Mundane Monday: Look at all that Water

The CA drought is officially over in many areas. In fact, there is too much water falling from the sky right now. I’m nostalgic for the dry, sunny days, or even for the fluffy white wintry skiing snow I see falling on my Boston-area friends.

It’s also harder to find geocaches every day in the rain–and impossible to do so without getting wet. Everything is green, gray, and brown here in the Golden State.

Monta Vista Park, Cupertino

I chose this subject for the Mundane Monday Challenge because I want to go a little deeper and find beauty in these flooded, muddy landscapes with their bedraggled vegetation and brownish water.

Los Gatos Creek Park

This evening my son and I were standing outside of a church in Saratoga, waiting to go into a rehearsal. We huddled under an overhang. Another parent walked up, waiting too for the previous rehearsal to end. To make small talk, I said “wild weather we’re having.” He looked around at the pelting rain and wind, and said darkly “the dinosaur water is all gone. This won’t help.”

Dinosaur water. I must have looked puzzled, because, if anything, I associate dinosaurs with oil and other carboniferous resources. “The water we drilled and took out of the ground,” he added. “This won’t put it back.”

The analogy to oil holds there too, but I wondered then, when I got home, how long it actually might take to recharge the aquifers. The San Joaquin Valley is sinking due to overpumped groundwater. According to the San Jose Mercury News, it could take up to 50 years for the groundwater to recharge from its current state, even if everyone stopped pumping immediately. Not quite the millions of years it takes for dinosaurs to turn into oil, but still uncomfortably long in human terms.

Here is something cool, though: aquifer recharge experiments. Wineries and growers of other crops are flooding their fields to get water back in the ground where it is safer from evaporation than it would be in a reservoir. Surprisingly, this doesn’t harm the crops.

Photo Credit: Wine Spectator, January 25, 2017

The Santa Clara Valley water district maintains percolation ponds, that collect floodwater and direct it back underground. We may be seeing many more of these types of solutions–and flooded lands–in the future!

Monta Vista Park, Cupertino

Book Review: Bestial by Arielle K. Harris

BestialBestial by Arielle K. Harris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just after Valentine’s Day, I am reviewing this tale of troubled love. Warning: contains spoilers.

As the mother of a teenage daughter, I have been aware of a cultural undercurrent around fairy tales for many years. Is Beauty and the Beast about domestic violence? Is Twilight about creepy stalker control freak boyfriends that suck the life out of girls? Are they all too much about the value of women’s physical beauty and traditional heteronormative gender roles?

Although I never banned any of these stories from our home, I do consider the original story of Beauty and the Beast to be problematic, so I was interested to see what would come of reversing the genders of the two main protagonists and following their journey beyond “happily ever after.” Would I like it better that way? Would it be better for women?

The answer here was surprisingly, yes and no. Yes because the girl/beast Yvaine becomes the real protagonist of the story and its most compelling character. After the retelling of the original plot, Yvaine goes on a quest, makes friends, solves riddles, confronts magical creatures, and comes into her own as a kick-ass fighter. The writing in this story is especially lovely too, and it carries the reader along, making this a smooth, if not simple, read.

But the answer is also No, because in spite of the action, I found it a little too subtle and meandering. I enjoyed both halves of the book but they didn’t seem to have enough to do with each other to keep them in the same novel. It starts out as the story of Beau and Desire and their family, and one by one all of these characters fall away, their motivations inexplicable. The Beau of the second half was virtually unrecognizable to me as the Beau of the first half. Perhaps the loss of his twin brother played some role in his loss of character? The Devil is mentioned, and given the calamities that befall this family, his dark power may have a greater hand in events than is explicitly described. Or not. That’s the problem: I’m not sure.

There were other red herrings too, in addition to Beau’s unexpected and confusing behavior. Fitcher? The Devil? The mouse? The riddles? The mundane reason for Yvaine’s initial enchantment as told from the witch’s point of view? All were enjoyable to read but a bit of a grab bag. There was also a surprising amount of hacking and chopping and killing with axes. This is definitely a Grimm fairly tale, not a Disney one, and it has the feel of something out of another time, or a dream.

At first, I felt it ended too abruptly, and found this frustrating. But days later, the story continued to nag at me and stay with me. I wondered what Yvaine, more powerful alone than she ever was with Beau, would do next. I imagined her taking flight. I was reminded of Twilight at its best, in which the heroine also comes into her own power with a startling transformation. This isn’t your mother’s, or your daughter’s fairy tale, but it is one of the most thought-provoking I’ve read in the genre.

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Mundane Monday: Gnarled Tree in Fremont

There is nothing like a deadline to focus your mind. It’s true of teenagers, it’s true of adults.

In the United States, teenagers are allowed to drive starting at age 16. In Germany where my husband grew up, the age is 18. I’ve read the statistics about 16-year-old drivers and can see the wisdom of waiting. We wondered how this would play out when our kids reached this age. Would they demand to drive a car as soon as their 16th birthday came? Or would they wait?

With our daughter, our first-born, I was somewhat surprised to find that she wasn’t in a big hurry to drive a car. She can walk to school and she has a friend with a license, so most of her immediate needs are taken care of without her having to drive. Driving around here, in the SF Bay Area, can also be pretty stressful. The traffic is often dreadful, roads aren’t in the greatest shape (although they are nowhere near as bad as the roads in our previous town, Belmont MA), and people are more distracted than ever.

But with her departure date for college in Oregon approaching, she was running out of time to get her permit, wait the required 6 months, and take the driving test before she left. She didn’t want to do it in Oregon while also trying to get her bearings in college, so to do it here in CA, we had to set a deadline. I naively went online to make an appointment at the DMV for a permit, only to find that all the DMVs that were close by didn’t have appointments until March, which was too late. We were going across the bridge to Fremont.

Not only did we have to drive across the Dumbarton Bridge, but it was raining, and raining hard. Traffic was dreadful, the roads weren’t in the greatest shape, and people were distracted. We were late for the appointment. But she passed the written test and is now the proud holder of a CA driver’s permit.

On the way back, before we braved the highway again, I needed to find the geocache of the day. It was hidden in this tree, pictured here. The tree is in the middle of an island, in the middle of the road in a cul-de-sac just down the street from the Fremont DMV. The foliage is dense enough to shield the cacher from the rain, but you have to stick your hand into one of the holes in the knobs and gnarls of the tree to find the cache, and I ended up getting sap all over my hand.

Gnarled Tree on “Treasure Island” in Fremont. For the Mundane Monday Challenge #96

The things we go through to find a geocache. Or to get a drivers’ permit, for that matter.




Book Review: Bully for Brontosaurus by Stephen Jay Gould

Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural HistoryBully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I recently unearthed some book reviews that I wrote when I was in Neurosciences graduate school at Stanford in the early 1990s. There I was the editor of a student newsletter called the “Neuron Free Press,” and we published book reviews about Neuroscience topics. 

This newsletter was published while the internet was coming into its own, before blogs. The dead tree versions of these reviews that I found at the back of an old file cabinet may be the only copies still in existence.  The books are no longer new but I think each one has retained its relevance and stood the test of time.

The first book covered is Bully for Brontosaurus, reviewed back in Autumn 1991 when its author, the great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, was still alive and writing. I think it’s especially appropriate for Darwin Day.

Stephen Jay Gould has been writing monthly essays for Natural History magazine for over eighteen years, and he has gotten pretty good at it by now. His newest collection is the best one so far. While Gould has always been able to impress with the depth and breadth of his scientific knowledge, this collection contains more personal insight, humor, and humility than some of his previous work.

Gould makes no secret of his intellectual passions: baseball, the French Revolution, geology, science and scientists of the 19th century, dinosaurs, classical music, and evolutionary theory. Not every one of his readers shares these passions, of course (I, for one, have always been bored by baseball), but he has a gift for making his subjects come alive regardless of what he writes about. For example, one essay, “The Chain of Reason versus the Chain of Thumbs” deals with animal magnetism, a craze in the late 1780s. The German physician Franz Mesmer believed that a “magnetic fluid” pervaded the universe, uniting everything. When “flow” was blocked in people, disease could result. Mesmer claimed to have performed many cures by locating the magnetic poles on a sufferer’s body, and re-establishing flow by touching knees and fingers, and staring into the person’s (usually a woman’s) eyes.

The essay describes how the Royal Commission of Louis XVI in 1784 went about evaluating Mesmer’s claims, and the story is funny and surprising. Gould creates a picture of the famous scientists on the commission, which included Benjamin Franklin and Anton Lavoisier, sitting around one of Mesmer’s big vats of magnetic fluid, joined by a rope, each holding an iron rod, and “making from time to time, the chain of thumbs.” Everyone reads about Franklin flying a kite in a thunderstorm, but his participation in the chain of thumbs is less well documented and at least as interesting. The essay also explains that Dr. Mesmer’s name is where the word “mesmerize” comes from.

The book is full of historical tidbits like this, such as why keyboards are laid out with QWERTY on top, or why glowworms are evenly spaced on the ceiling of a grotto. It is also full of explanations and sympathetic characterizations of obscure scientific figures, as well as little-known stories about more famous ones. He devotes an entire essay to William Jennings Bryan, who attacked the teaching of evolution in schools in the Scopes trial in 1925. Gould is an ardent anti-fundamentalist, anti-“creation science” evolutionary biologist, and he admits he thinks Bryan’s position was “yahoo nonsense,” yet he is able to draw a sympathetic picture of Bryan, who believed that the philosophy of “Darwinism” (as Bryan mistakenly understood it) played a role in the rise of German militarism and capitalist exploitation, and thus should be suppressed.

Finally, I would like to add as a personal note, that I enjoyed one essay, “Bligh’s Bounty,” in particular because it had a section on my own field: the mammalian visual system. However, in that section, Gould makes a statement containing a factual error which should be clear to anyone who has taken introductory neuroanatomy. It didn’t change the basic conclusion or overall integrity of his essay, but did show that, in spite of a great deal of evidence to the contrary, Gould doesn’t know everything.

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Mundane Monday: Rainbows

I don’t think I would have ever expected to call rainbows mundane. But they are getting that way during this rainy CA winter. Last week alone 3 out of 5 mornings had rainbows.

On Monday I was driving my son to school and saw this one as we rounded the corner, driving away from our house.

Waverly Park

Taken through the car windshield with a phone camera after I pulled over to the side of the road, the photo doesn’t do it justice . . . or so one might reasonably think. But in fact, the morning was pretty much that dark and gloomy, the air gray and humid.

Prisma helps a little bit, defines the clouds and trees while keeping the watery vibe. But that blue sky, uh, that’s a complete invention of the app:


On Thursday, my husband and I went geocaching in a park next to a school. We went to find a cache that had been logged as missing and which had been recently replaced (Caching streak update: I am now on 403 consecutive days with a geocache find!)  We ended up finding two caches: the old one, which wasn’t missing after all, and the new one added by the cache owner to replace it. Then it started raining, and this appeared:

Serra Park

On the way home I tried to get a better view of it, and a better picture, with real blue sky as the sun peeked in and out. I only partly succeeded, but I could see pictures like these making their way into a brochure about the condo complex:

There was another rainbow on Friday, a double, according to a friend who posted a picture on Facebook. I was too early or late for that one, because I didn’t see it at all in real life. Fittingly, it was in the town of Sunnyvale.

Last summer we saw a rainbow right after landing at the airport in Paris. At the time I thought of it as a good omen for our trip, and spent much of the taxi ride to the hotel trying to get a good picture.

No matter whether you think I succeeded in getting a “good” picture of any of these, none of them fits the stereotype about rainbow pictures–the one with the pot of gold, ice cream, and unicorns that girls of a certain age like to draw on their folders in school. Real rainbows even look a little more “scientific” than I expected, like partial arcs of a circle that you can imagine filling in on the other side of the world; watery lenses focusing the light.

With rainbows, comes rain. And we still desperately need it. May we keep seeing California rainbows for a few more months! (For Photrablogger’s Mundane Monday Challenge #94)

Santa Barbara

Book Review: The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Water KnifeThe Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Paolo Bacigalupi is a master of near-future dystopian science fiction. I’ve been dabbling in the genre, and reading this book made me realize that I have a long way to go with respect to world building. In many ways, this book is a textbook for how it should be done. The book is richly drawn, with complex characters, plausible extrapolation of current events, catchy slang, and unexpected twists and turns. With The Water Knife, Bacigalupi is at the top of his imaginative game.

Continue reading Book Review: The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

Thursday Doors: More from San Francisco

The news is getting heavy this week, so I’m taking a little time out for some Thursday Doors in San Francisco. Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world, run by Norm 2.0.  Join in any time!

Even though I live in the Bay Area I don’t get to San Francisco very often. It is still more legend in my mind than reality. People around here call it “the city,” which I think is kinda funny given that San Jose is also a city and is much closer. Even Mountain View, where I live, is a city. Continue reading Thursday Doors: More from San Francisco

Wild and Precious

Last Sunday the UU church I joined in December, the UU Fellowship of Sunnyvale, held a service called the Our One Wild and Precious Life service. The title is inspired by the last lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day.

Continue reading Wild and Precious

Mundane Monday: Fun with Prisma

Prisma is an app, available for iphone and android, that enables you to convert photos into artwork. It is almost scary how easy it is to use and transform ordinary phone photographs into pictures that look like paintings or prints. I first tried it on our trip to Santa Barbara over Thanksgiving, and was pleased with what it did with a gnarled tree.

Continue reading Mundane Monday: Fun with Prisma

Film Review: Rogue One, a Star Wars Story

I was going to post this review a couple weeks earlier, but the untimely death of Carrie Fisher, the actress who played Princess Leia, delayed my finishing it. Leia was barely in this installment, and much of the initial discussion of her cameo focused on the CGI. But even though I haven’t been a real Star Wars geek for many years, Fisher’s death hit me hard. Continue reading Film Review: Rogue One, a Star Wars Story

The Brain—is wider than the Sky

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