Sunday, October 28, 2007

a tale of two privets

Sometimes a tree is so ubiquitous you don't even notice it. Circumstances have recently brought a new one to my attention: Ligustrum lucidum. My first impression was that it was some sort of Ficus, with glossy leaves and bony, reptilian bark, and white flowers in dense clusters that become bird-friendly, dark-blue berries. In fact it's in the Olive family, and goes by the common names of Tree Privet or Glossy Privet. This is confusing because when I think of Privet, I think of hedges back east that also go by that name. That one is Ligustrum vulgare, coming from Europe, whereas lucidum comes from Asia, the latter having proven to be invasive. But they are all Ligustrum and therefore all Privet.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

the Plumpy'Nut revolution

(I learned about this on CBS 60 Minutes, from the capable reporting of Anderson Cooper...)

There is overdue genius in the creation of Plumpy'Nut, a peanut-based food designed for the hungry children of the world. It's a great advance over powdered milk, or whatever they used to use. Plumpy'Nut is neatly packaged, requires no preparation, has a long shelf life, and is supplemented with the kinds of nutrients that starving children in places like Niger and Haiti need. But what I really like is that it represents a whole new kind of product: food designed and packaged for the unfed as opposed to the overfed. What's next -- housing for the homeless?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

a view with a room

Monday, October 08, 2007

the road to Sequoia

It took years of intending, but we finally made the journey from our humble end of Route 198 to Sequoia National Park at the other end. When you look at the map, there is this remarkable latitudinal line that runs roughly west through Las Vegas; Death Valley -- lowest point in the continental US; Mount Whitney -- highest peak in the lower 48 states; Sequoia National Park -- home to the world's largest trees; King City; Junipero Serra -- highest point in the Santa Lucia coastal range; and the scary-ass cliffs of Big Sur. It's as though this line had some geological and spiritual significance, such as a runway for extraterrestrial spacecraft, in which case Route 198 would be a good place to land.

Interestingly, our lodge in the tiny town of Three Rivers was the easternmost establishment on all of Route 198 prior to the park entrance. While the drive was only 3 and 1/2 hours and the altitude gain only around 1000 feet, the darkness, the cold, and the unknown left me cursing behind the wheel. But the initial blast of creepy vibes subsided the next morning when I realized what a fine view our room had of the boulder-strewn Kaweah River.

Saturday was a beautiful, warm, sunny day, and I realized that if we were ever going to make it to the giant Sequoias, this was the right opportunity. But at the entrance they were checking cars for snow tires, and advising certain vehicles against the narrow, winding 5000-foot ascent to Giant Forest. Thanks to Lisa's fearless and competent driving, all went well. The snow was beautiful and added charm to the famous, cinnamon-colored Sequoias. The museum was also very well done.

Below the Sequoias the terrain was dry, consisting of the same drought-resistant plants we get in the Salinas Valley, plus the of the ubiquitous Redbud tree, whose distinctive leaves resembles Bauhinia, its exotic Asian relative.

Our hotel room, which at first glance was nothing extraordinary, slowly grew on me, and toward the end I became almost attached to it. Cats would spontaneously appear outside our window. We milked Three Rivers of whatever subtle charms we could find. There were also bad restaurants and a sense of forgotteness, but for a weekend getaway, it worked.

On Sunday we stopped in downtown Visalia for lunch, the snow-dusted Sierra hovering in the background. It was a good time of year to pass through the Central Valley. The sky was actually blue, and the smell of cow poo poo was at a minimum.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

the absurdly high quality of Geico commercials

Part of the problem is the absurdly high quality of Geico commercials in general. In a dysfunctional nation that cannot provide health care for its citizens, not to mention a million other serious problems, we get these edgy, humorous, well-crafted advertisements for insurance? I once called Geico on the strength of their ads and their claim that I would save money... Sadly their auto insurance quote didn't come close to what I was paying at the time. Still, I love the ads and hope some of that creativity spills over into other areas of government.

solar-powered railroad

James Kunstler's comments on the national transportation mess are exactly right: we need to bring back passenger trains. Or rather, we need a whole new generation of passenger trains for the 21st century: fast, clean, and solar-powered. What airplane passenger wouldn't rather be riding a solar-powered railroad?

Yes, it's a massive project and we need the workforce of Detroit to implement it. America being America, I predict that the nation will rediscover its inner railroad industry and launch its second great era of rail -- not necessarily via the government, as it should, but via eccentric billionaires who have nostalgia for something we've lost: American technology that restores our industrial pride and defines the soul of the nation.