. It was a big, lengthy affair with dozens of floats, marching bands, vintage cars, clowns, and candy they threw from the trucks that we all scrabbled for.

The Ukiah Memorial Day Parade was a considerably smaller affair, but Marta and I loved it. We missed the beginning, and by the time I thought to take my camera out, we were down to the vintage cars, the horses and the hogs.

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We got out again on Thursday evening for an astronomy geek-fest. Ukiah was one of six International Latitude Observatories around the world (the others being Cincinnati, OH; Gaithersburg, MD; Carloforte, Italy; Charjui, Uzbekistan; and Mizusawa, Japan) used as part of the 1899 – 1982 International Polar Motion Service program that measured the “wobble” of the earth’s polar axis.

Observatory Park, where the observatory still sits, is just one block from our new home. Shown in these pictures are the big oak tree in the center of the park with Marta standing beneath it, and some of the telescopes on display. The big brass telescope in the observatory itself was built in the late 1800’s, and had some of the finest optics of any in this lot. They had it set on Jupiter, and the four Galilean Moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto) were all clear, even though the sky was still light.

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The rest of today, and tomorrow, are our last days of “vacation” — on Monday, the chaos of moving in starts. It will feel good to get settled.

Bernie Sanders

I don’t know if Bernie is going to complete the entire Presidential gauntlet, but he already has my vote. If he isn’t on the ballot, I’m going to write him in. Even if he drops out of the race, I’m going to write him in.

Goddess Knows, neither Hillary nor Jeb represents my vision of the future of the United States. Or rather, they represent perfectly my most dystopian vision of the future of the United States — one I’d rather not see come to pass.

It’s only May of 2015, and the Presidential race proper won’t begin for another seven months, when the Iowa primary caucuses vote. But I had already decided to drop out in 2016. I hadn’t quite decided whether to boycott the election entirely, or just leave the presidential check box empty. I was leaning toward just boycotting the presidential box.

So don’t anyone tell me that a vote for Bernie is a vote for whatever Republican nut-cake makes the ballot. My vote was already lost to the Democrats, so voting for someone other than Hillary doesn’t make any difference at all.

I don’t have anything specific against Hillary, except for her support of the HMO version of universal health care back in the early 1990’s, which is a stain on her common sense that probably won’t ever fade from my memory.

But I won’t vote for her, because she doesn’t seem to stand for anything but the latest results of the latest focus group. I have no idea what she stands for, and no way to find out. What that tells me, however, is that she doesn’t have the fire to address any real issues in the nation. Frankly, I suspect she lives entirely inside the wealthy Washington Beltway bubble, and doesn’t even perceive the real issues in the nation.

Bernie sees and speaks to at least some of the issues, which is a long sight better than the rest of the posturing mannequins on the stage right now. For that, he has my vote. And while the best I can hope for is that his presence scares the living shit out of the existing political establishment, I can at least hope for that.

Bernie has my vote.