Archive for October, 2011

Rattlesnake!

October 22, 2011

Saturday, 22 October 2011

After a long day Friday in airports and airplanes, I slept very late this morning; it was 7:15 by the time I got out of bed. Too late for a long hike today, so I went to Windy Hill for a short hike (7.7 miles, 1300 vertical feet). Maybe I’ll do something more ambitious tomorrow.

I like to go up Spring Ridge trail because it’s the steepest trail in the park, then come down one of the other trails. Near the top I found a rattlesnake, the first one I have seen at Windy Hill for two or three years. Cool!

It watched me, tasted my scent in the air, but never did rattle at me. After a while, it decided discretion was the better part, and all that, and turned away from the trail back into the tall grass.

It’s a good day when I find something fairly unusual, and today definitely counts.

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Rose peak killer hike

October 17, 2011

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Today is for my first killer hike with the new pair of shoes. Nineteen miles, five thousand vertical feet.

Up early, on the trail before 7, in time to see alpenglow, both east and west, as the sun rose on a partly cloudy, cool, perfect day. Horizontal sunlight is one of the secrets of the photographer, and today was a good opportunity to take full advantage of it.

The first tarantula of the day was dead. That doesn’t count, not at all. Shortly after, I saw one that was hunkered up, possibly semi-dormant from cold or darkness. A little surprising, because I thought they were primarily nocturnal, and it really isn’t very cold this morning. Whatever…

Over the course of the day, I found four more, including a final tarantula crossing the road as I was leaving in the late afternoon. Here we have a good look at his fangs, which you will notice are retracted, even though he is admittedly under extreme provocation.

And here we get a reasonably good look at a minimum of six and possibly eight eyes. In this picture, it is also obvious that the eyes are lensed, not compound.

It’s the season for the full glory of poison oak, here shown in an Italian flag motif.

Open country that goes on forever. I wouldn’t want this to be the only choice, but it’s quite attractive as one alternative.

As well as a personal record of five tarantulas, I saw four gopher snakes, out sunning themselves. And I don’t know what kind of snake this one is; what we need here is a serious taxonomist! I took about a dozen shots, got the tongue in only this one.

It has only been two weeks since we had several days of rain, but the grass has started growing green again with great enthusiasm, some of it perhaps as high as ten cm. Where there is no tall dead grass from last spring, even the ground shows green. It will be about March before the new growth completely overwhelms the dead grass and turns the entire world beautifully green.

Even here, we see that the areas that collect the most rain first are the first and most vigorous in the process of greening up.

I suppose it’s beyond hope to imagine getting back without sore feet, but I think these shoes will turn out to be okay.

SOFIA visit

October 16, 2011

15 October 2011

NASA had an open house for their airborne infrared observatory project, SOFIA. Jacky signed up for (free) tickets, the noon to two PM slot. It was not a blisteringly hot day, but it was hot enough when we arrived at the Ellis street gate, found a place to park and joined the line.

They have a 747 that was built in 1977 (!), originally delivered to Pan Am, then used by United and retired into the hands of NASA for conversion to an observatory.

There were displays and docents of various kinds to talk with as we waited. It was not a surprise to learn that a new pressure bulkhead had to be built inside the aircraft, forward of the telescope. It was a surprise to learn that they had to install heavy steel floors in the forward part of the plane to maintain its balance. You don’t think of having to add ballast to an airplane!

The telescope is a frame with a triple folded reflector. I was told that the primary mirror is a proprietary glass-like substance designed for ultra-low temperature coefficient of expansion, with an aluminized reflective surface. It is of course able to lock onto a given part of the sky, and is also isolated from aircraft vibration and turbulence effects.

When I visited CERN a couple years ago, they mentioned that they necessarily have to discard 99….9% of the data they collect, searching for the interesting needles of theoretical physics in haystacks of noise. At first, I thought the infrared observatory was probably doing the same, but when I thought about it, I decided they are probably able to crunch most of the data they get.

Well, after standing in line for an hour and a half, we did eventually get onto the plane: for about ten minutes. Climb up the gangway, walk back past the telescope and the control consoles, cross to the other side, walk forward and down a gangway on the other side. I’ll spare you the pictures.


Hangar one has long been a landmark of the bay area, having been built in the 1930s (if I recall) for the dirigible USS Macon, which crashed and burned on its maiden voyage. At an air show some years ago, we went into hangar one. There were three hot-air balloons flying around inside, and they were all only down at one end. The sliding doors at the ends are on railroad tracks, which is not surprising, but they are on double rails, not single. That is one big building.

The skin was full of asbestos, and there have been debates for years about what to do with it: leave it in place, tear it down …. Finally, they decided to leave the skeleton in place but simply to remove the skin. The loud cries of outrage were presumably based on no concept whatever of how much skeleton there was. I think it looks better with the skin off than before.

Here we see the state of affairs, with about half the skin removed, and work in progress toward the rear.

What’s especially interesting today is that someone has built a 20-foot model of the USS Macon. Filled with helium, it actually flies, and today was its grand unveiling in hangar two, where it was flown around for press and dignitaries. There is a museum here, where the model will be on display for the ordinary mortals in a couple of weeks. We need to come back.


Jacky had a conference call when we returned home, so I went to the nearby allotment gardens to see whether I could find a mantis. Mantis? Well, it is the season, and I saw three (believe it or not!) on my bike ride home from work Friday, along the highway 237 corridor.

If there was a mantis to be found, it was hiding pretty well. I did find two harvestmen, however, which are fairly unusual to see. What I hadn’t realized before was how different they were from one another. Clearly not spiders, but clearly a family with quite some variety itself.

A great tarantula season!

October 9, 2011

Saturday: I hiked Mission peak to Sunol and back (16 miles, 4300 vetical feet); as the weather cools off, it’s good to get out into the open country – which just happens to be where the tarantulas live.

I walked through a loose collection of maybe forty cows, almost all with newly born calves. A coyote loped along the trail a hundred meters ahead of me. The cows moved off the trail, but weren’t overly concerned. Both the coyote and the cows know full well that, whatever the coyote’s fantasies about veal for lunch, they just aren’t going to happen, full stop.

I saw the first tarantula of the day, crossing Calaveras road, not far from the Sunol headquarters. I helped him get across the road safely, my good deed for the day. After going on to Sunol, having some calories, chatting with the ranger at the visitor center – who hadn’t had many tarantula reports yet this season – I returned; saw the same tarantula (I think) in the same vicinity. Ten minutes later, I saw the second of the day. Two in one day – that’s pretty good!

But the most interesting spider of the day was the little orange one. I really like spiders’ eyes! In this picture, we see four on the left (and there may well be more that don’t show in the photo); they are lensed eyes, not insect-like compound eyes, and spiders are estimated to see about as well as we can, with the advantage that they can see in all directions at once. Hard to sneak up behind a spider.

Not a bit of fear in this guy. He’s the size to stand on my thumbnail, but if I’m a threat, he’s ready and willing to tear me limb from limb, chew me up and spit me out! Argh! Come and get it! And good for him!

Sore feet again, blisters. I think my shoes are sending me a message. Happily enough, REI is having a sale: 20% off one full-priced item. So I stopped on the way home and bought a new pair of shoes.

Saturday evening we visited Alex and Sigrid for their annual Oktoberfest. Yes, we all know that Oktoberfest is in September, but it was delayed this year because Sigrid was at the real one in Muenchen.

Sunday: I should go out and see whether these new shoes are going to be good friends. In case I need to take them back, I’ll stay on pavement today, or at least grass or duff. Stanford? Why not! Six or seven miles, a few hundred vertical feet.

Yes, the shoes are fine. I ran up the steeper parts of the dish trail and also some of the not-so-steep parts.

And I found four tarantulas! Outstanding: I have gone entire seasons without seeing that many. I wanted to see if I could get one to climb up into my hand.

Hmmm… on second thought, no thanks!

The destruction of virtue

October 5, 2011

After hurricane Katrina, the local grocery stores had pots where you could contribute funds for the victims. On one occasion, the cashier was clearly disappointed that I didn’t contribute. I explained that then-president Bush had already committed me to pay what I estimated to be about $50,000 into Katrina relief (I being one of those who pays a highly disproportionately unfair share of the tax total). I explained that I fully recognized that my $50k would mostly be wasted and would do little or no good for real victims, but I was far over my commitment threshold on that particular charitable cause.

Under the debatable assumption that charity is a virtue, I obviously cannot claim any. My $50k was extorted, not given voluntarily. At the same time, it is the height of hypocrisy for government officials to feel virtuous when they disperse other people’s coerced funds, no matter what the circumstances of the recipient. Compassionate conservatism, indeed (fortunately a term no longer much heard). And those who piously vote for such officials and such policies ought to be ashamed of themselves.

As to the charities, of course, if private funding dries up, then they become wards of the state. There’s no virtue in begging for funds obtained under duress. Even if some of their activities are in themselves beneficial, it’s hard to argue that these charities are, on balance, doing good.

As with all forms of socialism, the socialization of virtue ultimately destroys virtue.

Tarantula season again!

October 2, 2011

I have done a fair amount of walking in my recent world travels, but walking on flat pavement mostly just guarantees sore feet. Nice to be home, nice to be able to get out and get in some vertical gain on one of my favorite killer hikes, Grant ranch (21 miles, 4400 vertical feet).

Besides, it’s tarantula season again. And indeed, I found a tarantula only fifteen minutes into the hike, but it was dead on the trail. Score: zero. I found a number of small gopher snakes, too, and several of them were also dead. That’s depressing; I wonder whether there’s an epidemic amongst the small animal population.

But then I came upon two more very small gopher snakes, both of whom were healthy and active. That cheered me up considerably.

Along with a coyote, all of this wildlife was north of the twin gates road crossing. No idea why the separation in habitat, maybe because the forestation changes subtly on the south side. The next wildlife sighting was the little pond in the back country, populated by more frogs than I think I have ever seen in one place!

No tarantulas, and the day is wending along, getting toward mid-afternoon. There’s a stretch of open forest two or three miles from the finish point that I always like, and today is even better, with the newly fallen red leaves, and the hard bright colors of the poison oak.

Forty-five minutes before I reached the car, I entered the stretch west of Quimby road, tall dry grass, straw really. And out of the grass came a big beautiful tarantula! Yes! Callooh! Callay! I chortled in my joy.

A good day: tired, sore, tarantula score = 1.