Saturday, May 14, 2011

Montebello 2011 | Mini Herp Transect

This year I decided to take my 4th annual Montebello solo 24-hour shindig in the late spring just for some variety. It's a better season for wildlife but much more challenging for the Montebello Light Project. Everything is way too green this time of year, especially after getting a tremendous winter rainfall this year.

I spent more time than previous years but almost none of it photographing--I was waiting for some inspiration but got none. Instead, I embarked on a mini informal herp transect along Steven's Creek and tributaries. Here's my route [UPCOMING]:

And here's my haul:

407 California newts
4 unidentified larval salamanders [1 apparently arboreal, 3 unknown--very dark but too small to be giants]
3 unidentified large fish
1 San Francisco garter snake
0 Red-legged frogs
0 Robot ninja zombie badgers

I estimate that I undercounted the newts by between 10-50%, giving a total newt population along the transect of ~450-600. I estimate that the 3 fish decreased the newt population by about 50 based on the dramatic decrease in newts in the fishy sections. I probably missed several dozen of the larval salamanders because they are much more prone to hiding and I tried to disturb the habitat as little as possible [no rock-flipping, etc]. Montebello probably holds several thousand newts altogether.

At night [alone, as usual], a couple great-horned owls frolicked above me in the trees until I disturbed them with raucuos nose-blowing. A wild turkey greeted me in the morning and I watched a wrentit gather nesting materials.

Now for the pictures:

Lupine at sunset.

My unfortunate attempt at a 2011 entry into my ongoing Montebello Light Project. It's a lupine as pacman, eating the sun.

You can bet when this white-tailed kite decided to start kiting near the setting sun that I really missed my 500mm f4 [this was taken with a 180mm]:

I found a small deer skull and thought it would be fun to combine it with some cool water effects. I aimed the skull so that water entering the breathing tubes at the back of the skull emptied out the nose. In the full-size version, the little squigglies made by reflections of the sunlight on the surface of the water make for a very cool abstract pattern.

California newt. If you see the full-size version, there's a funny little parabola of water spray coming from the salamander. I've spent many hours over the last couple years trying to get good newt pictures and these two are the first I've felt good about.

As always, thanks to my wiff for letting me go!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Montebello 2010

Friday was my third annual backpacking trip to Montebello. It's a perfect little spot for a quick, short photography expedition and night under the stars: the wildlife and habitat is diverse and the sunsets from Black Mountain are excellent. Here are some of my pictures from this trip; not quite the haul I got the last two years but worth it anyway.

Steven's Creek had a lot of newts, including both local species. Especially exciting was a very large red-legged frog, my first ever and a goal for this year.

I took a self-portrait reflected from the frog's eye.  Well, the camera and tripod are at least plainly visible.

When I got up to Black Mountain the sun was low and fog was moving in, which made for some nice generic atmospherics. There's something about the soft backlight, the harsh dark karst, glowing golden grass and fog that combine to make a nice mood. It was lovely up there.

I found a jay feather and played around with shooting it with the sun behind it. Of several hundred pictures this is probably my favorite.  It took pretty much everything I know about my camera and its optics to make this work.

The Pacific Ocean is somwhere beneath that sea of clouds out there.

The fog crept in up valleys and ravines.

I don't like the combination of colors in this picture but I just love the perspective of sitting above the clouds and capturing their advance up and over ridges.

I took this last picture long after sunset, trying to get the light low enough that I could take a long exposure to soften the clouds and get some nice color.  The fog was pouring between the trees at the top of the ridge as the it rolled in from the ocean.

Once again lots of thanks to Manda, who was stupendously generous to let me take this time away.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Infinite Jest

I just "finished" Infinite Jest on the plane back from San Diego last night. Then I started from the beginning again because it seems like that's the only way to make sense of it.  Infinite indeed.

Some thoughts, appropriately disjointed, for myself and others who have already read it:

1. I haven't seen any IJ analysis that touches on the mathematics in the book, but I see some major clues to what happened in the year between the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment and the Year of Glad. I started cataloging science- and math-related errors in the book in order to determine if DFW was making the errors or the characters.  I ended up finding about 25 significant errors; most of them were of a nature that they had to be intentional. If I knew pharmacology and chemistry like I know physics, optics and math maybe the list would be much longer.

Quite a lot of the errors are math "mistakes" that Pemulis communicates to Hal.  In one or two cases, The Peemster nails the math when he isn't communicating with Hal, but he's always wildly off when he's tutoring Hal. And ALL of Hal's math--which he presumably got from Pemulis at some point--is terrible.  Hal tells Mario that his most-feared monster is somebody who can lie without him (Hal) realizing it--and he mentions that Pemulis had just lied successfully in a way he'd never seen and he didn't know that the Peem could lie like that--and on pg. 852 Hal says that Pemulis has been "almost suspiciously generous" about tutoring Hal. The "point" of all this seems to be that Pemulis is in reality not Hal's best friend, but an incredibly subtle arch-enemy. I think the math points to the hypothesis that Pemulis deliberately sabatoges Hal through introduction of the DMZ. In a tale about Hal's alienation, it is a major key that his only real friend is actually one of literature's most cunning antagonists.

Some of the mistakes seem to be DFW error and some others are non-plot-related pseudo-narrator error akin to the pseudo-narrator grammar errors. Some appear to be deliberate physical surrealism. If I have a few hours I may list the errors here because nobody else seems to have done it, though my list will surely be incomplete.

2. The book is certainly meant to be read cyclically--there is no way to make sense of the book without starting at the beginning directly after reading the last page. This mirrors a general theme throughout the book.

3. The narration is individual-based but not first-person except for the very end and very beginning of the book, which are contiguous chronologically [also a brief chapter by Himself that is completely out of the chronology]. Hal's personal narration indicated to me upon first read that the events of the book all eventually cross with Hal--and that idea was borne out in the first chapter when it is revealed that Hal, John NR Wayne [representing the wheelchair assassins/Quebecois connection] and Don Gately [representing the Ennet Housers] dig up Himself's head together.  The story is about Hal--even the parts that aren't explicitly so.

4. IJ is clearly a work of mad genius. Don Gately may be the most beautifully rendered sack in all of literature.

I think I'd need 2-3 rereadings before I can really put things together. But let me leave you with part of pg. 482, which sums up how I feel while reading IJ:

"He has that rare spinal appreciation for beauty in the ordinary that nature seems to bestow on those who have no native words for what they see."

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


The taproot of my psyche is embedded to the mantle at fifty-ten-west-Sweetwater-Drive-Tucson-Arizona-eight-five-seven-four-five.  My sense is dominated by place--not community, belonging, security, but by the geography of my formation.

My senses are overwhelmed by this sense.

Sounds: a 7am Gila woodpecker banging on the ducts, "The Barn," "Kingstaff," "The Museum," violent monsoons, amorous Harris' hawks, The Wash after a microburst, the strange acoustic properties of brutal heat, "Arroyo Lane," The Katiebonniepeter Saguaros exploding and plastering our outside walls with green spiky goo, coyote packs yapping in the yard, C-130, A-10, F-16, cicadas, "one-four-oh-oh-oh-off," the ringing of the old cowbell heralding dinnertime, "good morning to you, good morning to you, it's time to get up now, it's time to go poo," an impossible cacophony of mysterious noises throughout the night, Past Masters II through headphones over the roar of the Electrolux Pig every Saturday morning in The L, Tyrone interfacing with the ancient Soviet-personnel-carrier-ish microwave, KUAT 90.5 FM in the morning in The Addition, "I'm just going to show Bonnie that she didn't throw this rag away," and--most of all--the seasonal serenades of white-winged and mourning doves and Gambel's quail: kuh kuh kuh kuuuuu-uh u-uh kuuuu-uh u-uh kuuuu-uh uh... kuh kuh-kuh kuuuuuuuuuh; oooooaaah poo poo poo; huh hwaaa ha huh hwaaa ha huh hwaaa ha, respectively.

Tastes: bitter pulp of unripe pomegranates, grotesquely sweet ocotillo blossoms after summer rains, chlorinated overripe apricots, the local oral anesthesia of raw jojoba, prickly-pear jelly, Fry's bagels--by the crate--with copious butter and cream cheese and dipped in orange juice, feral New Zealand spinach, a half vanilla/half flour swirl cake, homemade bagels with dry milk for flour, Dongy's fried eggs with La Victoria chile verde salsa on Roman Meal, eggplant and swiss chard.

Smells: monsooned creosote, burnt dust signaling the end of the heater's annual 11-month siesta, a necklace of dessicating chiles, "flower"ing palos verdes, heat so oppressive it reeks, goat manure, the complex and powerful smell of paraffin and stale placemats pouring from the buffet, freshly-broken ground, the well-ripened trailer interior after 10 months of disuse, The Barn with goats, The Barn with chickens, The Barn with packrats, Pixie, anything cooking on the cast iron, a daddy javelina, the desert's anxious chemical anticipation of an approaching storm cell, Cabby's wet-mixed-with-dry dogfood in the aluminum bread pan.
Sights: literally hair-raising lightning, a bobcat under my window on a lazy Saturday morning, acres of frosty cacti glowing backlit in sunrise-light, the omnipresent raptor, gopher snake with the blip-blip-blip of digesting packrats, javelinas in the carport; Gila monster under the car, Granddaddy's shells lined up under Smithsonian cutouts of leopards and orcas, the bushy overwatered elephant acacia near The Tramp, surreptitious TGIF with Katie every datenight, rattlesnake on floor at the foot of the bed during construction, diaper art, Bonnie curled up in a midden with a decovered and well-bathed Gone With the Wind, Van building a wall from desert rocks, a single vulture feather helicoptering down, Dongy stepping on--and breaking--the greatest dragon of all, a dozen tan cottonballs leaking horizontally behind quail parents, ubiquitous funnels of black widow spider nests, "Monsoons to Wash in Toxic Toad," Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp framed by saguaros, Dongy jigsawing a brontosaurus in the porch outside the master bedroom, two admired brothers jumping in the living room until their heads brushed the ceiling popcorn, ubermanly Brother Hously cutting his pinkie with a circle saw while building The Addition, a new land discovered in Civilization, iridescent cicadas, burnt circles on the underside of bookcase shelves, old sliding church belt buckle found by the rabbit cages, maggoted dove carcasses on The Porch, the daily drowned kangaroo mouse in the pool, old bullet hole in a prickly-pear paddle every day on the trail back from the bus stop, the potato plug--from a potato gun war with Bonnie--stuck to a thin branch over the pool wall for years and years.

Touch"es": a scorpion's zing, daily cholla spines in feet, smushy wash sand, binary solar radiation, bristly tarantulas, barefoot basketball on scorching gravel, thousands of prickly-pear microspines embedded in flesh, a tarantula hawk-shaped forehead welt, floating at night in a dark warm pool while bats swoop in for sips, the soft wood-on-wood friction of Dongy's goat-head-holder, the tactile dwink of the racquetball dwinked off an aluminum softball bat from the diving board out deep into the desert, getting blocked over and over and over again by Chris at The Hoop, the glossy rubberiness of the fiberglass-reinforced tape wrapped around the fracture in the Louisville Slugger, the impenetrability of caliche when attacked with a digging bar, the sandy and satisfying yield of poking holes in a sweet potato before baking it, Tyrone on my chest on Saturday morning to remind me of seminary, heavily-counterbalanced fancy silverware, insubstantial squirmy Colorado river toad tadpoles, pounding nail after nail into the unfinished doorjamb between the master bedroom and the porch, helpless but efficient swimming down the flashflooded Wash, scraping candle wax off the diningroom table with a butter knife, the heft of the squat square-tipped goat manure shovel, unique textures in a shovelful of packrat nest, peeing in the breeze, the crunchy lace of Mongy's nori and the satisfying monaxial rollability of the sushi roller, tapping each support beam in The L--only after working up from the metal bracket on the side of the fridge and the two inter-hall arches, wedging above the floor in doorways with hands and toes, the velvet-on-wood report from closing a drawer on The Buffet.

A cataract of memories pours from every remembered sensation.  My roots grow to absorb every memory.  I will never be uprooted from fifty-ten-west-Sweetwater-Drive-Tucson-Arizona-eight-five-seven-four-five but I can never go back.  Even if I could go back, it would just be 5010 W. Sweetwater Dr., Tucson, AZ 85745, without the infinite magic.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Montebello 2009

My superlative wife let me go on my second annual Monte Bello 24-hour solo backpacking trip this weekend. October is just about the worst month for wildlife here, but that was only part of my reason for going. Here are a few pictures culled from the 300 or so I took yesterday.

One of my main goals was to find snakes. Most of my hiking plans revolved around poking around the karst outcroppings up near Black Mountain to find snakes. I found none there. I did however see a Pacific gopher snake directly on the trail right at the parking lot before I had even taken a single step:

In the undergrowth around Stevens creek I found a western skink [no newts because of the season]:

1000 feet higher, at Black Mountain, I spent a lot of time taking pictures of flowers and searching for snakes. I didn't find a snake but I did find a completely intact 5-foot gopher snake skin. The scales seemed like little lenses to me, so I shot the setting sun through the skin:

This is my favorite of the bunch. The shadows from the wide ventral [belly] scales are visible as well as the in-focus dorsal scales:

For 45 minutes or so I sat alone on Black Mountain and watched the sun set, while a doe stood still on a hill several hundred feet away and... watched the sunset too, is all I can figger.

I spent a foolish portion of last night rigging up creative ways to catch opossums in my lens, to no avail. They were everywhere and impossible to nail down.

It was great! I hope next year I can go in a better season...

Monday, March 16, 2009

Shorter version

Each person is a dot in a box. People that are really, fundamentally similar are close together and people that are different are far away. Similarities are measured in dozens of different ways. What pattern do the dots make?

[this is a 3-dimensional projection of the n-cube, if you care]

The Ultimate Social Science Experiment

I couldn't sleep last night. All I was thinking about was:

The ultimate social science experiment [short of raising people from birth in 100% controlled environments]. Here's how it would go:

1. Find a set of N social variables that are, to the best degree possible, completely orthogonal, and span the set of all social properties [!].

2. Design a test--like a very carefully conducted interview--to measure position along the variable axes for a very large number of randomly selected people. Each person would need to answer, say, 10 weighted questions to resolve their position along a single axis.

3. Instruct a computer to create an N-dimensional cube [hypercube, n-cube, whatever] containing all the data. Each person would be represented by a single point within the volume of the cube.

4. Calculate the effective entropy of the configuration, and other interesting things

Question: what would it "look" like?

To simplify things, imagine a 3-dimensional cube [the normal kind]. Along one edge might be the variable "pacifism," measured between -1 [hawk] and +1 [dove]. Another edge would measure, say, "deference to authority" and another possibly "analyticity." If you scored (1,1,-1) then your position would be at one of the bottom corners of the cube, and indication that you are extreme in views. If lots of people end up there--if there is a clustering somewhere--then we can conclude that the variables either have [a] correlation in substance or [b] correlation in occurance. Since the axes are chose to avoid--as much as is possible--correlations in substance, grouping means correlation in occurance. Meaning, there's a "type" of person begging to be labelled there, typified by location near a particular corner of the box. Occurance correlations could be very profound, though there's no way of identifying cause [ie. nature or nurture] without plotting gene occurances along yet more axes [and that's still partially ambiguous]!

Expanded to N-dimensions, we can do all kids of neat statistical tricks to tease out interesting information. How about a polarization test on all axes combined? As in, are people generally one way or the other, or do they generally fall along a flat continuum? Correlation tests, looking for structure: filaments in N-space would indicate that some variables have give-and-take relationships with others. Projection on axis pairs will unobfuscate correlations that might be hidden by completely uncorrelated variables. Entropy is a good measure of how "organized" the resulting distribution is: do people really fall into categories?

The great thing about cubes is that every axis connects to each vertex. A 3-dimensional cube has 12 edges and 8 vertices, but each vertex touches one edge in the x direction, one in the y direction, and one in the z direction. So all the correlation information in the whole system is contained in an n-cube.

The overall key to this exercise is asking the right questions. Take the "pacifism" axis, for example. Questions like "suppose a terrorist struck a major US city, would you support retailiation" tap into conscious political biases. Stripping away contextual biases in the questions, to get at how people really ARE would be incredibly difficult but essential.

So I ask again: what do you see? Do you see a cloud of dots in the middle, with outliers near the edges? A hole in the middle? A gas [uniform density]? Structure? What about dynamics: do dots clump over time, disperse, oscillate, rotate, collapse, expand?