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.


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.


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.


The Jade Helm 15 military exercises scheduled for July of this year sparked a huge outrage in Texas and other states of the Southwest US, with fears of “martial law” and “military takeover.” So incensed is the public that the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, called for the Texas State Guard to monitor the exercises.

This is all being pooh-poohed by the mainstream media — even Fox News — as paranoid delusion. I don’t disagree, but I think there’s some depth to this that isn’t going to come out in the mainstream media, especially Fox News.

I grew up in Wyoming, where a high-school friend handed me the 1971 screed, None Dare Call It Conspiracy, by Gary Allen, and introduced me to the frightening, delicious, wacky world of right-wing conspiracy theories.

Psychology professor David LaPorte describes paranoia as being a pathological extreme of the normal human function of “suspiciousness,” the other extreme being naiveté. There is also a “clinical paranoia,” which is a full-blown mental illness, with characteristics that go far beyond extreme suspiciousness.

I’m not as interested in the clinical form of paranoia. Like clinical depression, it’s a tragic brain malfunction that gives its victims little respite, and is simply a terrible thing to endure.

What I find more interesting is the extreme end of suspiciousness that exists within the range of normal human behavior, as exhibited (for example) by Texans over the Jade Helm 15 exercises: the kind of paranoia that gives rise to widespread right-wing conspiracy theories.

I think there is a culturally-transmitted factor that a lot of researchers don’t take into proper account when thinking about the Texas brand of paranoia: culturally-enforced loyalty to shibboleths, which in certain US subcultures takes the form of loyalty to beliefs.

A shibboleth is “a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people.” The term itself has an interesting history. During the early wars of the Hebrews as recorded in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, the word “shibboleth” — which is merely a Hebrew name for a specific part of a plant — was used as a military password, because the people they were up against at the time had an accent that prevented them from pronouncing the word correctly: like asking an American to say the word “perro” (Spanish for “dog”) with the trilled r. Shibboleth has come to mean any distinguishing feature that insiders can use to tell who is a member of the group. Tattoos, hairstyles, clothing, use of certain words or phrases, jewelry, and the like are typical shibboleths.

A great many people in the United States hold their professed beliefs as a shibboleth, particularly in tight, religiously-observant communities. Using beliefs as a shibboleth has an upside, and a downside.

The upside is that joining the group is extremely easy: all you have to do is “profess your faith.” You don’t need to get your foreskin or clitoris cut off, you don’t need to get a tattoo, you don’t even need to cut your hair in a particular way or adopt a special diet. You just need to answer the altar call and “praise Jesus,” so to speak, and you’re in.

The downside is that you have, in certain very specific areas, lost your freedom to think independently of the group.

A classic example is the Creationist/Intelligent Design mess in places like Kansas. The idea that the theory of evolution cannot possibly be true dates back to the mid-1800’s, when Darwin’s theory was first published. The revulsion that certain individuals felt at being in any way related to a “damn, dirty ape” became a part of the Fundamentalist doctrine of the early 1900’s, which has become a shibboleth for many Fundamentalist and Evangelical groups in the US. To embrace the theory of evolution would be to repudiate (in part) the very shibboleth that allows these people to identify themselves.

Asking a member of one of these groups to allow their children to be taught the theory of evolution in school has, for them, much the same impact that asking a decorated combat veteran to allow his child to be taught how to desecrate and burn an American flag, and for pretty much the same reason.

The use of beliefs as shibboleths is so common in the United States that it has spawned a general American belief that everyone is defined by their beliefs. When I tell people that I’m a Druid, the first question they tend to ask is, “What do Druids believe?” The answer is, Druids don’t believe anything: that’s not what being a Druid is about. Conversely, changing my beliefs about anything does not threaten my identification as a Druid. This invariably causes confusion, because so many people do not understand how you can be something without having characteristic beliefs.

The pig-headedness that causes people to cling to their paranoid suspicions in the face of all evidence to the contrary, is often simply loyalty to their shibboleths, and thus their group identity.

Some religious groups, for instance, believe that Democrats are evil incarnate, and that Obama is the Antichrist. It’s part of their identity to believe this. If you try to “educate” them, you are only attacking their identity, and their religion. When Obama fails to sprout horns and wag his forked tail, then retires to the public speaking circuit and vanishes into the ineffable mist of irrelevance surrounding past presidents, Hillary will become the Antichrist. After Hillary, it will be the next high-profile Democrat.

It sounds like mental illness. But it’s really just Crips and Bloods, Dodgers and Yankees, goths and jocks. And that delicious frisson that comes of knowing the inner secret of what is going on.

So there’s a whole subculture out there which holds, as a shibboleth, that the US government wants to take away our guns and enslave us under martial law, because the government has been taken over by Zionists through the United Nations. Members of this subculture are the True Americans who have seen through the lies propagated by the Lame-Stream Media; the rest of us are brainwashed “sheeple” (sheep-people). That this all makes as much sense as a Hobbit basketball team is entirely irrelevant. It doesn’t have to make sense. This is their shibboleth, their pink mohawk haircut and dragon tattoo.

A lot of the true terror they exhibit over something like Jade Helm comes of suddenly confronting what might be an external validation of their professed belief — and they’re invariably caught with their pants down, because they are not actually prepared for what they’ve been claiming (loudly) they are prepared for. In reality, their ammo is old, and far too little for a full-scale war. They only have three months of food in their bunker, not a year, and half of that is past its expiration date. They never got the mold smell out from that last rainstorm, and the short-wave receiver doesn’t work. They aren’t psychologically prepared to lose everything they’ve ever had and become war refugees. Now, the storm is upon them, or at least might be, and they aren’t ready for it.

They aren’t ready because, deep down, they are sensible folk who know perfectly well their belief is just a shibboleth, a thing they buy into to get along with their friends and neighbors. Yes, yes, the apocalypse could come at any moment, but surely not today? I’ve got a deadline to meet, and the boss is in one of his moods. I’ll check the dates on the antibiotics tomorrow. Well, maybe next week, this week Jane has her dance recital. We can’t afford to replace them, anyway, because of the car repairs last month. Maybe next month, when finances aren’t so tight.

Another interesting thing is that their “preparations” are also shibboleths, not practical preparations for the invasion they believe is coming.

Think this through: you believe (really believe) a hostile force is coming to assault your community, and the institutions that are supposed to protect you aren’t going to do so. Furthermore, you believe this hostile force wants something you have — guns, food, conscripts, gasoline, your local limestone quarry, your strategic location, hostages. They aren’t going to burn down your town and move on: they’re going to go door-to-door, round everyone up, and put you all in camps.

Hiding in a bunker and waiting for it to blow over isn’t a reasonable plan. You’re going to have to abandon your ground: perhaps to join some guerilla militia that keeps moving to avoid capture, or perhaps to run to Minnesota to live with your in-laws. Or maybe you’ll give yourself up and hide cigarettes so you can bribe your captors from time to time. You are not going to attend an open town meeting of outraged citizens to demand that the invading army justify its constitutional right to make war on you. That makes no sense at all.

It makes perfect sense, however, if you’re merely trying to determine that they aren’t going to invade this time; that you’ll still have time to inventory those antibiotics and get that short-wave radio working; that your beliefs can remain safely hypothetical, and normal life can go on.

Because people treat their beliefs as shibboleths, they really can’t change their beliefs without abandoning their identity and their community. This makes them appear pig-headed and beyond reasoning, perhaps even clinically paranoid; but in reality, they are merely being loyal to their group.

None of this is to say that these paranoid subcultures aren’t dangerous.

Using fixed beliefs as a shibboleth leads to a huge amount of what is called “cognitive dissonance,” which is a painful mental state that results from trying to embrace two incompatible beliefs at the same time, or to embrace a belief that is in clear conflict with everyday observed reality. Extreme cognitive dissonance is a breeding ground for all kinds of paranoid thinking; it can make you crazy. You don’t need to wade too far into right-wing conspiracy theories to find the crazy.

I also have to wonder how much of the leadership of some of these groups is based in foreign intelligence services, and US counter-intelligence services; or even vice-versa. I’ve read, and find it easy to believe, that a lot of the trolls that appear on various websites are paid (probably not very well-paid) CIA, NSA, MI5, MI6, MOSSAD, whatever-used-to-be-KGB, Chinese, and other intelligence agency contractors, mixed with various big-money corporate contractors, who seed the feeds with “opinions” intended to sway other readers’ opinions. It’s a well-established fact that the FBI infiltrates all kinds of “groups of interest.” It wouldn’t take a lot to start up groups led by foreign intelligence operatives who want to create dangerous groups on US soil, or by domestic counter-intelligence operatives who want to draw out and identify potential malcontents.

The world of conspiracies and those who believe in them is a dark and tangled wood, and once you step inside, it’s easy to get lost. Best to sample them lightly, and as pure fiction. Because if they’re real, you’ll never really know, anyway….