Friday, April 11, 2014

The "unthinkable"

 (no images this week)
The hard drive on my computer crashed this week.  When I attempted to load a url from the web it would start to download and it immediately cancelled – over and over again… So I took it in to my repair shop for evaluation.  The answer was the one I did not want to hear – it would be necessary to “wipe the disk” in order to fix it.  Gulp – “Do you have an external hard drive?” – I said that I did. 

They said, “OK – we can fix this and you can reinstall your files.”  Sounded simple. An external hard drive is kind of like a lifeboat to save the crew when a big ocean freighter sinks.  The ship may go down – but the crew and all records can still be safe – out there in a small boat in the big ocean.

Warning: If you have a computer – for goodness sakes – be sure that you purchase a reliable external hard drive! – It is cheap insurance for your valuable files!  You can buy quality back up for about $100.

Sounded simple until I realized how much work was still involved. As new programs and systems come along a computer can become obsolete in the matter of a few years –- it becomes more difficult to do the things you want to do.  So I made the plunge and bought a new iMac.  I hooked up the external hard drive to the new Mac and following advice I went to my ‘utilities file’ – where I found ‘migration assistant’… this showed me the major systems and files in the hard drive and I could choose which ones I wanted to return to my computer.

The installment mostly went like it is supposed to – All my Microsoft Word files, Letters, E-mails, Stored files, Music files – Bingo – they were back in place.

There were still problems to solve – I have to hunt up and down load the operating files for my printer – Some of my subscription programs had to be asked for reinstalled, All of this was tedious, took time, but was all successful. 

Then the sinking discovery– almost my entire collection of photos did not transfer over from the external hand drive – I had something like 2000 photos – some historical family, some from the schools I visit, travel photos, organisms I encounter, items I want to share with my student teachers… Vanished into the thin air–I contacted the ‘1-800 help line’ for my computer and we messed around with no success.  Finally I was able to copy some of the photos from Judy’s computer, and transferred to a thumb drive. I was able to recover about 40% of my collection.  Then in an inspiration I woke up with a flask at 3 AM (when I am most likely to have insightful ideas) and I remembered that I had another external hand drive only a year old and I wondered if it might have the photos.  (Fortunately I go right back to sleep after my 'good idea' moments…)  I found it all dusty in storage and when I plugged it in – there they were… So now I had to go through a slow process of down loading them – there are still duplicates to deal with and files to arrange – but I have them again.  I have learned my lesson – I will make a back up file of valuable photos on a thumb drive.   (I purchased a 16 Gigabyte thumb drive for 10 $!).

I find electronic malfunctions to be unnerving – things are not all working  exactly as I would like but I am well on the way.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Do you smell that?

Photos this week are selected to elicit a memory of smell
I had just parked my car on a busy street in Oakland when it hit me ...someone was cooking fried chicken!  The smell was overwhelming ...I haven't smelled fried chicken like that since my Aunt Cecile used to cook up several of her fryers for a large Sunday gathering.  As I walked on to my meeting I noticed the smell of wet Eucalyptus leaves after a spring rain,  then, when I entered my destination,  I picked up the odor of a science laboratory.  
Fried Chicken - Baken potati - Purple Cabbage Salad
For me smell is a powerful stimulant of memories and associations. (I even have occasional dreams involving smell.)  And the amazing thing is that, over the years,  the memory of smells is slow to fade.  The small of our musty basement from my childhood is still there, the first whiff of lilacs each spring, the smell of jet exhaust fumes at the airport ( which I find exciting!) , the hint in the air of a far off skunk smell (rather pleasant for me...) , freshly baked bread (memories of childhood),   wet dogs (walks with our pups), a barn filled with bales of summer alfalfa ( sweet fragrance! ) .
Bread baked in a backyard wood fired oven
I have my smell biases too.  I hate the smell of too much perfume on a woman in an elevator.  I have negative feelings toward spray-on air fresheners (the ones, with names like "Spring Breeze" and "Flower Garden", "Autumn Rain" - when in fact they were designed and born in an industrial chemical plant. Yuck!  In the same category I put room potpourri mixes often made of rose petals treated with noxious artificial smells!  Chemically scented Christmas candles too!  Hate them!  I prefer the smells of the natural world.

Harvesting grapes

My dogs seem to take smell even more seriously than me. I wonder if the brain of a dog is organized in a way to remember smells much as learning and knowledge is stored in my brain.  Our pups will linger at a fence post or bush and deeply smell over and over the smells of their "colleagues" who have visited this stop.  It seems deeply important to them.

Our pup - Rusty
There are specialized nerve cells in a small patch of tissue in back of the nasal cavity.  Each of these cells has hair like extensions (cilia) that are in direct contact with air.  Molecules from the things we smell act as a stimulus.  When stimulated, an electric signal is sent to the brain.    When you take a breath you draw air, with molecules of odor, over this region. 
Gasoline powered farm tractor - exhaust smoke
Taste by contract is much more limited - Our tongue has receptors that only detect sweet, sour, salty, and bitter... Anything more is really us responding to the aroma of our foods close in our mouth/nose region. (You all have experienced not being able to taste when our nose is stopped by a cold).  And what subtle nuances we can smell/taste...! We can detect the difference between Coke and Pepsi, between a Gravenstein apple and a Granny Smith, between a Cabernet and a Merlot, Gouda and a Monterey Jack, between a ripe banana and an almost ripe banana. 

Market place in Bishkek Kyrgystan- here smells of many sources assail ones nose!

In it in the brain that real ‘smell’ happens! We relate our smell perceptions to past experiences and to our stored memory bank of past smell experiences.  It is possible to train your "palate" to be more able to identify smell/flavors.  In addition, smell information is projected through a pathway to the central nervous system, which controls emotions.  Do you have an emotional response to Lilacs or Red roses? the smell of a high performance raceway…? It happens here!
High Mountain air is pure and only lightly scented with mountain herbs and trees
Odor sensation depends on the number of molecules available to the olfactory receptors. Different smell molecules are recognized by combinations of receptors, the patterns of neuron signals helps us to identify the smell. The olfactory system does not interpret a single compound, but instead the whole smell mix. 

So the next time you smell frying chicken - breath deeply ... think about all those responding neurons signaling your brain - the activation of your smell memory bank - and your decision how you feel about what you are smelling - what memories and associates it stirs up.  Wow!

If you lived on a farm - pre-plumbing - you can never forget this smell!

Friday, March 28, 2014


I'm envious of Europeans who can travel small distances and find themselves in the midst of people speaking a different language.  German, Scandinavian languages in the north lands, Russian, Polish, Czech. Hungarian if you go East; South, Greek, Italian, Serbo-Croacian; and West. Spanish, French, English, Dutch.  

'Cerro del Aguilas' ( Hill of Eagles )  East of Oaxaca

By the time children reach 10 they have picked up some part of neighboring countries language... its as common for them to visit other cultures it is for us in Califortnia to travel to a neighboring county or state.  I am astonished at the number of people in Europe who speak excellent accent free English.  In addition to casually learning, the schools there make language development a key plank in the education process.

Judy and me marching in a parade

"Knowing a language allows you to experience the world in a new way - not just making travel easier, but allows you to expereince the culture and insights of other cultures."

Women learning to read in a mountain village

By geography, the US is isolated on our east and west shores by great oceans- our neighbor to the north speaks English (and French in Quebec).  Our best opportunity to experience another language to travel south to Central or South America.

A feast shared by friends

Also, over 37% of Californians are of Latino ancestry and in Los Angeles the proportion is much higher.  In our cities and towns its useful to be able to read Spanish language signs, communicate with non English speakers,  and to appreciate the Spanish language music and news that we encounter. 

A clown called me up on stage to wear a red plastic nose

Judy and I love to travel.  We have been fortunate to travel sevaral times abroad.  Once, about 20 years ago, I had summer committments,  so Judy went alone on a study trip centered in Cuernavaca Mexico.  Each day speakers came in to talk about their area of special interest.  Judy learned about the history, current politics, major social issues... and they went out on field trips to experience the realities of life in Mexico today.  

Roast goat birthday party

She came home and said that while it was a wonderful learning experience - but she could never again be a dumb happy American tourist just staying in American style hotels and averting her eyes from the reality around her. In subsequent year we explored other part of the rich Mexican cultures. 

Our friend teaching English 

For us, experienced travellers that we were, we found Mexico to have rich and varied cultures - maintained its own wonderful unique qualities at a time when many countries of the world are losing these cultural individuality - tending toward a world mono culture.   Not so much in Mexico - we are delighted with new experiences at every turn.

Making music as Atole is being made

In subsequent years we have returned to Mexico several times - visiting Oaxaca, returned to Cuernavaca, Chiapas, and the Yucatan.  When possible we stay in simple accomodations - bed and breakfast style, the kind of places where local people might stay when they travel.  We relish the variety of foods!

Street 'banda' music

I love the way that local people there assist me in speaking correctly.  In Mexico when I make a mistake, the universal response was a gentle repeating what I meant to say... I have to pay attention to know that I have been corrected. We found people eager to get to know us, to assist us when we needed help. The kindness that we encounter touches us deeply.

Every night people gather in the zocalo ( central square ) to meet friends and to share time together

We found people hard working and inventive. Mexico has a challenging national economy - but it is slowly improving.  The disparity between the rich and the poor is troubling. 

Street Scene - Oaxaca

 Along the way my Spanish is improving.   My first efforts at teaching myself simple phrases had limited success. In Oaxaca we attended language schools with small classes and personal help... That helped my Spanish to improve greatly. 

We travel in collectivos - communal taxis - they must stop at times to allow livestock to pass

At home I regularly review...  But the next big leap for me was to start listening to Spanish language programming on my car radio- hearing Spanish spoken and sung I was able to strengthen my weakest skill which was  listening and understanding.  


I am still in the intermediate range of over-all language development  but when we were in South America last summer for the first time in my life I felt that my communication skills had made a quantum leap forward.   Learning a language is not easy for me - but I love being able to talk to people and understand them  ... 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Of worms and high hopes!

This time of year when I turn the soil in my garden - I am amazed at the number of earthworms, Small red wigglers and giant night crawlers the size of small snakes... The soil is drying, but still moist from the last rain.  Perfect for forking over. Time to dig deep and add compost to the soil, and set up for summer watering.  Due to anticipated water rationing this summer I will use timers and drip lines to deliver the water just to where it needs to go.  The secret is to set up the water system first, establish where water will be delivered and then plant only in the moist zones.  I find that 10-20 minutes of drip a day is adequate to produce healthy plants. 

In your hardware store you can buy one hose timers - easy to create and use your water system!

Selecting the plants to grow is tricky.  We have a climate determined by the prevailing airflow from the Pacific. Since we are far inland, miles from the ocean, our daytime temperatures are more like inland summer temps.  In the summer we can count on clear skies and temperatures into the 80-90 degree range (most but not all days).  But when the sun sets, the cool ocean air returns and our nighttime temperatures in the summer consistently fall into the 50s.  This is critical for determining what we can grow.

One of my raised beds with deep good soil - Year around  I have crops here!

The other key factor in my garden is the subtle microclimates even to be found in a back yard.  By a south facing wall it is like Fresno - the hottest microclimate we have.  In the shade of a bush, with no direct sun, the climate is more like Portland Oregon.  On the far side of the house where the sun never shines it is more like Mendocino.   Every plant variety has its favorite conditions - so the trick is to find where it will be happiest.

Bean poles - few crops more satisfying or easy to grow!

Next comes selecting varieties.  Forget  "beefsteak" tomatoes or the heirloom varieties of tomatoes - they require warm nights, which we do not have. They are a good idea - they just don’t like our climate!   I grow "Ace" and "Early girl" tomatoes - both smaller than a tennis ball but very productive.   In our location, they do best if placed in the warmest microclimate I have! The plants keep growing larger all through the season - and they produce fruit until frost.  Also forget eggplants and bell peppers - they are just frustrated to attempt growing them- they need warm nights that we don’t have. Corn and melons are also marginal here.

Whatever you do - dont plant to many !  Zucchini are prolific!

The other side of the coin is that our Pacific airflow creates conditions that minimize winter frost - making it possible to grow a full winter garden:  broccoli, kale, and broccoli in the winter months. After frost is past we can plant onions... and once frost is past we are a good location for potatoes.

A raised cucumber bed that I saw - not in my garden...

These are the plants best suited for our climate - After many attempts at trying to grow plants not suited to our conditions ... Now I only grow things that are naturally adapted to our climate:

Summer crops that we can count on: Plant End of March

* Buy plants in nursery
S - plant seeds

*Cucumbers - Standard, Asian
S  - Green beans - Blue Lake variety //Also Italian Romano beans
S - Zucchini
S -Winter Squash (Acorn or Butternut)
*Tomatoes - (Ace, Early Girl)
*Kale: Italian, Black Leaf, (I prefer these to Curl leaf
*S - Chard
* Basil

Sample Ace tomatoes

End of Sept./October planting:
S- Beets
* Chard
S- Lettuce
S- Fava Beans 
Leaves capturing sunlight energy in our back yard!

October - November  (wait for rain)
S Plant hollyhock seeds, poppy seeds, wild flower seeds, sweet pea, leek seeds
Onion blossom
Late January
Seed Potatoes
Onion starts

If you do not live in the SF Bay Area and want to know what plants are best suited to your location search out the master gardeners web site or state agricultural college for your area and inquire from them>