Travel Diaries USA – 1: California – Sequoia National Forest

A late April morning at Los Angeles International Airport, chaotic and hectic like most others as well. Nipping a rather bad espresso, yours truly awaits Laura, girlfriend extraordinaire and fellow nature enthusiast of five years, who’s travelling from the other end of the world to embark on a tour of California, and the Southwest, in the following weeks. Nearly four months it’s been since we’ve seen each other in person! The flight comes in time, and after some more crowd-gazing her characteristic cap and blonde hair show up in the mass. Reunion, at last! After a short Taxi transit we pick up our rented vehicle for the next two weeks – a large van, colorfully graffitti’d with an image of San Francisco in yellow and red; A former showroom-model nicknamed Funkytown. Raphael, a cool Afro-Swiss-American dude, showed us the van’s amenities: Water (hand-cranked), cooling box (with own battery), sleeping compartment (comfy), and speaker installation (loud indeed). After a quick test-round on the yard accustomed us to the automatic transmission (easier than we had thought), and so we were ready to start our adventure. The hardest part was getting out of LA: even at 3.30 in the afternoon the major highways out of the city were beginning to choke up with traffic. After that followed some 5 hours of driving through the Central Valley, on highways stretched out to the horizon along endless groves of orange and walnut trees, and where the settlements we encountered seemed to center around gas pump stations (where the orange juice still comes from Florida – I wonder where all the local oranges go?). Just at dusk we saw the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range on the horizon, and soon after sunset we found our stay for the next two days: A small RV park/campsite a couple miles outside the actual Park. The narrow forest road was so well-disguised that we missed it two times, but once we had found our space, we settled for the night under an oak tree with squirrel burrows next to its roots. Even though we had read about bears in the region and food in the cars (a bad combination, if you believe the warnings), we didn’t see bear-proof boxes anywhere, so we just hoped for the best. (If only we would have known how soon we would encounter them!)
The next day we checked in at the campsite, and were told that bears usually wouldn’t venture that far down into the valley. A few months earlier, though, one had figured out how to get into the trashbins, which had been secured with heavy plastic lids: The bear had sat on the lids, making them cave in under the weight, and feasted on the human’s trash. After replacing the lids a couple of times, the campground owners had switched to bear-proof lids, and after an ambush with paintball gun-armed park dwellers, the bear had given up. (Which is a good thing: Normally, the bears get addicted to human food, and get more and more aggressive in getting it, breaking into cars and houses at the end, and raiding all strong-smellign substances, including toothpaste. The park rangers told us they usually had to be “destryoed”, i.e. shot, after contact with human food.)
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Thus, we drove into Sequoia Forest National Park, up some awesomely well-maintained streets (way better than the surrounding streets out of the park), and set out onto our first hike, a “moderate” 5 miles or so, up to Marble Falls (flickr set). The well-maintained path climbed steadily from the warm valley floor to the somewhat cooler half-heights, and the mountain creeks were already flowing with ice-cold snowmelt water. We both were not yet used to the amount of sun we got (me coming fromt the windowless laboratory, and Laura from still snowcovered Central Europe), and were overtaken by locals of all ages, who apparently jogged up and down on the mountains for leisure. Lots of plants were flowering already, and close to marble falls we stumbled onto a mating party of small, blue butterflies, who had settled on a sunny spot on the path and flapped around each other. Shortly thereafter, we saw Marble Falls, several huge marble steps in a narrow gorge, well-rounded by the creek rushing across them. About half of the marble steps were dry, because the snowfall last winter had been less than normal, and we climbed around and took tons of pictures. When a family arrived and accidentally kicked down a rock that near-missed Laura’s hand, we turned to head.
When turing around a corner, we heard some cracking in the trees above. I guessed it was the wind, but Laura actually took a closer look, and saw a snout some 15 meters above the path. Those were too big to be a dog’s – it was a bear! We jumped back a couple meters, and anxiously looked at the two (as it turned out) full-grown black bears that were relaxedly munching on some trees just above the path. If there hadn’t been a local jogging past us and the bears some minutes before, we probably wouldn’t have dared go walk past them at all. In the end we went, and the bears seemed totally indifferent (even though we stopped to listen carefully after each cracking sound in the forest on our way down). When we later on breathlessly told some locals of our encounter, they laughed at our excitemtent: Apparently, bears are only dangerous later in the year when they have cubs. Still, enountering two 200 kg-furballs with enormous teeth on close distance is an awesome thing to behold. I got them on video, and as soon as we’re in a place with sufficient wifi, I’ll post it here.
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The next morning, we stocked up on food in the small department store (which had about 3 meters of shelves full of whitebread to choose from, but only half a meter of fruits), and got some actually good espresso, bagels and cookies in the espresso bar next door. Our next target was within Sequoia National Park, visible from across the valley: A huge rocky outcropping towering on a cliff, Moro Rock (flickr set). All the way up the serpentines we wondered whether the huge boulder high up on the mesa would be the one we looked for, and indeed, it turned out to be. This being America, there’s a parking lot directly next to the rock, and within 5 minutes you’re on top of the cliff, looking down into several valleys from subtropical vegetation over (partially burnt) Giant Sequoia forests, up to snow-capped mountaintops. Apparently, those trees evolved their characteristically red, thick bark and tall growth (close to the physical limit for tree height) as a protection from forest fires, which traditionally sweep the region: The fires burn out the “undergrowth” (which has about the same proportions a normal pine forest elsewhere would have), eliminating competition for water and nutrients, and fertilizing the soil with the resulting ashes. Indeed, Giant Sequoias are known to produce thousands of seed cones (which are tiny, btw: one easily fits in your hand palm) over years, which get activated by a fire’s heat, sprinkling the freshly ash-fertilized soil around the tree with tens of thousands of Sequoia seeds. Evolution at work, and plant-biologist Laura happy of course :)
Sequoias were the next thing on our route, over winding, badly potholed side roads, and with a recently enlarged parking lot at the end (“America, The Land Of Large Asphalted Flat Areas”. Sounds truer than, but not as snappy as “Land of the Free”): The Giant Forest (flickr set), including the (Land Of The Superlatives) Largest tree by volume on the planet, named General Sherman. In essence, a large grove of hugely impressive old-growth (i.e. not capped in the late 19th century for toothpicks, as most Sequoia forests in the west) Sequoia trees, which were so unimaginably huge that it just really sinks in when you’re standing next to one of the smaller ones, and realize you could hide your van behind it, with plenty of room. Or, alternatively, build a house in just the diameter of the trunk, spacious by Dutch standards. (Which, btw, is exactly what one of the earliest rangers in the park did: Building a cabin in a fallen middle-sized Sequoia trunk. Of course, it houses a gift shop today.)
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I had to drive most of the winding serpentines, because Laura grew so fascinated with these huge colosses once we actually entered Sequoia area, that she promptly let the van veer closer and closer to the side of the road, all while looking upwards… As it happened for the second time, right when we were passing at a narrow spot where each lane actually is flanked by Sequoias, we stopped for a while. After dutifully admiring the giant conifers, I took the wheel and drove on, under constant requests to drive slower for appropriate admiration of the surroundings. (This being fair game, since I usually complain that we rush past all those awesome, photo-worthy scenes when on the co-driver’s seat.) After getting our necks into vertical position again (seriously, don’t plan to visit Sequoia when you have trouble looking up. I’m sure there’s the world’s most amazing small flowering plant somewhere down there on the ground, growing and flowering like crazy, but everyone comes to look upwards at those treees, who merely manage to grow very high and stick around for a couple thousand years.), we drove another few hours over narrow serpentine roads, past gorgeous vistas of canyons, trees and general Wilderness, until, just at dusk, we made our way into the next park on our route: Yosemite. We were happy, because we felt that driving more serpentine roads in the forest would be too much for today, especially in the dark. Well, we underestimated the hugeness of everything here, again. Directly after the park entrance, a sign blandly stated white-on-brown: “Campgrounds: 35 miles”. Seems we hadn’t had enough serpentines that day…

Linkdump (10): Open Source Hardware, meta-science, and german copyright

metascience: Biologists analyse flow of publication manuscripts before and after publication, find clusters and networks that approximately correspond with scientific field boundaries. They also find that even though most rejected papers flow further down the impact factor ladder, they end up being cited more often. The authors speculate that is due to the increased srutiny that the manuscipt has to undergo during the resubmission procedure. Unfortunately paywalled, but still interesting. article @ Science.

Continue reading Linkdump (10): Open Source Hardware, meta-science, and german copyright

photos (3): Flower macros and christmas display overkill

Last weekend, a fellow scientist and I went to a high-end gardening center near Irvine, Rogers Gardens, to make some photos. We were not the only ones to hang around photographing flowers, and saw everything from point-and-shoot (mostly from elderly ladies with their unwilling grandchildren), up to tripod and monstrous macro lenses.
Continue reading photos (3): Flower macros and christmas display overkill

Leistungsschutzrecht (2): Anderswo in Europa gabs das schonmal. Hat nicht funktioniert.

Google soll unter allerlei Ausflüchten die lokale Kulturindustrie quersubventionieren… Da war doch was?

Ich meine mich zu erinnern, dass vor noch nicht all zu langer Zeit in Frankreich ein LSR gescheitert war, und im Heise-Forum kann man zwischen dem ganzen Rumgetrolle immer mal wieder von den belgischen Zeitungen, denen von google der Saft abgedreht wurde, lesen. Einen Abend später (bei wikipedia, wohlgemerkt, mit google nur zum Uebersetzen), ist beides bestätigt:
Continue reading Leistungsschutzrecht (2): Anderswo in Europa gabs das schonmal. Hat nicht funktioniert.

Spambot poetry

In the two months I’ve been running this blog, I received 120 comments from spambots. Most were bland, generic, slimey statements, but some possess a weirdly dadaistic poetry. Most probably, they are generated by algorithms (I’ve seen several come in different variations), but at least by filtering human language through google translate. Thus, I present my picks of putative algorithmic poetry.

(Stage Instruction: Imagine a dramatic reading in some lowbrow arts environment. Darkness, chatting, room full of people and ironic cigarette smoke. The misunderstood poet nervously steps into the spotlight, grabs the microphone, unfolds a crumbled sheet of paper. Clearing-of-the-throat. Chatter dies down, glasses clink on the tables.)
Continue reading Spambot poetry

linkdump (9): Podcatst collection – economics, politics and spirituality

Marking brain cells on a microscope is currently my daily work. It’s a very visual task, so you can easily listen to podcasts and other audio-dominated media. In the dark microscopy room, I learned to appreciate good, in-depth radio reporting, which in my opinion has a much better place on the web, where people can choose their own time to listen, than in inflexible radio schedules. Notably, quite a few ex-radio reporters started making internet-only audio reports, financed by crowdfunding, i.e. kickstarter. See for example Relatively Prime series, well-made infotainment about mathematics and engineering (via boingboing, of course).

Well, a selection of podcast reports, mostly made for the american public radio system, NPR:
Continue reading linkdump (9): Podcatst collection – economics, politics and spirituality


Heute hab ich mal die Bundestagsabgeordneten meines Wahlkreises angeschrieben (ich habe sie nicht gewählt, aber sie sind so in etwa das, was “meinen” Abgeordneten am Nächsten kommt), um wenigstens was gegen ein Leistungsschutzrecht getan zu haben. Ich habe mich mit der Datenkrake google verbündet, weil meiner Meinung nach das LSR deutlich negativere Auswirkungen auf die deutsche Presselandschaft haben wird als auf google. Ist also eher Selbstinteresse.

To whom it may concern, der Volltext der mails an Michael Grosse-Brömer (CDU) und Nicole Bracht-Bendt (FDP), zur freien Vervielfältigung:
Continue reading Leistungsschutzrecht

Linkdump (8): Greek economy, 100$ bills rule the world, Dutch environment policy evaluated

Three rather surprising data points this weekend:

Greece’s stock market outperformed China’s in 2012. Maybe a bit more logical once you take into account that the ATHEX fell 90% since the beginning of the banking crisis 2007, but apparently it is climbing slowly.

Nearly 80% of all dollar bills in circulation are 100$ bills. The economists who came up with the numbers estimate that they are used to store value in cash, mostly abroad, either in developing countries, or the “informal sector”, i.e. organized crime. In the same vein (also from the article): the UK stopped exchanging 500€ bills a few years ago, claiming that “90% of the notes end up in the hands of organized crime”. According to Wikipedia, interestingly, 25% of 500€ notes currently are in Spain.

Also, an in-depth report about the plight of Greeks in the small mountain city of Drama in northern Greece. The article is in German (in the excellent, reader-owned magazine Kontext), google-translation here).

And the Dutch parliament has assessed its environment policies for the first time since 2005. The result: Mandatory rules are much more effective than i.e. voluntary agreements with(in) the industry. For example, tax hikes on gasoline will actually lead to a reduction in consumption, and, in the long run, to greater fuel efficency. The report stresses that enhanced energy efficiency as the most cost-effective option: While other measures might yield more results, they invariably cost more than initially anticipated. (which leads me to the conclusion that those still should be done, but need to be supported by a broad consensus across society). Article in Dutch, google-translated

Linkdump (7): History, Perspective, Hive-mind decision making

Some random notes from a weekend of long reads on the interwebs and analogue world.

The Dementia Plague, an article about the rise of neurodegenerative deseases, which threaten ever-larger parts of the ageing population of the industrialized nations. Surprisingly stubborn despite decades of research, the costs of caring for demented, but not dying, masses of people might very well overwhelm the medical systems in the future to come (baby boomers!)

Interesting complementary point (in german, google-translated here): Overaging of chine, well underway by now (median age ~35), and poised to happen much faster than anywhere else, due to the double-edged effects of the one-child policy. In short: China’s economic windfall of an overly young workforce is shrinking, and much faster than anywhere else in history. The overaging of the population is going to have dramatic effects, even when the safety nets remain as loose as they are now. Also, now the first generation of “princelings”, only-children born under the one-child policy, are in the middle of their productive lives, and start having children themselves, though especially in the prosperous cities much less than even proscribed by the state. The challenges for the future are huge; If China does not get them right, then chaos might ensue for the rest of the planet.

How cheap energy from shale will reshape America’s role in the world, an article about the geopolitical implications of the USA being able to mine lots of cheap shale gas (at whatever cost). First of all, this emancipates them from the interdependence with the middle eastern oil regimes, but for geostrategic reasons they might not gove up control over the region anytime soon. Rather, the biggest loser might be gazprom-dependant Russia. Also interesting: In the comments, several (seemingly legit) engineers from the oil industry exchange arguments. A more-informed-than-usual exchange of standpoints, much more direct and unmediated than (at least I) normally get to see. Did you know that fracking of the more accessible sandstone formations is commonplace in offshore drilling i.e. in Denmark and the Netherlands? I didn’t.

via the blog of the Long Now foundation, a row of intersting perspectives:
Looking back at the limits of growth, a (way too short!) retrpsoective of the predictions of the famous 1972 study by the Club of Rome. Short version: The “business as usual” scenario seems to play out right before our eyes, so far.

An interesting line of thought among archeologists in this essay from 2003 (later extended into two books: 1491 and 1493): The Americas were very densely populated, by developed agrarian civilizations, building large cities, states and kingdoms. Some voices in the debate even state that the Americas might have been home to about as many people, with an overall better standard of living, than most of western Europe at the time, and that swaths of rainforest migth have been carefully engineered to act as large-scale fields. The Europeans mainly won by inadvert bio-warfare, when the combinations of sicknesses they brought aboard decimated the continent’s inhabitants, without the spaniards even needing to show up for very long. Think to the tune of rotting corpses for miles around cities, as many as 95% of the population eradicated (the bubonic plague took ~30% in Europe in its heydays), as the combined sudden onslaught of smallpox, plague, measles, whooping cough and many more were unleashed on an immunological naive population. In the end, this might be the reason why the previously densely populated coastal areas reported by the earliest explorers turned up empty and abandoned when systematic colonization set in. Rich material for thinking here, for example that swathes of the brazilian rainforest might have been carefully adapted by civilizations there, and the popitically charged battle the scholars have been waging around it for nearly 40 years.

From the same author, a presentation, using the hypothesis about the history of the americas to develop the point that we have been knee-deep in the anthropocenic all along. For example, the re-forestation in the wake of the microbial mass extinction of the america’s inhabitants might have precipitated CO2 levels and triggered Europe’s little ice age.

A beekeper’s Perspective on Risk, an essay by a business advisor / hobby-beekeper, who frames the decision processes of bee swarms in terms of business risk management. In this respect, bees present an interesting example of literal hive-mind, bottom-up decision making and risk management. Fascinating read, and an interesting food for thoughts on whether this can be transferred on human endeavours.

In unrelated news: I finished David Graeber’s Debt: The first 5000 years this weekend. Maybe, one of those days I might get to cherry-pick some factoids from the “heap of intellectual rubble” (quote from ribbonfarm). Definitely a serious exercise in building comprehensive frameworks over how the world works (and where ideas come from). For example, did you know that there is a good case to be made that Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations is in many ways directly inspired by medievial arabic philosophers?

linkdump (6): fair phone, howto start a hackerspace

The non-profit is currently working on a completely ethically sourced phone, down to the raw materials for the solder. Example: Tin comes moslty from conflict-ridden DR Congo, and directly or indirectly finances warlords in the region exploiting land and people. Plans are to put it up for crowdfunding in June 2013, with shipments intended for autumn next year. I like the concept, just earmarked some money for next year, and signed up for their email newsletter.
Additional cool detail: If you’re in the Netherlands, you can donate your old phnoes to get measuring instruments into the hands of congolese tin miners, giving them information for tin content of their ores, and thus a better bargaining position. My old (but still working) Nokia N900, for example, would bring 40 Euros, certainly no bad deal.
found it via my favourite leftist-green german newspaper, which I’m supporting with 50 euro/year.

A series of how-to’s: How to start your own hackerspace. From someone who was involved with the foundation of two of them in the US, and has since then toured the globe to give advice to hackerspace-founders.
One of my more distant pipedreams is to open a hackerspace one day. I tend to accumulate tools wherever I go anyways, and love sharing tools, time and experiences, so maybe this might just be the way everything develops naturally. Plus, that might be a place to place a 3D printer, should I ever get one… Well, if I all of a sudden happen to have a lot of spare time, then maybe, just maybe, that thing might take flight. According to this list, the closest to Nijmegen is in Almelo, which of course is too far.