Shallow Thoughts : : Sep

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Thu, 30 Sep 2004

Pho 0.9.5-pre2

I finally gathered together some of the pending fixes for Pho, so it keeps better track of where it is in the linked list when deleting or jumping around. No progress on the focus handling, though. I sure would like to solve that before 0.9.5 final.

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[ 21:42 Sep 30, 2004    More programming | permalink to this entry ]

Tue, 28 Sep 2004

ADA doesn't apply to the web?!

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last Friday that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not apply to the web. In other words, web designers are not required to make their pages accessible to readers with disabilities.

That seems very odd. It's required of software -- several lawsuits have been filed (and settled) related to inaccessible software. Accessibility is required universally for web sites in the EU, and I thought it was required of US government sites as well. It's a shame the court felt that it wasn't important for web sites in general.

Accessibility helps everybody, not just people with disabilities (even setting aside the fact that most of us will eventually experience some impairment, if we live long enough). Accessible web sites are usually easier to read and navigate, and translate more easily to offline readers (such as Sitescooper) and PDA readers (such as Opera and Plucker).

The decision was "largely on procedural grounds" and the court suggested that the decision could be revisited in a future case. I hope that case comes soon, before US web designers conclude there's no point in designing for accessibility.

W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0.

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[ 12:05 Sep 28, 2004    More programming | permalink to this entry ]

Pandora 0.7 released

I shot way too many panoramas on the Southpark trip (places like Canyonlands just don't fit in any normal camera lens) and ran up against some irritations in Pandora when stitching them together. Notably, it no longer remembered the overlap value from the previous run, and if you select filenames in the filepicker but don't click "Add" it just exited silently. Version 0.7 fixes those problems (Yosh figured out that it needed a call to gimp_main_exit in order to remember the values), and cleans up some crufty code that was left over from blindly copying the gimp sample plugin.

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[ 11:28 Sep 28, 2004    More gimp | permalink to this entry ]

Mon, 27 Sep 2004

Clueless Cellphone Users

"Funniest headline of the week" award goes to The Register:

HELLO... I'M ON A PLANE...YES...A PLANE!!
Bad news for regular fliers

Okay, maybe it's only funny if you've heard someone doing this. For me, it was being at a spectacular scenic vista at the Grand Canyon and seeing someone get out of his car, pull out a cellphone, exclaim to his companion "Hey, I'm getting reception here", poke at it, and proceed to spend the next five minutes shouting inanities like:

I'M AT THE GRAND CANYON!

THE G R A N D C A N Y O N!

THE CANYON! YOU KNOW, THE BIG HOLE IN THE GROUND!
YES!

I guess The Register has encountered people like that, too.

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[ 22:21 Sep 27, 2004    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

CBS explodes "liberal bias" myth

Nice editorial by Ethan Rarick in today's SF Chron: CBS explodes liberal media bias myth.

After watching the Bush/Gore campaign, I have a hard time believing that anyone really believes the news media have a liberal bias. (Hint: count the number of pages of free coverage each candidate got each day.)

Perhaps no one actually does believe it, and conservatives just say it to try to persuade the credulous.

But for anyone who wasn't paying attention during the campaign four years ago, Ethan Rarick's editorial gives a nice, and contemporary, example, comparing the flap over Dan Rather's documents on Dubya's military service, which turned out to be false (the documents, that is; the military service is probably false too, but that remains to be proven), with the non-flap over the similar but more serious (in that it led to declaring war on another nation, and to the deaths of many US soldiers) NY Times admission that they had been "taken in" by the president's misleading statements regarding WMD and the Saddam threat.

Reporters do seem inclined to be liberal. But publishers -- the people who actually control what gets printed and where -- are inclined to be conservative. It's not surprising: newspaper publishing is Big Business, especially in these days when most venues are served by one monopoly newspaper owned by a conglomerate publishing house.

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[ 22:05 Sep 27, 2004    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

Biking the Flume Trail

We joined Bill and Benita over the weekend for some mountain biking. Saturday, we sampled their fabulous trail system (all hand-built technical singletrack on their own property) and Sunday we joined up with six other riders (and two Australian shepherds) for a ride on the famous Flume Trail at Tahoe (photos here).

Dave actually liked Bill & Benita's trails better than the Flume -- the trails themselves are a lot more fun and technical, even if the view isn't quite as good. Me, I'm not going to choose. I had fun both days.

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[ 17:31 Sep 27, 2004    More travel | permalink to this entry ]

Thu, 23 Sep 2004

South Park trip pictures are up

I haven't yet finished the panoramas, or linkifying the blog entries, but I've posted a basic collection of South Park trip photos.

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[ 18:00 Sep 23, 2004    More travel/southpark | permalink to this entry ]

Wed, 22 Sep 2004

Spurious SUV Mileage Quotes

In my last entry I mentioned some SUVs getting under 4 miles per gallon, and someone called me on that, saying (quite reasonably) "The truth is bad enough, no need to exaggerate".

I was blindly quoting a phrase someone had quoted in email:

"A Harper's Magazine writer took the massive Ford Excursion, the biggest of all SUVs for a test drive. During a drive around a city, the mighty Excursion was only getting 3.7 miles per gallon."

I googled for that parts of that phrase, and found it quoted on three different web sites, all anti-SUV or environmental web sites. Google didn't find the source of the quote. So I tried a search on Harpers itself for Ford Excursion, and came up blank. If this Harper's writer did get 3.7mpg in a test drive, he or she didn't write about it, or else Harper's isn't making the content accessible so we can get the details and find out if it's spurious.

Looks like yet another "fox terrier", everybody quoting a juicy line that might not have been accurate in the first place. I stand corrected. Big SUVs do get abysmal mileage and I still think they're responsible for a lot of our smog and CO2 problems, and should be regulated the same as cars since they're used in the same way; but that unsupported 3.7 mpg figure for the Ford Excursion is probably bogus and should not be part of the argument. Thanks for keeping me honest, Bill!

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[ 11:58 Sep 22, 2004    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

Sat, 18 Sep 2004

How to pretend to pass laws without actually doing so

(Write laws that don't apply for ten years, then revoke them.)

The news everyone in California seems to be talking about today is SB42, the bill to end the "rolling 30-year exemption" which never actually rolled. For instance, here's today's Chron Article on the subject.

What does this all mean? None of the newspaper stories actually tell you much about the law or its history.

There's a little information at a CA Senate site. Basically, cars older than 1973 are exempted from California's bi-annual smog checks. In 1997 or 1998, a "rolling 30-year window" was added, meaning that in 2004, 1974 cars would become exempt, in 2005, 1975 cars would, etc. (Note: I remember the rolling window being legislated much earlier than 1998, perhaps even a decade earlier. But I haven't yet been able to find anything on the web discussing legislation prior to 1997.)

Notice that the 30-year window never happened. It's been promised for quite some time (at least seven years, but maybe more than ten if I'm remembering correctly) but, frankly, anybody who believed it was really going to happen was dreaming. All the car buffs I know (including myself) had every expectation that the window would disappear before it ever came into effect.

And indeed, that's what's happening. Current bill SB42, from Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View), which is on the governor's desk for signature or veto, would repeal the 30-year rolling window completely, and give the exemption to all cars through 1976 but no later cars, ever. (None of the stories discusses when this goes into effect: do the 1974 through 1976 cars immediately become exempt, or does this wait until 2006 when the 30-year window would have exempted them?)

Everybody is up in arms. Classic car buffs, who have been fondling their modified 1975 cars in gleeful anticipation of anticipated legality, are furious at the take-back. The Sierra Club is dancing for joy at getting sports cars off the road to make way for more gas-guzzling SUVs. Everybody is organizing letter-writing campaigns. Nobody, naturally, is providing any data.

The Chron article quotes the "staff researchers" for Lieber's office on projected numbers for the percentage of pollutants expected to be contributed by cars built before 1982. Curiously, when I look at the Sierra Club's "call to action" on this bill, I see almost the identical phrase quoted by the Chron. Nobody mentions who did this study, who calculated the numbers or what they're based on. Did Lieber's "staff researchers" merely lift propaganda from the Sierra Club? Or did they do actual research, which the Sierra club is now quoting but which no one seems to reference in any detail? Of course, the car enthusiast sites quote numbers which tell a very different story, also without attribution, so they're no more trustworthy.

I'd love to see a chart of total estimated pollutants by year, with the total number of cars of that year still on the road, from 1973 up through today. I'd also like to see a breakdown for the older cars into carburated and fuel injected, and a breakdown for recent cars into cars and SUVs/trucks. A breakdown by engine size might also be interesting.

I suspect it really is true that some subset of older cars is causing a disproportionate amount of pollution, and addressing that would be a good thing. Let's find out who the real offenders are, and address the real problem.

It's funny how laws involving cars or gasoline so often seem to be passed in this time-delayed way ... and then never actually take effect. A law is passed that will take effect seven or ten or fifteen years later, and nobody (except a few trusting individuals) pays it any attention because everyone knows perfectly well that such laws don't really mean anything.

Consider MTBE, the health-endangering gas additive. It's still in California gas, despite a law passed some five years ago supposedly banning it (with a time delay). Union 76 sells non-MTBE gas (and I buy their gas almost exclusively, for that reason) but no one else does, as far as I've been able to tell.

Consider the SUV exemption. SUVs and trucks don't have to meet the fleet economy standards that cars have to meet, or the emissions laws, or the safety requirements. Let me say that again: the biggest, gas-guzzlingest vehicles on the road, some of which get under 4 miles per gallon, don't have to meet the same emissions requirements as a Honda Civic. That, too, is covered by a current time-delayed law; and as with the MTBE law, I wish you good luck in finding out anything about the status of it. The automakers certainly aren't paying any attention; they know perfectly well that it will be thrown out before they actually have to redesign SUVs to comply.

Delayed-action laws are merely a convenient way of getting good press (or votes, or campaign contributions) without having to risk changing anything.

When you see a law with a delayed effect, be very suspicious.

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[ 23:24 Sep 18, 2004    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

HP Linux Laptop mislead, part Deux

Amazing! HP finally updated their web site and made it possible to buy the SuSE Linux laptop that they've been claiming to have since early August. Only took a month and a half.

I wonder if anyone else has noticed that you have to buy the high-end version of the laptop (over $1500) to get the Linux option, and it's only $20 less than the comparable Windows version, even though all their press releases last month said it would be under $1100 and significantly (like $50) cheaper than the Windows version?

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[ 22:13 Sep 18, 2004    More linux | permalink to this entry ]

Thu, 16 Sep 2004

Swell and Primm

Leaving Green River, Interstate 70 cuts through the middle of the San Rafael Reef, a 40 mile long spine of sandstone layers. The reef is the edge of the sandstone layers exposed when the San Rafael Swell arose.

There's a terrific handout on the San Rafael swell area which shows up at some of the restaurants and motel racks in Green River, which includes a map of the swell's area and a geologic cross section of the exposed rocks, which confirmed our suspicion that the white sandstone exposed on the eastern side of the Reef is Navajo sandstone, just like the Slickrock Trail at Moab.

The highway has numerous pullouts marked "View Area", with fanciful names such as Spotted Wolf or Black Dragon, and fairly useful interpretive signs to go along with the views. We had to laugh at some of the "View Area" signs, with arrows pointing at spectacular rock formations, wondering: Could anyone drive by that and not view it?

After leaving the San Rafael Swell, the highway moves into the Fishlake National Forest -- fairly standard mountainous terrain -- then eventually south along the Sevier (pronounced "severe") river. Eventually we turned southwest on I-15 and headed down toward Vegas.

We did make a stop at our favorite Indian truck stop on the Moapa reservation in Nevada. In addition to a general store and fairly reasonable gas prices, they used to have a big sign advertising "Really Good Jerky", of both beef and buffalo. The jerky seller in the little trailer outside the general store gave samples (which he cut off with scissors), and it was indeed Really Good, so we've made a point of stopping for jerky every time we pass this way.

Alas, the jerky seller is no more, and we went jerkyless. The Moapa are now specializing in fireworks, and there was no sign of Really Good Jerky.

(Fortunately, the next day, Alien Fresh Jerky in Baker, CA, saved me from a totally jerkyless trip. I'm not sure it's *quite* as good as the Moapa Really Good Jerky; but it's really quite good (they have buffalo, turkey, salmon and alligator as well as beef, but free samples only for the beef), and the store, heavily decorated in an alien motif, makes an excellent kitchy stopover. Plus you can check out the World's Tallest Thermometer while you're in Baker. Dave and I stayed at the Baker Bun Boy Motel on our first night of our first-ever trip together, so there's a bit of romance to stopping in Baker. Do we know how to have a good time, or what?)

We passed through Vegas without a backward glance, and instead of staying in Jean as we have before, decided to try Primm, a few miles farther south near the California border. Primm sports three casino/hotels: we picked Whisky Pete's because it was on the right side of the road and had a sign offering $5.95 prime rib, though it turns out they're all owned by the same person and all probably offer the same deals. (The room rates at Whiskey Pete's are very reasonable, the room is nice, and the prime rib was excellent. The only downside is that there's no wifi, phone calls aren't free, and it's not clear whether a Vegas access number would be a local call or not. So no internet connection tonight.)

Primm is a bit of an enigma. I'm typing this in a room high in a tower surrounded by crenellated turrets, each topped with a Disney- style party hat with a little flag, and surrounded by blinking white christmas lights. We're having trouble figuring out what a Disney Sleeping Beauty castle has to do with the "Whiskey Pete" theme embodied by the western mining motif in the casino downstairs. The pool twelve floors below our window has a neat looking mini waterslide that goes through a fake little mountain (Disneyesque again) on the way down, but it appears to be closed (maybe if I went down and asked, someone would open it; I didn't try).

There's a sign in the casino for "Monorail to Primm Valley Resort". The "monorail" is a bus with rubber tires which run on two concrete tracks. The tracks go high up over I-15, from which you get a nice view of the pass to the south and the surrounding desert, not to mention the lovely crescent moon setting over the hills. It's free. It runs fairly often. It's really pretty neat. But I still haven't figured out what's "mono" about it. Maybe no one would be willing to ride a "birail".

Primm Valley Resort Casino tries to look a bit more upscale than Pete's. The buffet restaurant is decorated like they're trying to be the Butterfly room at the Bellagio in Vegas, but failing. The staff at the coffee shop is a little more dressy. The security guards all look glum (where the ones at Pete's look officious). The dinner menus are very similar. We tried to take the "monorail" (two rails again) down to Buffalo Bill's, which has a rollercoaster (which we've never seen in motion), but got tired of waiting for it and headed back to the Whiskey Pete's tra^H^H^Hmonorail. (We didn't check out the outlet mall next door to the resort.)

On the way back over the freeway, the monorail operator asked us why we were back so soon. We said we decided we liked Whiskey Pete's better. He said he did, too -- it was more casual. We chatted a bit (he's originally from the Navajo reservation in Arizona) and when he asked where we'd been, we mentioned that we'd been visiting relatives in Colorado, and Dave added that they lived at about 10,000 feet. The operator said "Sounds like Fairplay." We were stunned -- that's the next town over from where Kerry & Pam live. Turns out he lived there for a year or so, ranching. It's a small world.

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[ 22:02 Sep 16, 2004    More travel/southpark | permalink to this entry ]

Wed, 15 Sep 2004

Goblins beat the Maze

On quite a few trips to Canyonlands national park, we've visited two of the park's three districts: Island in the Sky (several times) and Needles (once); but we'd never been to the third district, the Maze. The Maze is extremely remote, with no paved roads going anywhere nearby. None of the park brochures are clear about what's in the Maze, even; there are few photos, and no guides or descriptions for the dirt roads and trails. Naturally, we've been curious about it.

There are basically two ways in: via a dirt road coming off highway Utah 24 from Green River, or via a dirt road coming from from near Hite marina at the northern end of Lake Powell. The Green River end looks a bit more accessible, so we chose that option.

One advantage of the U-24 option is that it passes right by Goblin Valley state park, said by everyone to be worth seeing. And indeed it is. "Goblins", also known as hoodoos or "stone babies", are vertical pillars with a harder capstone on top, which protects the softer stone of the pillar from erosion. In the case of Goblin Valley, the two components are made from two different members of the Entrada formation, the same sandstone which comprises the arches and walls of Arches national park. So both parts of the goblins are deep, dark red, and the capstones erode into rounded shapes which do look like heads. (They might also evoke other shapes to some eyes, but we won't discuss that too much on a family-rated blog.)

Attitudes are relaxed at Goblin Valley. We paid the entry fee ($5) and the ranger apologized for not having maps -- they're printing a new set -- but told us to go to the end of the road, park, and "just walk anywhere. There aren't any trails, go anywhere you want." And so we did, spending a happy hour or so wandering among the goblins and enjoying the nearby scenery (including the spectacular San Rafael Reef, a many mile long spine of uptilted sandstone -- Navajo? -- at the edge of the peculiar San Rafael Swell).

But eventually we had to leave, and continue our Maze quest. We turned onto the dirt road a mile or so down highway 24 and proceeded on our way.

This was the RAV4's first long dirt outing (though we've had it on nontechnical dirt roads before) and it did fine on the dirt road, which wasn't bad as such roads go. There are signs at all important intersections, not too much washboard, and only a few rocky or sandy sections. It took maybe an hour and a half to get to Hans Flat, which was the least flat place we'd seen since leaving Goblin Valley. Was Hans a joker, or did he get a flat once when driving there?

The ranger at Hans Flat was very friendly and helpful, but unfortunately discouraging about the roads. We'd already been warned by the ranger at Island in the Sky that the roads are very technical and aren't suitable for many street SUVs; we had hoped to be able to get to Panorama Point for a view of the Maze, but the Hans Flat ranger told us that yesterday someone in a Grand Cherokee had tried for several hours to get up that trail, and had finally given up. The issue is mostly ground clearance, though the rangers at both locations stressed the importance of having a low-range gearbox. (We remain somewhat skeptical about that, based on our admittedly scant off-roading experience in the 4Runner, which did have a 4-low; the RAV4 has quite a low first gear, and we both suspect that any road which requires lower gearing than that would stop us for other reasons, like ground clearance or traction, before gearing became an issue.)

The ranger did make her point, though, asking whether we'd been to Needles (yes) and seen the road called Elephant Hill (yes, and hadn't been willing to try it in the 4Runner). "All our roads have sections worse than that. We recommend that people drive around Needles a bit first, then come here if you decide that isn't challenging enough." Point made.

So she suggested we try driving out to the first switchback of the Flint Trail and check out the view from there, and get an idea what the Flint (a steep descent down a mesa wall, rather like the Shafer Trail which descends from Island in the Sky to the White Rim, or the Horsethief Trail we'd taken to get down to the bottom of Upheaval Dome) was like. Her opinion was that our RAV4 could probably drive down the Flint, though our brakes would be fairly hot by the bottom, but that we wouldn't be able to drive back up it and would have to go out via Hite.

The road out to the Flint was fun driving -- rocky and occasionally sandy, mildly technical, but nothing the RAV had any trouble handling. We stopped at a couple of viewpoints, but found them disappointing: really all we could see was the Nevada-like scrubland below the Orange Cliffs, and the scrubland of the Elaterite Basin below that, plus a few buttes. Nothing nearly as interesting as the view from paved highway 24 before we turned onto the dirt, let alone the panoramic vistas of Island or Needles.

The Flint Trail itself was interesting to see, though. We could immediately see why she'd said it was more difficult than the Shafer or Horsethief: it's a bit narrower (only one car width through a lot of its descent), a lot steeper at least in some places, more technical (rocks and ruts), and the traction was quite poor. We hiked from the first switchback halfway down to the second, and our hiking shoes kept slipping in the dust when we tried to stop and take pictures. The dropoff isn't quite as scary in itself as the other two trails (most turns have sizeable berms on the outsides) but sliding down a steep slope over rocks and deep dust could change the scariness in a hurry.

And the view? Well, alas, it isn't really any better from there. We still couldn't see much of the Maze, or much else besides scrubland and a few buttes.

We're left wondering: what does the Maze look like if you can actually get inside? Is its attraction simply its inaccessibility (we saw only one other couple the whole time we were there -- you're not going to get overwhelmed with crowds here) or is there stuff hidden in the Maze that compares with Island and Needles? Do we care enough to find a way to set up a multi-day biking or backpacking trip?

A disappointment. But at least we saw the Goblins.

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[ 20:04 Sep 15, 2004    More travel/southpark | permalink to this entry ]

Tue, 14 Sep 2004

(Part Way) Around Upheaval Dome

Upheaval Dome is a star feature of Canyonlands National Park -- certainly the best example of a complex impact crater I've seen.

The better known Barringer Crater in Arizona is an excellent example of a simple crater, while Upheaval has multiple shock rings and the apparent remnants of a central peak, perhaps even a central ring mountain. It's comparable to large lunar impact structures such as Tycho, Copernicus, or even Mare Nectaris or Mare Orientale, while its Arizona sibling is more like a small crater such as Linne.

So why is it called Upheaval Dome, you ask? Well, originally it was thought to be a huge collapsed salt dome: a pocket of subterranean salt swells from the effects of water, warping the rocks around it, then the salt leaks out and the dome collapses under its own weight. There are lots of salt valleys in the Canyonlands area, and the mophology of impact craters wasn't understood until fairly recently, so this explanation made some sense at one time. However, it turns out that there isn't any salt under Upheaval, and there are traces of shattercones and other heat-shocked rock, as well as chemical traces consistent with an impacting body. Gene Shoemaker and others have studied Upheaval extensively, and the results all point fairly convincingly to an impact. The national park service, however, hasn't quite come around, and still presents the salt-dome theory alongside the impact crater theory, and the name remains "Upheaval Dome". Sigh.

Dave and I have visited Upheaval several times -- it's one of the places we keep coming back to, and it's spectacular every time. We've been inside once, when we hiked up from the Green River on our honeymoon, and have walked the short trail to the two overlooks on top several times. The last time, however, we noted that the overlook trail continues (though no park documents mention this -- they all show the trail stopping at the second overlook), and this time we wanted to see how far it goes.

We didn't find out. It continues for miles past the overlooks, marked by cairns (ever notice how park brochures and signs never mention cairns? Do they figure that anyone silly enough to want to go for a hike in a national park already knows they're trail markers?), giving one spectacular view after another, of Upheaval, or its runoff canyon leading to the Green River, or the Navajo sandstone domes comprising the southern end of Upheaval's second shock ring. We puttered around for several hours, hunting cairns up and down steep slickrock surfaces and along sandy washes, trying to scope out connections between this upper trail and the "Syncline Loop" trail, which circumnavigates Upheaval farther out, beyond the first shock ring, and connects with the lower trail that goes into its center.

But all good things must come to an end, so eventually we found our way back (via the Syncline Loop), paid a quick visit to the Green River Overlook and the spectacular Grandview Point (perhaps the most scenic spot in any national park), watched a minivan essay the torturous turns of the Schaefer trail (riding the brakes the whole way; understandable, when you look at the several thousand foot sheer dropoff on the outer edge of this narrow dirt road) then headed north to the town of Green River to set up for our assault on the Maze. Green River may not have a list of dining establishments to rival Moab, but it has a central location under the scenic Book Cliffs, plus one thing Moab lacks: cheap motels with wi-fi access.

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[ 20:59 Sep 14, 2004    More travel/southpark | permalink to this entry ]

Mon, 13 Sep 2004

Glenwood Canyon's Hanging Lake

When we finally reluctantly bid adios to South Park, we pointed north over the Continental Divide to join interstate 70. Our hosts had given us a tip on a short but beautiful hike in Glenwood Canyon, to a "hanging lake" perched on a ledge high in the cliff walls. Sounded like a lovely way to break up a day's driving.

Getting to the trailhead turns out to be easier said than done. Our hosts had assured us the exit was marked, but the exit for Hanging Lake has since been closed. It turns out you now have to go two exits farther, turn around and get back on the freeway going the other direction, and remember the exit number to get off at the right place. Don't get off early, or you can't get back on and have to cycle all the way around again.

Once there, you walk a quarter mile along the river on a paved bike path, and then the real trail begins, climbing steeply along rock stairsteps. The steepness of the climb doesn't ever let up significantly. Groups of people (this is a popular trail) rest by the trailside. Groups coming down mutter encouraging words to tired climbers. We asked one descender, "Is it worth it?" His answer: "Oh, god, yes."

And indeed it was. The hanging lake is spectacular and beautiful, a shallow pond of clear azure waters. And fish. How did the fish get there? Interpretive signs discuss black swifts (nowhere to be seen) and oil shale columbine (which I'm sure are lovely if you're there in season, which we weren't) but nothing about the fish.

Every descending hiker, as well as the trail description down at the trailhead, urged us not to miss the short side trip to Spouting Rock, so of course we checked it out. A stream of water gushes mysteriously out of a hole in the otherwise solid rock of the cliff face, becoming a waterfall which feeds the lake. Fabulous!

I've driven through Glenwood Canyon several times before, always impressed at the beauty of the canyon (I-70 through eastern Utah and western Colorado has got to be the prettiest interstate highway anywhere) but I had no idea I had been missing the best part. It's well worth the couple of hours' stopover when travelling through that area.

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[ 21:50 Sep 13, 2004    More travel/southpark | permalink to this entry ]

Sun, 12 Sep 2004

ATV thumb throttle design

We had the chance to spend a few hours riding 4-wheeled ATVs with Kerry and Pam. Great fun! And it's easy to see why anyone living in a rural area would want one, especially anyone who needs to carry supplies from one place to another (dirt bikes are great fun and can go anywhere, but it's a lot harder to carry a big spool of wire, a toolbox, and an Australian shepherd puppy on a dirt bike).

The only disappointment was that they sported the same thumb-push-button throttles as snowmobiles and jet-skis use, which makes my thumb ache after only a few minutes of riding. I knew Kerry & Pam had been motorcyclists, so I jumped at the chance to ask: why thumb throttles, rather than a twist throttle like a motorcycle?

Kerry's answer was prompt (it was obvious he had thought about this before): because they're awful, everybody hates them, and that way everyone will spend more money buying an upgrade kit (which costs another $100 or so) from the manufacturer since nobody makes aftermarket kits.

I'm not sure I believe that. If it's true that everybody hates thumb throttles, then wouldn't a company which bucked the trend and offered an ATV or snowmobile with a twist throttle have an instant market advantage? And why hasn't some enterprising aftermarket company come out with a kit if they're in such demand?

But I don't have an alternate explanation. It's some consolation, at least, to hear that I'm not the only one who hates thumb throttles, and that it is possible to buy a twist-throttle kit (perhaps it's even possible to fabricate one out of motorcycle parts).

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[ 20:58 Sep 12, 2004    More travel/southpark | permalink to this entry ]

The Altiplano!

After brunch in Golden, we headed up into the mountains to our destination (and the real purpose for this trip), the house of Dave's brother Kerry, and his wife, Pam. We didn't know much about the location, besides that it was just under 10,000 feet in elevation and very near the continental divide.

The terrain visible from the highway up to the pass was typical Colorado mountain scenery, in fine form: rocky cliffs, aspens just starting to turn, a river meandering beside the highway (which proved to be the North Fork of the South Platte -- I guess they were running out of names for rivers), pines. So when we crossed the pass, we weren't prepared for the sight on the other side: a huge flat grassy plain stretching for dozens of miles, pocked with ranches. A huge plain at 9500 feet. It was like Colorado's answer to the Altiplano of the Andes!

We later learned that this feature is known as a "park", and that this one is called "South Park". Yes, that South Park -- supposedly the animated TV show is named after this plain, or the ghost town on the western edge of it.

We found the dirt road leading to K&P's place, and we were there. They sit on the edge of the altiplano -- er, park -- at the foot of a couple of spectacular "fourteener" mountain peaks astride the continental divide, surrounded by aspens ablaze, with two creeks running through the property, horses and cows, ATVs, several parrots, and a cheerful red merle Australian shepherd puppy named Ben. Plus elk (invisible on this trip -- it's hunting season, so they're hiding), pronghorns, mountain bluebirds, coyotes, and a host of other wild animals.

In other words, paradise. At least if you don't mind fairly harsh winter weather, and can function at over 9000 feet of altitude, which not everyone can. The couple of days we spent there wasn't really long enough to adapt.

One of the two creeks is actually a culvert, and a constant source of problems. It seems that beavers have been damming up the culvert, creating lakes that overflow the driveway and make it impossible to leave the house. We went along on one walk of the culvert and see the latest beaver dams (and, of course, try to catch a glimpse of the beavers themselves, but we never got a definitive look).

We passed two idyllic days hiking the property, riding ATVs, playing with Ben, listening to the parrots practice whistles and phrases, looking for beavers, watching blue herons and bluebirds, and just gaping at the amazing views. On the way out, we saw a pronghorn wandering right next to the road.

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[ 20:30 Sep 12, 2004    More travel/southpark | permalink to this entry ]

Sat, 11 Sep 2004

The Mitten Fault

Vernal, UT to Golden, CO

The eastern end of Dinosaur National Monument seemed a bit of a let-down, at first. The road stretches about 30 miles from highway 50, and along most of that length there's very little to see, as the road winds along the scrubby mesa top. Only the last six miles are in the park, and those include a sparse handful of viewpoint pullouts, none of which give much of a chance to see the rivers. So our hopes rested on North's Rule of National Parks: The end of the road is where the Good Stuff is.

We got to the end of the road, parked ... and still couldn't see much. The parking lot is surrounded by trees and doesn't come very close to the edge of the mesa on either side. You really have to walk the one mile trail to the end of the mesa in order to see anything.

And at first, it seems like the trail isn't any better, and the trail guide (25 cents at the trailhead) is full of the usual mind-numbing Park Service platitudes (Look around you ... even though there's a river down at the bottom of the canyon, it's dry up here. So the trees have to survive on not much water). But hang in there, for a fairly spectacular view at trail's end of the tilted, twisted Mitten fault, as well as the joining of the Yampa and Green rivers (the confluence itself isn't visible, hidden by a formation known as Steamboat Rock). The fault cuts across the river (or, rather, the river sliced through the already-formed fault when the Uinta uplift raised this area above its surroundings) and you can trace it back along the terrain to the cliff on which you stand. Downstream, Whirlpool Canyon (so named by John Wesley Powell) cuts through sediment of a very different nature from the sandstone cliffs upstream of the fault. The park's trail map offers a diagram showing this, making up for the smarmy nature-trail points earlier in the hike.

After leaving the park, we headed east, across Rabbit Ears Pass. Dave had been there once as a young child, and said I'd understand the name when I got there ... and indeed I did. But which two of the three projections are the rabbit's ears? We passed lovely high meadow scenery most of the way, with the aspens just beginning to turn, and eventually arrived in Golden to meet Dave's family.

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[ 08:31 Sep 11, 2004    More travel/southpark | permalink to this entry ]

Thu, 09 Sep 2004

The Dinosaur Bone Quarry: Evanston, WY to Vernal, UT

After stopping to admire Wyoming's nice passive solar rest stop on I-80 (complete with diagrams for how the passive solar setup worked in summer and winter), we took a byway through rolling hills of Morrison bentonite and Mancos shale to Manila, UT, where we got our first (and nearly our only) view of Flaming Gorge, which staggered us.

Not because of the red gorge, which by all accounts used to be spectacular before the dam was built and the canyon flooded with a reservoir; and not because of the reservoir itself, which seemed nothing special. The interesting part of the view from Manila is two huge, parallel curving ridges with what looked like a lowered flat area in between. Imagine a freeway offramp leading from a high rocky cliff down to the reservoir, with a wall of sharp red sandstone on either flank ... then scale it up by an order of magnitude ... and you have some idea of what this odd formation looked like.

There's a forest service office in Manila, so we stopped to ask, "What the heck IS that thing?" We suspected successive glacial moraines, since the valley in which Manila sits looks very glacial (U-shaped, and all that) but we wanted to talk to someone who knew more.

Unfortunately, the geologist on staff was out. The ranger (new in town and not yet fully versed on the area) also thought moraines were a likely answer, but he and the helpful lady at the counter suggested I check back with the geologist, which I will certainly do.

Then we headed south to Vernal, and hit some nice surprises. First, someone involved with Utah road signs actually got the silly notion that travellers might have some interest in geology. Every mile or so, we'd pass a sign saying something like "Jurassic Morrison Formation: graveyard of dinosaurs", keeping us posted as we crossed each geologic layer boundary. It was almost like driving with "Roadside Geology of Utah", without having to check mile markers all the time. What a great idea! I'm sure it's appreciated by lots of travellers along that road, not just amateur geology wonks like us.

After a few miles of that, a pullout announced "Sheep Creek Geologic Loop". The AAA guide and a few other references I'd seen mention this loop as being near Flaming Gorge somewhere, but nobody actually says where it is or anything about it. What a nice surprise to stumble upon it accidentally!

So of course we took it. Unfortunately we lacked any guide to the road, and the Sheep Creek route doesn't have the frequent labelling of the highway leading to it. But the rocks were spectactular, varied, majestic, and warped, and the creek and surrounding aspen meadows (with the leaves just starting to turn) made for a fantastically scenic and interesting drive.

In due course we re-attained the highway, continued on to Vernal, secured a room, then proceeded to the main attraction: Dinosaur National Monument's famous Quarry.

I say "famous", but in fact, few people seem to know about this park. We'd learned through the web that the southwest end of the park, nearest Vernal, contains a visitor's center building built around an existing rock wall containing a large collection of dinosaur bones. What a neat idea! But reading about it, or photos on the web, doesn't prepare you for being there and seeing the wall, still connected to the rest of its sandstone cliff, with hundreds of dinosaur bones -- real ones, not plastic casts -- there to be seen, touched, and cataloged. It's so far beyond any fossil exhibit I'd seen anywhere else that it's not worth comparing. Even the excellent Burgess Shale exhibit at Yoho in British Columbia pales. It's fabulous. If you like dinosaurs, see it.

Afterward, we drove to the end of the road, admired the spectacular rock formations and the Green River, hiked a short way into a box canyon (to admire more twisted and tilted rock formations), then headed back to town.

Tomorrow: More dinosaurs, then on to Denver.

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[ 22:36 Sep 09, 2004    More travel/southpark | permalink to this entry ]

Wed, 08 Sep 2004

The Salt Flats: Elko to Evanston

The salt flats of Utah are a much more interesting drive than Nevada.

They begin at Wendover, a typical Nevada "border town", full of good deals on motels and food (financed, of course, by the casino action). Wendover straddles the Nevada/Utah border, and thus West Wendover, NV is in a different time zone from Wendover, UT. There isn't much to Wendover, UT, though, besides the Air Force base.

A few miles east of Wendover is the first of the excellent Utah rest stops, featuring a tall platform which offers a view of the flats, including a glimpse of Bonneville Raceway, where land speed records are set. The picnic table shelters feature graceful, swept roofs which look like they're in the process of setting land speed records themselves.

Beyond the rest stop, the salt flats continue to interest. First is the surprising amount of water. Even in late summer, somehow these remnants of ancient Lake Bonneville, which once covered most of northwestern Utah, hold standing water a few inches deep, and small waterbirds flit around, somehow scratching a living out of this salty desert.

The horizon shimmers with mirages. Distant mountain ranges seem to float on a glittering watery carpet; the road ahead disappears into an oil slick which never gets any closer.

The salt roadsides are crisscrossed with tire tracks, from travellers who pulled off the road to drive donuts in the salt, and with phrases and pictures drawn as rock mosaics. Then the ball tree looms on the horizon -- a huge metal tree fruiting with athletic balls the size of box trucks. One tennis ball has fallen, and its slices lie beside the tree. On the eastbound interstate, not even a pullout is offered to explain this vision. (Westbound travellers can stop and read information about the artist who designed the sculpture.)

Eventually the glittering white salt gives way to more conventional desert sand and sagebrush, and the second rest stop appears. This one is even better than the first: the traveller who braves the "Beware of snakes and scorpions" sign can climb a narrow trail up the crest of a hogback (originally volcanic? or metamorphic? Whatever they are, they also contain interesting intrusions of broken geodes and chunks of limestone) to a panoramic view of the Cedar Mountain Wild Horse Range. A horned lark perches on the highest point of the hogback, perhaps enjoying the view as much as we were. We saw no scorpions, snakes, nor wild horses.

Coming closer to Salt Lake City, billboards reappear, some with intriguing advertisements like "Missionary Mall". Irony? Or serious? We may never know. The huge (but low, in late summer) Great Salt Lake appears, followed by the Morton Salt plant (tall glistening piles of whiter-than-white, and the intriguing girl-with-umbrella logo -- "When it rains, it pours". What does raining have to do with salt, anyway?) Then Saltaire! The odd abandoned resort on the shore of the Salt Lake, with its gold onion domed top still shiny, but the rest of the building decrepit. I think it's been made into a park now.

(On Morton's motto: a friend, Bill Arnett, explained it to me: "When it rains, it pours" refers to the fact that Morton (and probably all other modern table salt) has additives that keep it from absorbing water and becoming a sticky mess in humid weather. . In fact, here's the explanation on Morton's FAQ page.)

I found Salt Lake a rather nicely laid out city the few times I've been there. We didn't stop this time, though, but headed up into the mountain passes toward Wyoming. Just short of the border is the last of the great Utah I-80 rest stops, in a breathtaking canyon of red pillars, and again, offering a trail (steep and paved) up to a high vantage point.

Then across the border into Wyoming (including a stop at a nice viewpoint above a small reservoir) and Evanston. Like Elko, Evanston is a nicer town than I expected, with a decent selection of motels (it's even possible to find wireless internet, at a few of the motels or for pay via the "Flying J" truck stop's very strong signal (which even my wimpy Prism 1 and orinoco driver picked up from our motel a block away, beating my previous wi-fi distance record by about a factor of eight). Assuming, of course, that you don't mind sending your credit card information over a wi-fi signal. SSL should protect it ... I guess. But it makes me more nervous than the same operation over a land line. Besides, wouldn't it be fairly easy for some guest in the room below me to spoof the Flying J signal?

(I discussed this a few days later on IRC, when I got a better connection. We came to the conclusion that it would be possible to make such a man-in-the-middle spoof, assuming that you just accept every certificate in your browser: the spoofer could get a valid cert which was different from Flying-J's, and if you don't look at the domain when you accept the cert, then the spoof would work. But we couldn't come up with any way to make the spoof work if you do examine the cert. Moral: if you're on a questionable network, like a wireless one, and you need to send important info like credit card numbers, be sure to examine every cert for SSL sites.)

Evanston does not appear to have any restaurants to rival the Basque wealth of Elko, or the prime rib of Nevada in general. But it's a nice little town with a nice town square (we walked around after dinner).

Tomorrow: Dinosaurs! (Flaming Gorge to Dinosaur National Monument.)

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[ 22:33 Sep 08, 2004    More travel/southpark | permalink to this entry ]

Tue, 07 Sep 2004

Home to Elko, Nevada

Driving through Nevada is boring.

The scenery isn't that bad; the problem is that it isn't that good, either, and it goes on for way too long.

Interstate 80 is the flattest route through the state, the preferred route of truckers, RV drivers, and pioneer wagon trains. Rather than cresting each of the myriad north-south mountain ranges comprising Nevada's "Basin and Range" geography, as highway 50 does, it follows the Humboldt river nearly all the way across the state as it skirts around the edges of each range.

Sometimes the billboards are funny. There was one proclaiming "Jesus Lives!", with an attribution underneath for adsforgod.org. Then in Winnemucca, a billboard advertised the smaller town of Battle Mountain:

Battle Mountain
Voted the armpit of America
by the Washington Post
"We didn't know you were looking!"

A bit before Battle Mountain, we passed the Thunder Mountain (something) Historical Site, which seemed to be a shack built up haphazardly of sticks and odd pieces of wood, decorated with whatever tschotchkes were handy. I weren't able to get a good look, driving by on the Interstate. I think I've found a picture on the web, though.

Elko is a nice place to stop, though. To begin with, it's full of Basque restaurants. I can only report on one, the excellent Nevada Dinner House.

Basque food is funny. Every Basque restaurant I've experienced has been very different; the only common element is that they all involve large quantities, especially the bottomless soup tureen. The Basque Cultural Center in south San Francisco approaches a fancy french restaurant, with appetizers like esgargot and entrees heavy on nicely done sauces. The severely overrated Woolgrowers, in Los Baños, serves uninspired mass-produced cafeteria food.

Elko's Nevada Dinner House has a simple, but varied, menu, heavy on steaks but with a good selection of seafood, pasta and other options. This is the second time we've eaten there, and both times we've been very impressed. My prime rib was about the best I've ever had; Dave's pork chops looked tempting too, with a nice herb crust on it (but nothing too foofy) and applesauce on the side. Salad, green beans, spaghetti in meat sauce, and french fries (er, "pommes frittes") accompanied the meal, along with the obligatory bottomless soup tureen (a moderately thick and tasty concoction involving barley, beans, carrots, and, I think, ham).

After dinner we went looking for a place to buy some soft drinks, and stumbled on a dollar store called "Honks" with a well-stocked sunglasses rack.

Then we retired to our motel room to bask.

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[ 23:41 Sep 07, 2004    More travel/southpark | permalink to this entry ]

Sun, 05 Sep 2004

Año Nuevo: Elephants to Weasels

Dave took me to Año Nuevo for my birthday (and to escape the September heat). It's up the coast from Santa Cruz, really not that far from home, but somehow I'd never been there.

The park is famous for elephant seals, and during the breeding season it's necessary to make a reservation and go on a guided tour, so the tourists don't disturb the seals -- and vice versa (the male seals can get very aggressive and territorial during mating season). But during the off season, things are much lower key, the seals are moulting (which means they spend most of their time lying around on the beach) and you can get fairly close to them.

Volunteers man the observing stations at the ends of the trail spurs, and provide information on the elephant seals and other marine mammals.

Most of the seals were so inert that one might wonder if they were actually alive. One big bull, flopped in a nest of seaweed on a beach away from the others, looked particularly lifeless, though occasionally his sides would move as he breathed. Apparently the birds were fooled: one gull, poking through the nearby seaweed, hopped up onto the bull's side, perhaps thinking it was a rock, and the bull exploded into life, snapping at the gull as it hastily made its escape.

Harbor seals, California sea lions and Stellar's sea lions live on the island and make a huge and constant racket with their barking; and a couple of sea otters have been spotted nearby, but nobody had seen them today, unfortunately. Birds are plentiful: I bagged (photographically) several new birds, including Heermann's Gulls and sanderlings, and also got some decent shots of pelicans and gulls in flight.

But the highlight was neither bird nor marine. Dave spotted it first, and pointed. It looked like a squirrel -- a rather tall, skinny squirrel with a white belly -- but we don't have squirrels colored like red foxes here in California. Then the animal came down off its haunches and bounded across the trail and into some tall grass, waving its long, thin, and distinctly non-squirrelish black tipped tail. A long-tailed weasel! The first I'd ever seen. It was a nice birthday present.

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[ 22:14 Sep 05, 2004    More nature | permalink to this entry ]

LAX Shut Down by Exploding Flashlight

We've been reading for two days now the story of how LAX (one of the nation's busiest airports) was closed down for several hours after a flashlight exploded while it was being examined by a security screener.

I'm still waiting for details. Doesn't this story seem a bit odd? Isn't it fairly unusual for flashlights to explode? Wouldn't you think some reporter, while writing up this story, might think that readers might wonder whether their flashlights were at risk of blowing up, and might want to report on what specific circumstances caused this incident and how to avoid it?

The SF Chron story has the most detail I've seen so far, which still isn't much:

The Los Angeles Police Department bomb squad examined the flashlight and determined the explosion occurred because the batteries inside had eroded.
That still leaves me wondering: what sort of battery, and how big? How badly eroded? Is this something we should be checking for in our flashlights? What was the screener doing with the flashlight which caused it to explode right then?

A web search on "flashlight batteries explosion" doesn't turn up much more information. There are lots of pages warning against trying to recharge regular (non-rechargeable) alkaline batteries since they explode. We know lithium-ion and lithium-polymer batteries can explode, but I've never seen a flashlight which uses them.

I did find one NIOSH Fact Sheet called "EXPLODING FLASHLIGHTS: ARE THEY A SERIOUS THREAT TO WORKER SAFETY?", which mentions hydrogen gas being produced in zinc/carbon batteries and alkaline batteries as the zinc electrode corrodes in the aqueous electrolyte, and that it's more likely to happen if batteries of different types, brands, or ages are mixed.

Googling for "flashlight batteries exploding" gets a bit more, mostly recall notices for specific flashlights shipped with batteries which might explode.

Still seems strange that it doesn't seem to have occurred to any of the reporters covering the LAX incident to ask about this and find out what happened in this particular case. I wonder -- is this another "fox terrier", where someone writes an initial story and everyone else just paraphrases it without adding anything? Certainly the new stories coming out don't seem to add anything to the initial report yesterday morning. Do reporters not ask questions any more, and journalism schools merely instruct on different ways of re-wording a press release?

(Stephen Gould wrote about wondering why so many books mentioned that Eophippus, the "dawn horse", was the size of a fox terrier. Why that specific breed? Upon investigation, he was able to trace the origins of the comparison, and show that successive authors merely repeated the assertion verbatim. Unfortunately, the syndrome works just as effectively in cases of missing or incorrect information, as long as authors are willing to repeat stories without checking them.)

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[ 11:53 Sep 05, 2004    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

Fri, 03 Sep 2004

The Undecided Voter

Great election cartoon from This Modern World.

Here's another good one.

Or just Browse the archives.

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[ 21:19 Sep 03, 2004    More politics/election04 | permalink to this entry ]

Anti-RNC Protestors imprisoned in New York

A judge ordered the immediate release of 470 protesters in New York yesterday, after they'd been held illegally for almost three days in substandard conditions in a makeshift holding cell retrofitted from a pier garage).

The city denied there was any political motivation to holding the detainees for so long, and blamed the delay on the huge number of arrestees.

(Well, whose fault is that?)

Sources

It's apparently based on an AP story, but it doesn't seem to be possible to get to AP stories from AP's web site.

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[ 11:24 Sep 03, 2004    More politics/rights | permalink to this entry ]

Wed, 01 Sep 2004

Three die in Saudi shop stampede

The BBC reports: Three die in Saudi shop stampede

Three people crushed to death and sixteen people injured.

The incident occurred after shoppers rushed into a branch of Ikea to claim a limited number of credit vouchers being offered to the public.

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[ 20:36 Sep 01, 2004    More headlines | permalink to this entry ]

Squirrel Baby

As I walked out to the backyard gate, a furry grey missile flew off the garage roof, over my head and into the slot along the top of the backyard fence. I just barely got a look as the squirrel flew by -- but it was carrying something big (baseball sized, at least) and brownish in its mouth, and landed with a thump because of the weight of its load.

My curiosity was piqued. What object that large -- it looked like a coconut with the husk on, but the size of a baseball -- could a squirrel be interested in carrying around?

The squirrel climbed down off the fence, still carrying its load, and landed (with another thump) on the driveway and went scurrying off across the street (dodging two cars in the crossing). Dave and I followed it, intrigued.

Half a block away, it stopped under a tree, and we were finally able to get a slightly better look at what it was carrying. Definitely big, definitely spherical, definitely fuzzy -- and it had two tiny paws clutching around the squirrel's neck. It was a baby squirrel, rolled up into a ball, holding on to mom's neck while being held in her mouth.

Where she was going with her squirrelet will remain one of the mysteries of suburban wildlife viewing.

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[ 17:36 Sep 01, 2004    More nature/squirrels | permalink to this entry ]