Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Traveling Light

Almost four years ago, I moved to California with nothing but a suitcase, a laptop, and a cat. Today I’m going up to Oakland for a week of catsitting while Debbie and Alan are away, and I am taking:

  • One smallish backpack, containing all the things I’d usually carry in a purse (wallet, keys, pillbox, EpiPen, comb, hair ties, change, pens, unread mail, and PDA crammed with calendar, notes, addresses, data, games, and 17 classic books not in copyright), plus a small portable cross-stitch project (and the usual extra fabric, floss, needles, and scissors that always accumulate), half a dozen books, cell phone, notebook, fountain pen, 12-button ivory cotton evening gloves for sleeping in, and several random pieces of jewelry I took off while carrying the backpack

  • One large carry-on suitcase full of clothes for work and play (too big to fit under an airplane seat, but small enough for the overhead compartment)

  • One satchel crammed with books for research and pleasure (this despite the thousands of books in the home of my hosts)

  • One laptop case, containing computer, power adapter, external hard drive, various cables, a set of large padded earphones (much more comfortable than earbuds), a USB charger/synching cable for the PDA, an inch-thick stack of papers I need to work on, two or three small notebooks, and several movies on DVD

  • One CPAP case, containing a CPAP, humidifier, hose, cord, mask, peak-flow meter (for my asthma, to see if I’m breathing), and a couple of books I couldn’t fit in elsewhere

Crammed in here and there are my digital camera in case I go exploring, a variety of teas, a few staple groceries, and several Tupperware containers I borrowed from Debbie and am now returning. I didn’t bring any art supplies, and the music I have with me is all on the laptop. Really, when you think about it, I am traveling light.

I’ll be buying most of my groceries when I get up there, because I refuse to miss the chance to shop at the fabulous Berkeley Bowl. This legendary independent grocery has the single best produce section I have ever seen. Yes, even better than Wegmans, although not by much. (The deciding factor was the presence of a spectacular range of fresh berries, including gooseberries, marionberries, and three kinds of currants.) The prices are insanely low, too. I do still miss Wegmans. Even their smallest store is more spacious than the narrow, crowded aisles of the Berkeley Bowl.

Also, the Berkeley Bowl doesn’t provide the entertainment Wegmans does. That’s the only store I’ve ever seen that provides customers with electronic scales that let you weigh your own produce, punch in the handy code, and print your very own scannable label with exact pricing.

While I’m gone, I’ll have a three-day weekend for writing—although I’ll also be spending some time with out-of-state relatives. That should be a great pleasure. Maybe Uncle Ben and Aunt Elva will persuade my mother to come for a visit. If they do, I’m sure she’ll show up with only a couple of suitcases.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Lions Rescue, Guard Beaten Ethiopian Girl
By ANTHONY MITCHELL, Associated Press Writer
Tue Jun 21, 8:37 PM ET

A 12-year-old girl who was abducted and beaten by men trying to force her into a marriage was found being guarded by three lions who apparently had chased off her captors, a policeman said Tuesday.

The girl, missing for a week, had been taken by seven men who wanted to force her to marry one of them, said Sgt. Wondimu Wedajo, speaking by telephone from the provincial capital of Bita Genet, about 350 miles southwest of Addis Ababa.

She was beaten repeatedly before she was found June 9 by police and relatives on the outskirts of Bita Genet, Wondimu said. She had been guarded by the lions for about half a day, he said.

"They stood guard until we found her and then they just left her like a gift and went back into the forest," Wondimu said.

"If the lions had not come to her rescue, then it could have been much worse. Often these young girls are raped and severely beaten to force them to accept the marriage," he said.

Tilahun Kassa, a local government official who corroborated Wondimu's version of the events, said one of the men had wanted to marry the girl against her wishes.

"Everyone thinks this is some kind of miracle, because normally the lions would attack people," Wondimu said.

Stuart Williams, a wildlife expert with the rural development ministry, said the girl may have survived because she was crying from the trauma of her attack.

"A young girl whimpering could be mistaken for the mewing sound from a lion cub, which in turn could explain why they didn't eat her," Williams said.

Ethiopia's lions, famous for their large black manes, are the country's national symbol and adorn statues and the local currency. Despite a recent crackdown, Hunters also kill the animals for their skins, which can fetch $1,000. Williams estimates that only 1,000 Ethiopian lions remain in the wild.

The girl, the youngest of four siblings, was "shocked and terrified" after her abduction and had to be treated for the cuts from her beatings, Wondimu said.

Friday, June 17, 2005

California Raining

After this week’s seismic jiggling, several friends have asked me, “How can you stand to live there? Aren’t you scared of earthquakes?”

The answer is, of course, that I’m prepared for them, but I don't obsess over them any more than I used to obsess over snowstorms and lightning and heat waves, back when I lived in a four-season climate.

Pennsylvanians keep snow shovels and salt for icy paths, and they unplug the computer whenever thunderstorms come; Californians fasten bookcases to the wall with brackets and watch where they place their beds to avoid being crushed by falling furniture. The weather (or the quakes) wax and wane as a topic of conversation. Occasionally a big quake or a notable blizzard will hit, producing a crop of anecdotes and a few untimely deaths.

Right now the biggest topic of conversation (not to mention the greatest hazard to life and limb) isn't the side effects of plate tectonics. It's the unprecedented rain we've been having.

It’s global warming!

It’s a sign of the Apocalypse!

It’s rain in June.

This year we've had twice as much rain in June as usual, and people are complaining bitterly. After a soggy May, we were all hoping for some sunshine, but so far June has featured spectacularly wet weather.

This is a state where mudslides routinely take out communities of million-dollar homes (which would cost about $250,000 anywhere else), where wildfires are an essential part of the ecosystem, where people continue to buy overpriced real estate despite the omnipresent threat of the Big Quake. Californians are nonchalant when it comes to dealing with Mother Nature’s biggest tantrums. To scare them, the rainfall has to be impressive.

How much rain have we had? Twice the average.

The average rainfall for June is a scant tenth of an inch.

That's right. We've had less than a quarter-inch of rain this month, and Californians are behaving as though they’ve been martyred—not to mention driving as though they hope to die for their faith that all roads are dry.

Rain has much the same effect on California freeways as ice or snow does in Philadelphia or Washington, DC: it causes panic in some drivers, who slow to 5 mph, and contempt in others, who continue to drive at 75 mph. Clearly a recipe for disaster.

Moreover, the dust and oil of the freeways tends to accumulate between storms, creating a viciously slick surface that, in the first minutes of a shower, can rival black ice for treacherous skidworthiness.

The mournful toll of multicar pileups, solo spin-outs, and overturned vehicles shouldn’t surprise me. I hope that someday people will adjust to the fact that they live in a place that gets rain sometimes, and learn to drive in it. Perhaps then Mother Nature will relent and give us clear skies until the rain is scheduled to start again in November.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

California Quaking

The San Andreas Fault has been active lately, but today is really something. Within about 90 seconds, it broke twice in Yucaipa, near San Bernadino, producing a 3.5 and a 5.3. The area is still quivering with small quakes about every 90 seconds.

This is not surprising, really. The offshore quake two days ago was a big one--7.2--and Monday's Chilean earthquake was a huge 7.9.

No, I can't feel these quakes. The offshore one was a couple hundred miles north of us, and today's little shocks are 400 miles south. Still, we're close to the San Andreas, and I work in the East Bay, right on top the Hayward Fault. It's always wise to keep an eye out for what the plates are doing.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Happy Birthday, Apple ][

On this day in 1977, the very first Apple ][ computers shipped. The boxes didn’t include a monitor, a modem, a floppy drive, or a hard drive. ”The standard configuration included 4K of memory, two game paddles, and a demo cassette with programs, costing $1,298. Home televisions were usually used for monitors.”

Twenty-eight years later, the once bleeding-edge Apple ][ is laughably quaint with its maximum RAM of 48K—yes, that’s kilobytes, not megabytes, certainly not gigabytes. But it still holds a place in many geeks’ hearts. The Model T of home computers, the Apple ][ brought high tech to the masses. Simple to use, with some incredibly handy programs, it was also advanced technology for the time. (It was the first computer to support a color display.) The Apple ][ set the standard for home microcomputers.

This workhorse and its successors, the ][+ and ][e, stayed in production for years. Because they were designed to be easily modified by hobbyists, you could make your computer your own. Snapping the lid up to add a card was simple and fun. I had no high-tech training at all, but I did a fair bit of tinkering with the insides of my ][e over the years.

The integrated keyboard had a satisfying feel. Like all Apple products, the case design was simple, striking, elegant, and the interface was eminently usable. That’s astonishing, given the fact that ”early computers didn't necessarily have a case or even a keyboard. On some systems you had to added your own keyboard, if possible, and on others you toggled switches to enter programs and issue commands.”

Soon the Apple floppy drive was introduced, but the ][ never had a hard drive. You could get internal storage for the ][e with a device called a RamDisk, but it was volatile. If the electricity went out or the computer was turned off, the data disappeared. An additional device called a RamCharger kept your data saved even with the computer turned off. I bought one of these in 1988. That single megabyte of storage cost me a thousand dollars.

I bought the Apple ][e in August 1985 and used it hard for the next eight years, writing several books and all my grad-school papers on it. Until it finally expired in 1993, it never gave me a lick of trouble. (It also never distracted me with the Internet, and only rarely with games.) I still have 5.25-inch floppies with old data on them.

Just for the sake of comparison: At age 28, most physicians are still in training. Most athletes are in their prime (except for gymnasts). Houses are thinking about a new roof and some updated decorating. Cars have become classic—but in California, at least, many are still rustless and on the road. Horses are close to the glue factory, but parrots and turtles are still youngsters. Visual art is still relatively new, maybe even controversial, while films and music have become either classic or passé. A cast-iron frying pan is still developing its patina. A bottle of Puligny-Montrachet burgundy is entering its most glorious phase. (And 1977 was a great vintage.)

When faced with a roomful of shy, silent geeks, you can always get a lively conversation going reminiscing about the old Apples.

The Apple ][ was beautifully designed. It was insanely great. It changed the world.