Tuesday/ my new silver shadows

I am trying again to add greenery to the front of my house, and my gardener recommended astelias (‘silver shadow’).  I have to keep an eye on them and keep them watered, since the rainy season is not yet in full swing here.

The young Astelia (‘silver shadows’) in front of my house.  (The darker ones in between are fillers until the astelia gets bigger. They go by several names, such as coral bells and amethyst). The astelia (sliver shadow) is originally from New Zealand, and an evergreen perennial that forms a clump to 3 feet tall by about 4 feet wide with bold, metallic silvery-green recurved leaves.

Monday/ only in Alaska

Check out this mama lynx and her seven kittens that visited Tim Newton’s porch in Alaska.  (They picked the right porch! He is a photographer).  These are called Canada lynxes.  Its cousin from the lynx genus, further south in North America, is the bobcat. Other species of medium-sized wild cats are the Eurasian lynx and the Iberian lynx, the Indian jungle cat, and Africa’s caracal, which we have in South Africa as well.

[Photo by Tim Newton] Anchorage resident Tim Newton awoke to the sound of something running across his deck in the area of Flattop, last Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. So naturally, he went to check it out.

Sunday/ massacre in Las Vegas

From the New York Times, compiled by Quoctrung Bui and Margot Sanger-Katz. Assault weapons should be banned, as should high-capacity magazines.

A gunman sprayed 22,000 country music concert goers with bullets from machine gun fire from his Las Vegas hotel room on Sunday night at 10.08 pm, for almost  10 minutes.

The sheriff from Clark County in Las Vegas just had a news conference (Monday morning), said the ‘body count’ was up to 58, maybe 59, then corrected himself and said ‘number of deceased’.  Well, it’s a massacre, and the body count as of now is 58, with 515 wounded.   The gunman  was a 64 yr old white male, US citizen – they usually are white males & US citizens, the gunmen in these frequent events in the United States. He used bullets designed to do maximum damage. He then committed suicide.  The President called it an ‘act of pure evil’ and offered his condolences.  The gunman’s brother could not point to anything that triggered him. Congress is not expected to anything, at all.

Graphic from the New York Times. The shooter was on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel.


Saturday/ Trump’s swamp, Exhibit A

Price took a Gulfstream C-37B (same as G550 in the picture) owned by the Department of Defense for a weeklong trip in late May through Africa and Europe. The six legs of travel, which represented about 30 hours of flight time, were projected to cost $311,418.25, according to an invoice reviewed by Politico.com.

‘Drain the Swamp!’ was Donald Trump’s rallying cry during his campaign. Well, the swamp is alive and well. Trump’s Health & Human Services (HHS) secretary Tom Price, finally quit on Friday. He brought a scandal onto himself with his ultra-exorbitant travel expenses.  The feat he pulled off: pile up expenses to the tune of $1,000,000 of overseas trips and the more than two dozen trips he has taken on private planes domestically since May.  This is after he cut the HHS travel annual budget of $4.9 million by $663,000 (15%).  And for comparison, his predecessor Kathleen Sibelius, took one private plane flight in all of her 5-year tenure.

Even so, it appears Price’s ultimate sin was not being able to repeal Obamacare (that is: take away healthcare money for millions of Americans), and so he had to go.

Friday/ Lake Lenore & Dry Falls

(These pictures are from Wednesday).  We made a stop at Lake Lenore on Wednesday. Lake Lenore is a long, narrow lake (8 mi long, 15ft deep) formed by the Missoula Floods in the lower Coulee just north of the town of Soap Lake. There is a trail that leads up to caves in the basalt rock.

Driving further up north on Highway 17 brings one to Dry Falls, named for the massive waterfalls that existed there during the Pleistocene Epoch, when ice sheets and glaciers covered huge parts of Earth’s surface.  This area was at the southern end of the Cordilleran ice sheet, and the melting of the glaciers carved out the coulees in the basalt rock that we see today.

Clockwise from the top: looking southwest & northwest toward the ‘coulee monocline’ bluffs over Lake Lenore, with Highway 17 below; dry vegetation and a black beetle; Lake Lenore lies alongside Highway 17; view from inside one of the caves formed by the plucking out of pieces of the basal rock by the rushing Missoula Flood waters; footpath to the caves; beautiful lichen. Lichens are composite organisms that emerge from algae or cyanobacteria living among the filaments of two fungi in a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship.
The main picture is from inside the visitor center at Dry Falls. The picture that I took (bottom right) is the view looking south, away from the cliffs of the Dry Falls. The Pleistocene Epoch began about 2.6 million years ago and lasted until about 11,700 years ago. The most recent Ice Age occurred then (there have been at least FIVE in Earth’s history). At the time of the Pleistocene, the continents had moved to their current positions. Large parts of the northern continents were covered by glaciers, but they did not just sit there. There was a lot of movement over time, and there were about 20 cycles when the glaciers would advance and retreat as they thawed and refroze.


Thursday/ the North Cascades

We stayed over in the town of Omak on Wednesday night, and made our way back to Seattle on Thursday over the North Cascades* with Highway 20.  It’s about a 5 hr drive without stops, to go from Omak to Twisp, Winthrop, Newhalem, Darrington and then with I-5 (or I-405) to Seattle.  It was a crisp morning when we started back from Omak (47 °F/ 8°C), but back in Seattle it was a record warm day for Sept 28 at (85°F/ 29 °C).

*The Cascade Range or ‘Cascades’ is a major mountain range of western North America, extending from southern British Columbia in Canada through Washington State and Oregon and into Northern California.

Clockwise from top left: view over the Skagit River Valley, with the Diablo Dam’s dam wall directly ahead; vintage ‘Wild West’ storefront in Winthrop; town hall of Okanogan; viewpoint in Washington Pass on Highway 20, with the Early Winter Spires (7,807 ft / 2 380 m); at Newhalem by the Gorge Dam and Power station; the diagram shows the Ross Dam and the Diablo Dam as well.
Here’s a cool topographical map that I generated with a Google search for ‘Early Winter Spires’ that shows how Highway 20 follows the lowest contour lines through the North Cascades. The web site is http://www.summitpost.org.   There is a hairpin bend in the road by the Spires, and the map also shows several alpine lakes. These are lakes or reservoirs at high altitudes, usually starting around 5,000 feet (1,500 m). These is still snow and ice visible further up, from small glaciers. Highway 20 gets so much snow in winter that it is completely closed for traffic, sometimes only opening again as late as June.
View from a foot bridge overlooking the Skagit River at Newhalem; this is just downstream of the Gorge Dam. Flooding in the Skagit Valley has become a rare event due to the three dams that had been built upstream in the Skagit River (the Gorge, the Diablo, the Ross).

Wednesday/ Grand Coulee Dam

The Grand Coulee Dam was constructed shortly after the Great Depression, and provided jobs to thousands. At first feared to be a white elephant of sorts (it produced lots of electric power with not quite enough demand for it), it was put to good use during World War II. It provided power to Boeing Company in Seattle, to shipbuilders in Portland, Oregon, and to an aluminum smelter in Spokane on the border with Montana.

A coulee is a kind of valley or drainage zone. The Grand Coulee is an ancient river bed in north-central Washington State. And the Grand Coulee Dam is a massive concrete gravity dam on the Columbia River, built to produce hydroelectric power and to provide irrigation water. Only the Three Gorges dam in the Yangtze River in Hubei province, China, is a bigger dam in terms of concrete used for the dam wall and construction.

The original dam was constructed from 1933 to 1940 at a cost of $300 million. The Third Power Plant, constructed from 1967 to 1980, cost $700 million.  If the dam were constructed today, it would cost $8.26 billion.  The dam today generates some 20 billion kW-hrs of electricity every year, distributed to 11 states.

Clockwise from the top: Inside the visitors center; the dam wall with the eleven spillways and several 230 kV transmission lines strung out in front of the wall; looking vertically down from the dam wall (a little water is spilling from spill tubes in the dam wall); on top of the dam wall during a tour of the dam.
On top is a picture from inside the Pump-Generating Plant, during our tour. The green silos are huge: 5 stories tall and housing enormous pumps that pump water uphill to a man-made irrigation lake called Banks Lake. At the far end are units that look very similar, but that can act as generators as well (when water from Banks Lake flow back through it), as shown in the diagram in the bottom.

Tuesday/ driving out east

Paul, Bryan and I have embarked on a little road trip to eastern Washington, and we stayed overnight in the little town of Ephrata.

We took Interstate Highway 90 out east, stopped in Ellensburg, and stayed overnight in Ephrata. The truss bridge is the crossing of I-90 over the Columbia River. Mommy Yum Yum was our dinner restaurant, and the tunnel covers for I-90 in the Cascade mountains will be covered up to the top with soil, to provide wildlife a way to cross back and forth over I-90 without becoming roadkill.
In and around the town of Cle Ellum. Clockwise: caboose at the old Cle Ellum railway station (out of use since the 1980s); the old Cle Ellum station depot building; a reference to the caboose in downtown Cle Ellum; post office in Cle Ellum.
Clockwise from the top: Basalt bluff overlooking Wanapum dam (in the Columbia river). petroglyphs from Indians; these images were originally located at lower elevations and would have been covered by the dam’s waters, but were relocated; petrified wood log in Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park; dinosaur model close by.

Monday/ (we are) George Carlin’s freak show

(I thought the picture of this little bat goes well with my post). The painted bat is a species of vesper bat in the family Vespertilionidae. It is found in Bangladesh, Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.

‘When you’re born you get a ticket to the freak show. When you’re born in America, you get a front-row seat’. – said George Carlin, American stand-up comedian, actor, author and social critic, 1927-2008.

This is certainly not the craziest year in the American republic’s history (there was the Civil War, and there was 1968, after all) .. but some days sure feels pretty surreal.

1. On Friday, President Trump called NFL players that kneel during the anthem to protest racial inequality ‘sons of b****es’. Surely, a first for any US President in public. Is the F word next? The N word?
2. We all survived the latest apocalypse on Saturday. Some guy called David preached about a biblical doomsday of Sep 23, which came and went .. and hey! we’re still here. He simply issued a new doomsday date.
3. Today Republican Senators Graham & Cassidy (boo! boo! to you) still pushed their zombie healthcare bill that propose to drain tens of billions of dollars out of healthcare. They lied about its effects in the public hearing today. Again confirming Republican health policy: die if you’re sick, and make it quick; you’re costing us money. (The New York Times reports that Republican Senators’ billionaire donors are getting antsy and want their tax cuts). Before the hearing started, Capitol police carried out screaming (disabled) protesters in their wheelchairs.
4. I watch the Vietnam War documentary and think: history repeated itself with Iraq, and is repeating itself right now in Afghanistan. We sent thousands more troops there just a few weeks ago – with no exit strategy. Just last week, the Senate passed a $700 billion defense policy bill, far more than what Trump requested. Someone calculated that the increase in the defense budget can fund free education country-wide for a year.
5. Trump finally acknowledged the post-Maria hurricane crisis in Puerto Rico (tweets), but criticizes them for their poor infrastructure, instead of offering help or support. Houston and Florida is yesterday’s news by now, and I assume they are doing OK.
6. North Korea now threatens to shoot down American warplanes – even outside their airspace, saying Trump ‘declared war’ on them.  There are reports that commercial airlines have started to give the airspace there a wide berth.  Not a great feeling, this game of chicken between President Trump and Dear Leader Kim Jong-un.

Sunday/ .. and the early results are in

The polls have closed and the projected results are in. Angela Merkel’s party won, but lost ground, as did her coalition partner Martin Schultz, from the left-center Social Democratic Party.  Schultz announced that the four-year coalition between the Social Democrats and Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is over.  The far right AfD gained a lot of ground and came in a solid third.  They will be seated in the Bundestag for the first time, something that does not sit well with many Germans.  But hey, this is not a Brexit outcome, and it is not a Trump-like victory: so, good.

A possible coalition with the CDU. This coalition would be called the Jamaica coalition (black, green and gold are colors on the Jamaican flag).  Martin Schultz from the SPD will be the official opposition, says he would like to ‘replace’ Merkel, but he has his work cut out for him. His party’s support came in at an all-time low.

Saturday/ voting for the 19th Bundestag

Here’s my collage of Twitter pictures for Germany’s federal elections on Sunday. The consensus is that Angela Merkel (Christian Democratic Union) is safely in the lead for a fourth term as German chancellor, but since there are seven parties vying for votes, it’s all about the second, third and fourth percentages of votes.  This will determine the coalition that the CDU will have to form, to get to a governing majority.

Clockwise from bottom left: Martin Schulz (Social Democratic Party) thinks ‘I don’t think of it’ .. to call Sahra Wagenknecht (Left Party) who thinks ‘Why isn’t he calling?’; Christian Lindner of the Free Democratic Party as a ‘Simpsons’ character; Angela Merkel on posters; Alternatief fur Deutschland (AfD) plays up the safety and immigration issue (they are popular in the East); the Reichstag (building) in Berlin, home of the German parliament; each person casts TWO votes on the ballot: one for a local representative by name and a second, general vote for a party; the second vote determines delegates indirectly.  Finally, a typical recent poll result shows that Merkel’s party and Martin Schulz (SDP) will be No 1 and 2, but it’s a neck-and-neck race for the rest.  If the SPD gets less than 23%, it will be their worst showing since 1949. They used to be in the 40% range. And the far-right AfD is expected to be represented for the first time in parliament.


Friday/ happy equinox!

The September equinox* arrived today at 20:02 UTC (1.02 pm here in my outpost on the globe), ushering in autumn.  So for a moment, night and day are each 12 hours long**, sunrises are due east and sunsets are due west, for all creatures on the globe. The sun’s position crosses the celestial equator (an imaginary equator above the real one on Earth’s surface), and this happens no matter where one is on Earth.

*Equinox from Latin equi (equal) and nox (night).
**Precisely speaking, there is more daylight than nighttime on the day of the equinox, an additional 8 or so minutes of daylight, at mid-temperate latitudes.

Earth’s axis is tilted 23.44° to the vertical*, which makes for the four seasons as it makes a trip around our solar system’s Sun every year.  Autumn has started in the northern hemisphere, and spring in the southern hemisphere. The sun has set on the North Pole, and will only appear again in March.   *Fun fact: due to slight changes in the elliptical orbit of Earth around the Sun, the 23.44° oscillates between 22.1° and 24.5° in a 41,000 year cycle called the Milankovitch Cycle. Earth is about 10,000 years away from the lowest tilt of 22.1°.

Thursday/ Canterbury earthquakes update

I thought I would check back on Christchurch, New Zealand, since it’s been some six years since the city had been hit with a series of severe earthquakes that killed 185 people. Wikipedia says that following the earthquakes, over 1,500 buildings in the city had been demolished or partly demolished by September 2013.  In the years that followed, the city has been experiencing rapid growth, with the central city rebuild, which is outlined in the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan, starting to ramp up.  I see that residents in the eastern suburbs of Christchurch feel a little left behind in all the recovery efforts, though .. and that ‘distress or anxiety associated with ongoing aftershocks, being in a damaged environment and surrounded by construction, additional financial burdens and loss of recreational and cultural facilities were the top four stresses for people in the city’.

Graphic from the Seattle Times that shows that shallow earthquakes in urban areas (such as in Christchurch in 2011) are the worst. Best I can tell, the ‘Shaking Severity’ and Magnitude ratings go like this: 4-Light, 5-Moderate, 6-Strong, 7-Very Strong, 8-Severe, 9-Violent.

Wednesday/ about the sea otter

A sea otter.  AVG LIFE SPAN IN THE WILD: Up to 23 years, SIZE: 4 ft, WEIGHT: 65 lbs Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Archives

The Seattle Aquarium biologists are hosting a ‘Sea Otter Awareness’ day this weekend. Sea otters are native to the coasts of the northern and eastern North Pacific Ocean.

Once almost hunted to extinction for their fur (the densest fur on all animals), their numbers have improved over the last century, but they are still an endangered species. Sea otters keep sea urchin populations in check, which would otherwise inflict extensive damage to kelp forest ecosystems (information from Wikipedia).

I acted like a Seattle tourist today with Bryan, Dale and our friend Marina that was visiting (from St Petersburg, Russia. Wow!). This friendly sea otter is at Pier 56 on the Seattle waterfront.

Tuesday/ ‘Rocket Man’ and Maria

All right .. I know there are on-going wars and catastrophes in the world, but it was still a day filled with unsettling news.  I woke up at 7 am to President Trump’s bombastic speech at the United Nations. A little restraint, Mr President? Why (again) call Kim Jung-un ‘Rocket Man’?


Then reports of the 7.1 earthquake near Mexico City came in, with buildings that collapsed and 150 reported dead so far.

Hurricane Maria has been in the news the last few days, striking Dominica (pop. 73,543) today and projected to make landfall in Puerto Rico (pop. 3.4 million) with Category 4 winds on Wednesday morning.

Finally, back in the category of man-made disasters, there is another effort underway from the Republicans in the United States Congress to shove the country’s healthcare system off a cliff (the Graham-Cassidy Bill).


Update Wed 9/20: The death toll in Mexico City rose to 245 on Wednesday.  No casualties reported so far from Puerto Rico, but the entire island is without power.

Monday/ the horrors of the Vietnam War

I have started to watch a 10-episode Vietnam War documentary, currently airing on the public television channel PBS, here in the United States.

Long ago in South Africa on Friday nights, I would watch a TV series about the war, called Tour of Duty, but dubbed into Afrikaans as Sending Vietnam (Mission Vietnam). Best I can recall, this was in 1993 & 1994.  At the end of each episode, ‘Paint It, Black’ would play – a song by the Rolling Stones that describes extreme grief and loss.  No doubt: it pointed to the post-traumatic stress that soldiers and civilians alike, had suffered (still suffer?) from the war.

From ‘Paint It, Black’ (The Rolling Stones, 1966) :
‘No more will my green sea go turn a deeper blue
I could not foresee this thing happening to you
If I look hard enough into the setting sun
My love will laugh with me before the morning comes ..’

From the PBS website. I have watched episodes 1 and 2, so a long way to go! Episode 2 ended with the assassination of JFK in 1963. That’s President Lyndon Johnson (left) and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in the picture for Episode 3.  The documentary is hard to watch at times: Episode 2 had footage of the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức who burned himself to death at a busy Saigon road intersection on 11 June 1963 (to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government).

Sunday/ We the People

Powerful words: ‘We the People’, and ‘… promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity .. ‘

The Constitution of the United States was signed by 39 delegates 230 years ago to the day on Sunday.

There were several glowing tweets on Twitter (#ConstitutionDay), such as ‘greatest political document ever written in human history’ and ‘written by patriots, protected by patriots’.

To me, it is more complicated than that.  There is no question that the United States Constitution was a landmark document, and an enormous influence over the constitutions of republics in other parts of the world that came into being later. But over the years, there have been 27 amendments to the original US Constitution, so it had to change and clarify itself with the times.  And take the 2005 Iraq Constitution. It guarantees minimum wage, universal health care and free education (acknowledging that Iraq still has a lot of basic peace and security problems to deal with).  Section 9 of the 1996 South African Constitution explicitly forbids discrimination on the basis of sex, gender or sexual orientation .. something which is not clear at all in the US Constitution.  In fact, the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) of 2009 that would end workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity by employers with at least 15 employees, has still not become law.

Saturday/ who watches the algorithms?

Nowadays when I log onto Facebook, there is a friendly, waving, little ‘Like’ blue hand message welcoming me .. which makes cynical RED flags pop up in my head! (I added the red text).

It’s the 21st century, and we no longer ask ‘Who watches the watchers? (on the city walls)’. What we should ask is ‘Who watches the algorithms? (on Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft).

ProPublica* found that Facebook to this day had perfectly enabled marketers of say, Nazi memorabilia, or recruiters for marchers for a far-right rally, to find ‘Jew haters’ (it was an actual ad category, gleaned from Facebook profiles and posts), and send them ‘promoted posts’. (After the ProPublica report, Facebook removed the anti-semitic categories and promised to improve monitoring).

And just last week, Buzzfeed News reported that Facebook’s vast reach was used in the 2016 elections by a Russian troll operation that set up fake accounts and sent misinformation (presumably about the Clinton campaign), to the tune of $100,000 worth of political ads.  The new media/ social media are escaping many regulations and media standards that are far behind the curve, and that have yet to catch up with the digital age.

*ProPublica is an American nonprofit organization based in New York City. It describes itself as a nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest.

Friday/ the ‘Luncheon of the Boating Party’

Here’s my latest puzzle project : the wonderful impressionist painting, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party.  It’s fun to use the artist’s colors and textures to build out parts of the picture, and then to find out how they link up in the big picture.

[From Wikipedia: As he often did in his paintings, Renoir included several of his friends in Luncheon of the Boating Party. The painting, combining figures, still-life, and landscape in one work, depicts a group of Renoir’s friends relaxing on a balcony at the Maison Fournaise restaurant along the Seine river in Chatou, France. The painter and art patron, Gustave Caillebotte, is seated in the lower right. Renoir’s future wife, Aline Charigot, is in the foreground playing with a small dog, an affenpinscher. On the table is fruit and wine].

Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted the ‘Luncheon of the Boating Party’ in 1880–1881 with oil on a large canvas, 51 in × 68 in (129.9 cm × 172.7 cm). The painting is currently located in Washington DC in the art museum called the Phillips Collection.

Thursday/ last days of summer

Dry flower arrangement from ones trimmed off my potted plants. (The water is just for counterbalance, so that the jar does not tip over easily!).
Almost 3/4 of an inch of rain in one day is a ‘lot’! .. compared to 0.02 for all of July and August.

It’s getting cooler here in the Pacific Northwest, and the first big weather system will move in this weekend, bringing rain to the parched forests on the Olympic Peninsula and lawns in the cities (such as mine).

Meanwhile, the very long road to recovery for the flooded and damaged parts of Texas and Florida, and the devastated islands in the Caribbean has started.

Newspaper USA Today reports that for the first time in 300 years, there is not a single person on the tiny island of Barbuda (pop. 1,800). Every last one was evacuated, after 95% of the structures there, had been destroyed by hurricane Irma.