Friday, December 28, 2012

Two metaphors for Congress as they deal with the "fiscal cliff"

Running along the lower elevation of the Sierra Mountains there is an extended region of highly mineralized metamorphic rock. Even today remnants of the old US mining laws still exist.  If you visit the US Bureau of Land Management it is possible to determine whether a piece of land has been “claimed” or if it is free for development. Free land can be prospected for mineral rights... and if you find a site that looks promising,  it is possible to establish mining rights. Prospectors frequently made test mine shafts into the mountainside to see what rich mineral deposits they might find.
Ruins of an early prospectors cabin made of stacked stones - no cement - the walls are 18" thick!
This is hard rock mining – which required driving a long steel ‘bit’, with a sledge hammer, into the rock producing a hole about an inch wide and extending back into the rock 1-2 feet.  A charge of dynamite it placed in the hole and the rock blasted out.  The loose rubble is cleared away and the process is repeated.  If the shaft goes back more than a few feet, it is practical to lay mining track on which a dump car is mounted – this could be rolled in and loaded with debris, then pushed out and dumped... causing a tailing pile to build up.

Tailing pile - You can judge the size of the mine by the amount of tailing
 When I was a young pup my friends and I were not interested in prospecting but I was fascinated by minerals and rock varieties. When my friends and I made excursions into the mountains,and chanced upon a fresh prospect hole or old mineshaft we often took time to explore. In the mine holes the exposed rock was fresh and unweathered and the best location to find really good samples of rocks and minerals.
Typical "hard rock mine"
We also found discarded copper wire used to ignite the dynamite – and this copper wire was a great resource used in building electrical circuits (this was in the era before circuit boards when it was still necessary to use wire to connect circuits.)  Most basically  there was something fascinating about these newly blasted entrances into the earth. Most  shafts turned out not to be productive and usually only went back a short distance - so we seldom needed light.

As the mine is extended it encounters different kinds of rock - leading to different colors of waste tailings
One of the most memorable mine shafts I encountered was in Death Valley – it was a borax mine. We encountered the shaft as we hiked up one of the many canyons in Death Valley.  Three of us went into a long horizontal shaft; we were prepared with good flashlights and backup light.  (Inside the mine it is the darkest of dark when the light is turned off!)

One of the many faces of Death Valley
The shaft was about 8 feet high and about 6 feet wide...After several minutes of walking we came to a vertical wooden ladder and decided to have a look ‘upstairs”.  After climbing up a level, we discovered a wooden trap door that could be pushed up to open... Above that we found another horizontal shaft, which we travelled until we found a second ladder.

Vertical shaft ladder
Some of the wooden steps here were a bit loose, so with great care we climbed and came though a second trap door into the third shaft.  This seemed to be the most recent working level, because here we found rails and dump cars, mining tools,  a “rest” area where miners had constructed a plank table and benches, and here were cups with coffee dried inside, and plates with dried up food. So we surmised that work had stopped here some months or years earlier.

An abandoned community of miners' cabins in Death Valley
About now we considered our best options for getting out of the mine – and rather than going back the way we had come we decided to follow the rails and see where they came out... After a good hike we came out into the sunlight – but now we were at the top of the large hill far from our starting point at the bottom. We found a rough pathway that seemed to go back in the general direction we wanted to go and we got back to camp with plenty of daylight to spare.

Metaphor #1 Conclusion:  When you have wandered into an unfamiliar situation, the shortest way out may be to not go back the way you came but to follow a new course.

Highly mineralized rock - this mountain is high elevation - and the surface contour has been shaped by glaciers

One of the problems of youth is that we think we are immortal and that we can do anything we can imagine.  One boring early spring Saturday afternoon my friend and I were tired of studying and when we considered the options, we remembered a tantalizing shaft that we had seen but not yet explored.  It was in the lower elevations not far from our homes.  When we reached our destination, we discovered that this shaft was nearly vertical and went down about 60 feet (half of a 120 ft. climbing rope).  From the large tailing pile near the opening,  we judged that it was likely that there were vertical shafts that went off once we got to the bottom.
Opening to a vertical mine shaft like the one I entered

The opening was situated in an open area with no vegetation suitable for anchoring a rappel into the shaft.  I suggested that my friend could serve as anchor and wrap the rope around his body and I (being the lightest) would quickly rappel down to check it out – and then perhaps we could think of a way to explore further.  So it was a simple matter – leading rope between my legs, around across my chest, over the right shoulder, down the back, one hand controls the leading rope, one the trailing rope... and over I went down into the pit mine. The descent was easy – one surprise – I discovered a nest of barn owls not at all happy with my intrusion... but on down I went.

Barn owl with back lighting

At the bottom I found a jumble of broken timbers, very jagged and irregular, and no vertical shaft... I concluded that the mine had been sealed shut with dynamite when it was determined not to be productive. Now my second surprise – the rock of the shaft  wall was very broken and crumbly – not at all suitable for climbing as I had been hoping.  Nothing to do but climb the rope hand over hand and rest whenever I reached any kind of foot holds.   Things got a little testy when the barn owls started dive bombing me and trying to drive me off by flying at me and squawking.   The problem with this procedure was that my friend above could not hold me on belay (take in the rope in as I climbed to give me protection in case I fell ). I climbed the rope hand over hand to the top.  I came crawling back into sunlight happy for my escape. And my poor friend had more reason to complain than me – because he had had to carry my weight on his ribs the whole climb out...  When I shut my eyes that night in bed I could see again those sharpened broken timbers at the bottom of the mine.

Metaphor conclusion #2:  Some situations that are easy to get into and much harder to get out again...

A gold mining town that continued into the 1950's

These days it is rare to find a mine shaft that hasn’t been sealed off – there are real dangers from a variety of mine gases that can build up in some say nothing about the instability of the rock, and unexpected vertical shafts found in some old mines. I had some fine adventures –and I am sure that I would most definitely make wiser decisions today -   Still, some of my hare-brained adventures do make such fine memories.

"Wild cat" explorations sometimes find great wealth but usually don't.

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Saturday, December 22, 2012

My computer memory recovery process was faster than I could have hoped!!
 Posada in Pescadero
Pescadero is a small village right on the central coast.  Every year the community holds a celebration of “Los Posadas", a traditional nighttime reenactment of the story of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter. This year my wife, Judy and I came to join in.

Un angelito
The story of Los Posadas has special meaning for “Los immigrantes” the people who have come from Mexico and Central America seeking a better life working with the crops of California.  The story speaks to anyone who has felt like an outsider …anyone who has felt like they don't understand ‘the system’ and they are in need of help.  It also speaks to those of us in a position to offer help, but don’t.  The one we are turning away may be a very special person that we don’t recognize.

The 'Three Kings" waiting for the procession to form

Two angels and a shepherd waiting to 'form up'

The gathered community forms a procession, which symbolically visits homes asking for shelter. Both the Anglo and the Latino communities of Pescadero participate, both the Catholic and the Protestant churches and those in neither, the entire community take part.  The people gather to make up a procession, guitar players lead the way, some people dress to fill the rolls of the key players in the Christmas story, and we stroll down the empty village street singing the traditional Mexican Posadas songs (conveniently printed out for us Anglos). 
Mary and Joseph and an angel

Three singers representing the house that rejects Mary and Joseph

We stop at several prearranged houses and ask for shelter, but we are refused… until finally we arrive at ‘the place of shelter’.  Here the “innkeeper” welcomes us in and makes us comfortable.  This year we started at St. Anthony’s Catholic church and ended at the Pescadero Community Church… where a fine community service had been put together by local people from both church communities.    
Warm and dry inside the church
It was a special twist this year that the event took place in a driving Pacific December rainstorm.  The little “angelitos” held umbrellas, and someone covered the guitar players.  Those without umbrellas crowded in with those who had one – making little clusters of people walking together.  But these Pescadero folks take such weather in stride and it did nothing to slow down the spirit of the event!
The guitar players and music leaders
After the gathering at the Church we progressed on to the village dance hall built as the Portuguese community center…  The hall was festive with light and color, Spanish language music was playing, and Mary and Joseph, the wise men and shepherds all marched to the front stage to hold court for people who wanted to have their picture taken with them.  
Tamales, rice, and Atole for everyone!
At the back of the hall they started handing out plates with tamales, Spanish rice, and plastic cups of Atole, a traditional Mexican hot beverage made from corn… (All offered without charge for everyone – thanks to the generosity of some churches and individuals).  We feasted and talked to people we knew and made new acquaintances.  We especially enjoyed being reunited with friends from the Palo Alto community.
The community gathering to relate and talk
At some point Mary and Joseph and party got to come down and enjoy tamales too … and a bit later who should arrive but Santa himself!  Oh my goodness – there were big eyes everywhere among the children.  
The long line of kids and parents  waiting to see Santa and get their sock of toys
Santa is holding up a sock of toys to give to the girl
He made his way to the stage where he invited kids to come sit on his lap.  He had large felt stockings filled with gifts for each child. (Various churches in the Bay Area have been filling those stockings for weeks…)
At the end a raffle to see what gifts the lucky winners might receive " Why dont you draw my number".
By now the hour was growing late and Judy and I had decided that we did not want to drive the winding Pescadero road at night in the wind and rain – so we had made reservations to stay in a kind of bed and breakfast place a bit out of town.  We have a separate little house about the size of a two-car garage.  It is made of rough sawn planks – but had a pleasant design and a lot of windows all looking out over beautiful expanses of hills and forests.  We slept the night with a steady pouring rain drumming on our roof.  What fine music falling rain makes when you can hear it all night!
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Friday, December 21, 2012

Computer problems!

My blog this week will be delayed... This week my hard drive (CPU) crashed... and I am in the process of getting my systems back to normal.  Fortunately I had a Remote Hard drive and it will be possible to retrieve all the files -

So stay tuned - I hope to post my next blog mid week next week...

My fond best wishes for a Merry Christmas


Friday, December 14, 2012

Stories that tell the truth

“Once upon a time...”  I loved stories when I was a kid! (and still do).    When I heard those words it meant  that “this didn't really happen’ – but I was going to be transported into another time and place where wonderful  and unusual things could happen”.  Some of the stories for children contained a moral or advice.  “Don't go into the forest alone – it can be dangerous.”  “Plan ahead to be prepared for adversity."  Some of the advice seems a little strange in our time –“Its OK to steal from and even kill an evil giant... but you have to outsmart the guy first...”

Once upon a time in a dark forest...
I grew up in among people who were tellers of stories – Some about past adventures, tales about the struggles that came from immigrating to America, enduring through the depression, dealing with severe winter weather, temperamental machinery, indians, the strange and funny things they had experienced in life. There were even stories about the deep mud of springtime.   Stories were common.   Chatting with friends in the barber shop,  family gatherings, by the minister in his sermons.  These stories told me who I was and the way that I should live my life...a kind of imprinting...  I treasure some of these stories to this day.  TV is an incomplete replacement for story telling in the lives of children.

The generation before mine
The formal stories that adults write down into books often contain a truth, a moral, a vision of what could be...  The story of Hamlet gives an accurate picture of greed and remorse... What happens if you leave yourself open to enemies? Did the story happen?  Of course not... Does the story tell a great truth that we can relate to today...?  Most certainly! Consider Moby Dick, the Grapes of Wrath, the Brothers Karamazov... also modern works like 'Lacunae', 'The Hunger games', 'Harry Potter.'..  How do the stories and morals of today's literary works differ from those of earlier times?  The answer tells us how we have changed (or not) as a people.

The great whale is really a metaphor with different meanings for each member of the crew - to  Captain Ahab it represents evil itself!
Humans use myth and parable to tell great truth – never mind that the Tortoise never did outrun the Hare...perseverance still pays off.  Brer Rabbit's encounter with the Tar Baby makes us laugh at our own ego involvement.  Myths and parables are useful vehicles for truth telling ... or sometimes  to tell the version of cherished ideas  that we want others to accept.  The people of North Korea are being told that no one on earth has a higher quality of life than the North Korean people.  The suicide bombers of Afghanistan believe that by carrying out the bombing they will ensure for themselves an immediate place in Heaven.  The stories we tell ourselves and the stories our culture tells us do have significance – they shape our lives.
Mayan deities were thought to have specialized areas of influence:
Primitive people used story to explain why things are as they are. They were stories loosely connected to reality.  Why is the crow black?  It stole fire from the gods to carry to man ... the smoke forever darkened its feathers.  The Sun is mounted on the wheel of a chariot drawn across the sky each day.  Such beliefs are often closely related to belief in magic. This Chinese wind god is unpredictable in his actions.  Did "the people" think these explanations  were "true"?  The answer to this question might give is a hint to how different humans regard "truth" and what is important - we tend to see "truth" in a post enlightened sort of way.

Deity of the wind - capricious! (SF Asian Art Museum)
Many scholars conclude that early Greek civilizations sought to understand  subjective “truth”. The method that they developed involved the process of using open-ended observations leading to conclusions.  For the Greeks there was a strong relationship between the philosophy of knowing and the observations of nature that led to new understandings of the natural world.

Pacific Banana Slug
The questions that a scientist asks of nature are “what and how” questions.  A scientist describes.  He or she doesn't have the tools to answer “why” questions – those are matters for religion.  The story that a scientist has to tell is always open to the results of new evidence.  Scientists don't get to pick and choose which facts to include - all valid observations must be included- all reasonable questions must be considered.
The the time of Galileo all heavenly bodies were thought to be 'perfect' - the flaws on the surface of the moon were troubling to the Church - but with the telescope the existence of craters was discovered and certain...
Sometimes the story that emerges from observations and conclusions makes us uncomfortable – For example some people are uncomfortable with the evidence and conclusions supporting Global climate change, others just dont want to accept the gradual emergence of new species through natural selection... even though evidence continually mounts. A scientist doesnt have the choice of adjusting facts to make someone happy.  Hitler encouraged his scientists to come up with evidence that the German people were a ‘super race’. Honest examination of the evidence makes it clear that this is simply not true. 

Science still has many unanswered questions. it is part of good science to recognize that some work is work in progress.   By sharing results someone else may develop an experiment that goes beyond what we can imagine.
Some people face a crisis when scientific evidence indicates a conclusion that disagrees with what they were taught to be true. For some the conflict is dealing with bias, for some it is religion, for others there are  political or social beliefs that get in the way. It is inconvenient when evidence points in another direction than we want it to. It is the old conflict between faith and evidence... between “how” and ”why”.

In the late 1700s in response to a smallpox epidemic, it was discovered that 'CowPox' vaccinations would prevent SmallPox.  The public was filled with fear and outrage - fearing what the vaccination might do to them...
Does the fossil record indicate  that life on Earth has undergone slow gradual change? Definitely!  Have scientists observed bacteria capable of adapting so that they can live in the presence of an antibiotic? Certainly... Change happens... New evidence of evolution continues to develop.   Evolution is not a question of ‘believing in’something.... It happens... The matter of “why” it happens is a matter for religious belief.  The how and the why are different stories.
Each of the structures and features that you see has given this insect a better chance for its species to survive
What is the role of story in your life?  Where did you acquire the stories that give structure and meaning to you?  How do you deal with the “how” and ”why” issues that you encounter?  Please be open to looking at this issues and see what you learn.

The call of the unknown... the unknowable