Science Friday filled its New Year's Day show with some greatest hits segments, including an excerpt of an interview that Ira Flatow did with filmmaker Werner Herzog, novelist Cormac McCarthy and physicist Lawrence Krauss in 2011. It's an absorbing 21 minutes, and I'll have to go back now and listen to the longer version.
At one point, Herzog made an observation about the transience of human life on Earth: "It's quite evident that human beings, as a species, will vanish and fairly quickly. When I say quickly, maybe in two or three thousand years, maybe 30,000 years, maybe 300,000, but not much more, because we are much more vulnerable than other species, despite a certain amount of intelligence. It doesn't make me nervous that fairly soon we'll have a planet which doesn't contain human beings."
Herzog explains that while it's a possibility humanity could self-destruct, he's really thinking more about "events … which would instantly wipe us out."
Krauss readily agrees that a catastrophe is "likely to happen. That will inevitably happen anyway." He adds that one of the rosier scenarios he sees for our kind is that we'll eventually be superseded by our own creations -- the computers.
Then he offers this takeaway:
"So I think, you know, we may disappear as a species just because we become irrelevant, as well as being destroyed. But I don't think that's a bad thing. That's just - that may be the future. . . . We shouldn't be depressed if we disappear. We should be thrilled that we're here right now. . . . That just means we should make the most of our brief moment in the sun."
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.
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.
The Rough Fire has been burning in the Sierra National Forest and Kings Canyon National Park, east of Fresno, for six weeks now. It's burned more than 138,000 acres, the biggest fire in California in -- well, in just two years, when the Rim Fire burned more than a quarter-million acres in and adjacent to Yosemite National Park. The Rim Fire is No. 3 on Cal Fire's list of the state's biggest wildfires; the Rough Fire is currently No. 16, having moved ahead of last year's Happy Camp Fire, which is still smoldering in the forests of Siskiyou County.
Among the many maps prepared during the course of a campaign to contain and control a wildfire are progression maps -- sort of a historical chart of how a fire has spread over time. Above is the current progression map for the Rough Fire, current through Saturday, September 12 -- click the image for a much larger version or download the super large, 10472x8092-pixel version on Inciweb).
What it shows, in a nutshell, is how the fire grew from a modest, lightning-caused incident that grew relatively slowly during the first week to the monster it has become. Weather has helped it gallop through the canyons and ridges near the Kings River, of course. But the common denominator in all our big fires this year is drought: four years of extraordinarily dry conditions have turned California into a landscape that's even more ready than usual to burn.
The video above has been picked up everywhere, I think, as a first-person view of the Valley Fire as it roared through southern Lake County on Saturday evening. It was recorded by a resident of the Anderson Springs community northwest of Middletown, and all I can tell you about timing is that it's after dark -- so sometime after 7:45 p.m. or so. At about the 50-second mark in the video, the driver goes through a gate and you can make out the words "Anderson Springs" (in reverse). Not being sufficiently employed in more productive activities (I'm taking the week off from work, where I often do the same thing I'm doing right here), I checked to see if I could find Anderson Springs Road, and the gate, on Google Street View.
The image below is a screen shot of the gate and environs in happier times -- June 2012, to be more exact (the gate had been erected sometime between a 2007 Street View sweep and the 2012 image).
One thing that's clear looking at the entire video -- it's just under two minutes, total -- is that most of the many homes along the road burned. The video shows one property after another in flames, and upon reaching the corner of Highway 175, just past the gate, a voice says, "Holy fucking shit" upon seeing a large home (visible in the Street View) images that's being consumed by fire. Here's the Street View link to the scene below
The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, about 40 miles south of the Las Vegas Strip on Interstate 15. The towers you see (shot from the passenger's seat of a car traveling about 70 mph toward Los Angeles) are each 459 feet high.
The simple version of how the plant works: Each tower is surrounded by an immense field of mirrors that focus sunlight on a collector at the top of the tower. Thus the beams of light made visible by the desert haze. That intense heat drives turbines that generate electricity. (This isn't the first time this type of plant has appeared on this here blog.)
For the more complex version of what's really happening at the plant, check out my friend Pete's coverage of Ivanpah here and here.
Thom and I are in Las Vegas on an adventure I'll describe later. We're staying at Caesar's Palace, right on The Strip. Our arrival last night coincided with the beginning of the NFL's 2015 season, Pittsburgh Steelers visiting the New England Patriots, and when we went downstairs to dinner, we could hear cheering and shouting from people watching the game in the bars, lounges and restaurants around us. It was a mixture of one part fan enthusiasm, I think, and four parts monetary self-interest for the hundreds or thousands of bettors gathered on the premises.
After we ate, we went over to the Caesar's Palace sports book, where the house entertains wagers on all manner of sporting contests. The room is the size of a small concert hall, with screens showing games, highlights of games, and the current betting line on upcoming events, especially college football. By the time we got there, it was already the fourth quarter, and the Patriots' lead seemed secure. But while the game's outcome was no longer in doubt, the outcome of many bets -- whether New England would cover the 7-point spread, for instance -- had not yet been resolved. So the throng in the sports book was still hanging on every play.
At some point, I went to the restroom. Most men maintain silence while they go about their business in such settings. But as I stood at a tastefully style urinal, the guy next to me asked, "You have any money on that game?"
"No -- we got here too late," I said.
"I've got three thousand bucks on the under," he said. He was referring to the over-under, a proposition in which you can bet on the total points scored in the game. Taking the under means you're betting the total points will be lower than the number set by the house; betting the over means you're betting the score will exceed that figure.
"What's the over-under tonight?" I asked.
The score at the time of the restroom visit was 28-14, meaning the guy would lose his bet if another 10 points were scored. The Steelers had been moving the ball, and this guy was nervous he was going to lose his three grand.
"Well, it's raining, anyway," I pointed out -- rain at the game might make it harder to score.
"Yeah -- let the rains come. Slow everything down," he said.
On screen in the sports book a few minutes later, the Steelers were driving again. Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh quarterback dropped back to pass. He threw an interception that killed a potential scoring drive.
I saw the guy from the restroom. "There you go," I said. He had already launched into a celebration. He was going to win his bet.
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:
I'd suggest a third choice for the answer: "Not yet."