Death Valley: the Day & the Drive

As mentioned in the last post, my wife, youngest son and I drove down to Death Valley to check out the super bloom in progress. On the way back, we took CA 178 through the southern tip of the Sierra past Lake Isabella and down the Kern River canyon into Bakersfield.

It was cool.

First, the super bloom. Old timers say this year’s is not as good as the super blooms of ’05 and ’98 – whatever. Millions of wildflowers from dozens species covered many square miles of desert. The only real issues from the casual viewer’s perspective: since the bloom starts in the south and at lower elevations and moves north and higher over time, to get the full experience one would have to spend a week or two in the valley. Also, unless you’ve seen the moonscape that much of the valley is the rest of the time, you might not be too impressed by a bunch of flowers rather more thinly distributed than what one might see in spring in a typical temperate mountain meadow.

cars & flowers 081
This shows the moonscape – you see that one scrub bush center left, but otherwise, for miles, no plants besides these waist-high daisy-ish Desert Sunflowers. But, as you’ll see, down on the ground are vast numbers of tiny flowers.

Up close (click to enlarge):

In another place: Here are pictures from a field of mostly sweet-smelling purple flowers that might be Purplestem Phacelia?

But since we’d been to the valley less than 2 years ago in August, when the temperatures top 120 F and the only plants to be seen in the bulk of the landscape are rather desperate, dingy and widely-spaces desert scrub, seeing those flowers was appropriately striking. As you can see in some of the picture above, a lot of the landscape is bare rock and gravel and looks not too different than the pictures sent back by the Mars rovers.

Once we got out of the car and looked down:

(Amateur hour at the botanist’s: Clockwise from the top, I think that’s a Notch-leaf Phacelia crenulata yet to bloom; the next 3 (with the penny) I have no idea, except that’s a tiny cactus to the left in the middle one; the only one I’m pretty sure of is the Desert fivespot in the lower right corner; the last grey-green thing with the yellow flower no idea.)

The bloom takes place in stages, with different flowers blooming at different times in different places. Some of those tiny plants will get big and bloom, conditions permitting. Some looked so perfect and complete even though tiny that I don’t know – maybe that’s a big as they get. You’d need to stay for a week or two to find out first hand.

cars & flowers 084
Think this is a Desert Chicory


The trip back along CA 178 was surprisingly spectacular. The first half climbs into the mountains through Joshua Tree and pine forests – usually one or the other, they don’t mingle much. Lake Isabella is about half way. The reservoir was very low after 4 years of low rainfall.

All that was pretty, but the windy mountain road following the Kern River into Bakersfield was amazing. This being the Sierra, the mountains on either side are granite, with the steep canyon slopes consisting of huge exposed rock interspersed with patches of grass, brush and occasional trees. The rains had turned the mountainsides brilliantly green. It looked for all the world like the Scottish highlands, only the mountains here top 5,000 feet or more, which I think is much higher than those in Scotland. You half expected Hobbits and Dwarves to trundle by on some high hidden trail.

Barring more rain, in a few weeks those canyon sides will return to brown. Like the super bloom, part of its glory is its quick passing.

Heading to Death Valley

In a few hours, my wife, youngest son, and I will head out to Death Valley. It is an 8 hour drive from here, we’ll do 5 tonight, get there in the morning, then drive 8 hours home on Saturday. Should be fun.

This year, there has been abundant rain in that area, by the standards of one of the driest places on the planet. We’re hoping to catch a super bloom of wildflowers, one of the greatest shows on earth – square miles of the desert floor and hills covered in wildflowers.

These super blooms only happen every decade or two, and only last a few weeks, so we better hurry. Also, the climate changes quite often there. A giant inland lake would be nice, if we miss the wildflowers. From the oracle Wikipedia:

Geologic Timeline

In 1999, geologists drilled a 186-meter deep core into the Death Valley floor near Badwater Basin. The core has shed light on the contemporary understanding of Lake Manly’s age and clearly divided Lake Manly’s history into six distinct time periods. The six time periods all clearly corresponded to the climate in Death Valley, which was the driving force behind Lake Manly’s formation and disappearance.

  1. 192 to 186 ka—The climate was dry and the ground was dominated by saltpans or shallow ephemeral lakes.

  2. 186 to 120 ka—The climate was relatively cold with abundant inflow, the first primary manifestation of Lake Manly and the time during which it reached its maximum.

  3. 120 to 60 ka—The climate was a dry period when mudflats stretched across the valley bottom.

  4. 60 to 35 ka—The climate was cool, but relatively arid and without enough inflow to sustain anything but very shallow saline lakes.

  5. 35 to 10 ka—The climate was cold and wet, allowing for consistent inflow that fed a perennial saline lake, the second primary manifestation of Lake Manly.

  6. 10 ka to the present—The climate is dry and warm, so the minor inflow quickly evaporates, forming mudflats and salt flats.

Follow that? For the last 10,000 years, Death Valley has been, well, Death Valley; for 25,000 years before that, it and the whole Mojave Desert housed a family of lakes; for the 25,000 years before that, there were shallow saline lakes; for 60,000 years before that, mudflats; for 66,000 years before that, lots of lakes again; for 6,000 years before that, saltpans and shallow lakes.

Mojave Desert, one of those times when it wasn’t. A desert, I mean. 

And before that was something else. So, climate change is real! It has been extensively documented in Death Valley. 7 different climates there in less than 200,000 years!

No sane, scientifically literate person would deny climate change – none do, that I know of. In fact, any acquaintance with the geologic history of California – or any place else on the planet, for that matter – should convince one that climate changes is, in geological time-frames, has been constant over the last 4 million years, at least.

The sane and prudent thing to assume is that the climate we have now will change. We should hope and pray that it gets warmer, since colder probably means return of the ice sheets – which would be bad. Maybe, since we’re hell-bent on controlling the climate (too much Star Trek during our formative years, I guess) we should shoot for the locking in a climate like during the Eocene, with seems to have had temperatures of around 86 F worldwide for around 22 million years. Beats multiple climate swings every couple hundred thousand years, I suppose. It might be a little sweaty, but not too bad, and more or less stable over a much longer timeframe than our current climate.

What would be unscientific to the point of being a little crazy is imagining that we could chose *this* climate, this passing phase between glaciers, which are themselves passing phases within the larger geological climate, and decide that we’re going to stamp our feet and keep it just the way it is. Delusional. Good news is it’s most likely to stay pretty much the way it is for at least a couple thousand years, and we probably can’t change it much anyway even if we wanted to.

Education Round Up: A Great Confluence

Still working through the Education History Reading List (for which I’ll throw up a bibliography as a page here soon. I hope). Stalling out on the Great Confluence – hey, catchy, that! – when, during the last decade of the 19th century and the first 3 decades of the 20th, the attitudes of American Catholic leaders toward state schools changed. Initially, the great founding bishops, themselves often immigrants, opposed as a matter of principle the goals and methods of the nascent compulsory state school systems. They (pounding on the pulpit, one imagines) were asserting the Church’s ancient teaching that parents had the duty and right to educate their own children, in cooperation with the Church, and that the state’s proper role was to support – or at least not thwart – the efforts of parents and Church. The parochial schools were established to this end. Even if, somehow, the state-controlled schools had not been anti-Catholic, the principle of the thing remained: the state was overstepping its proper bounds when appointing itself schoolmaster to its citizens.

Two rivers meet, yet stay separate – for a while. 

Yet, from the beginning, the state’s taxing authority was used as a lever to separate the faithful from their shepherds. To poor immigrant family, trying to survive and fit in, the schools became a carrot and a stick: you could put your kids in school – for free, or at least, the cost was paid by taxes you were going to pay anyway – or get them a factory job, (1) or have them subjected to truancy laws, where they could be arrested for hanging out and you, as a parent, would be conclusively presumed to be not competent to be parents for the crime of not putting your kids in the schools (and for being Catholic – a far more grievous crime in the eyes of established Americans). Your kids could be taken away. Sometimes, there were Catholic schools available, but often not. And you had to pay, at least sometimes, for these Catholic schools.

So, from the beginning, some sort of accommodation or compromise had to be worked out. Among the bishops were some who put building parish schools near the top of the list, right under building the parishes themselves, and wanted the threat of excommunication to use against those who were able to send their kids to a parish school but did not.(2) But even among the less zealous, the idea that the public schools were an evil to be mitigated, and that state involvement in education was, at best, a slippery slope even in theory (and a horror in practice!) was the dominant position. Yet, for millions of immigrants, a parish school was not an option.

Starting around 1887, at the time of the founding of the Catholic University of America, another strain became more prominent: those who wanted to incorporate progressive ideas of education as seen in the public schools into parish schools. This did not go over well with the old guard, who saw it as a betrayal and surrender to the enemy. But slowly, over the course of about 40 years, this idea that Catholic schools should mirror public schools in pretty much every way, except be better at it and include religion classes, became the accepted orthodoxy. Thus, we see studies about ‘outcomes’ for Catholic versus public school children, which would have made those crusty 19th century bishops blow a gasket – the outcome they were interested in was faithful Catholic kids! That part has been downplayed to the point where, in my personal experience, anecdotally confirmed from all over, the typical catholic school kid is indistinguishable in behavior and attitudes from any conventionally schooled kid from a comparable social and economic background. (3)

If the Catholic schools are just good private schools with religions tacked on, why would a parent make the huge financial sacrifice to send their kids to one? Why not just send them to the public schools, and then send them to the local parish’s Sunday School-equivalent? You’d do it if you have some money for school, and the parish school is the best bang for the buck considered as a private school. Thus, our local Catholic high schools cost about $17,000 a year – and explicitly cater to parents who want college prep. Catholicism is mostly downplayed, except to assure prospective customers that it’s not required. One suspects that, if an equally affordable and prestigious private school were available in the neighborhood, some significant percentage of parents would at least strongly consider it. Why not? And the universities are far, far worse.

So I’m investigating how we got to this point. But it’s all confusing, and the unexpressed biases of the authors I’m reading make it even harder. So, it on to the source materials – and that’s a lot of work, so I’m kind of stuck, or at least, moving really slowly.

  1. In the middle of the 19th century, it was more often than not OK, in the eyes of the law, to stick you 10 year old in a factory, but not to let him simply hang out while Mom and Dad worked. If your kids weren’t working, they had to be in school.
  2. I imagine this threat of excommunication was intended to be used against vocal proponents of Catholic parents sending their kids to public schools, to, if not shut them up, at least make it clear they were not speaking with the Church. But I don’t know.
  3. We’re talking here about attitudes toward sex, money, and religious obligations (spiritual, not religious, therapeutic deists). They dress the same: the girls like pop stars – meaning, as prostitutes – the guys in name-brand clothing by companies touting sex.  Same with money – if you’ve got it, flaunt it. The pro-life ‘club’ at a local catholic high school is controversial – mustn’t impose beliefs, and all that. Talk about hell in faith formation class, get fired. These are just examples I personally know about.

The Federalist Papers

…are in the pile of things I read poorly as a student and keep meaning to reread now that I’ve got a few decades of experience to bring to the effort. Plus, I have reread Herodotus, Thucydides and Tacitus recently (like in the last couple years), so I’ve gotten some of what was on the minds of the authors more freshly in my mind. And there’s that Orestes Brownson book I still need to finish my review of, which addresses many of the same issues but from the perspective of someone writing at the end of the Civil War, which had settled at gunpoint and with buckets of blood a few issues left unresolved or not fully expressed in the Constitution itself, for better or for worse.

All that said, reading time is limited. John C. Wright helped inspire at least a partial reread by posting on Federalist 10, with a link to an online copy. So I’ve now reread one of the essays/editorials.

John Taylor Gatto once remarked that a typical modern college graduate has trouble with comprehension of well-written English from popular publications written a mere 200 years ago. Note that the Federalist Papers were published in the newspaper – they were intended to convince the People of New York that they ought to support the new Constitution. Read this, for example:

As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves.

Nice and to the point. To follow the thought herein, all you have to do is keep two sentences with several clauses in mind so that, by the time you get to the last phrase you know to what the former and the latter refer and what it means for a thing to be an object to which something may be attached. This is no big deal if one has read a good bit of the classics, or Aristotle, or, indeed much fiction written before, say, 1900 (or John C. Wright, Mike Flynn or Gene Wolfe, all of whom will give your brain a good work out). But what if you haven’t? What college students have? Not many. But your average New York newspaper reader from 1788 was good with it.

As to the argument: Madison, Jay and Hamilton here argue that a big Republic governed by representative democracy is the best safeguard against factions – that would be political parties, for example. The idea that a complex (and inefficient! Never forget that our government is inefficient by design, and we wouldn’t want it any other way!) representative government in which a variety of interests are represented in a variety of ways is best able to defeat the worst of partisan passion. Thus, the people elect the House, the states appoint the Senate, the Electoral College selects the President and Vice President, the President proposes key government personnel (e.g., judges), but the Senate must approve them – this is a recipe for a hot stinking mess that has a hard time doing much of anything….

And *that’s the point!* You want efficiency? Install a tyrant. The people complaining about all that obstructionist behavior by Congress are exactly and precisely the people Congress was instituted to frustrate. One tragedy of modern times, one only occasionally remarked on by pundits, is the tragedy of Congress not fighting for its constitutional rights in the face of presidential overreach. Doesn’t much matter if you agree with the President’s goals or not – if you love the Republic (and you should!) then you should hate the mewling cowardice of Congress. I’m guessing all that secret data collection over the last few years includes a lot of stuff key members of congress would rather not have public. Otherwise, it’s hard to explain how Congress, which in time past was known to make a president stand down once in awhile, has become so pliant. Your guess is at least as good as mine.

Now I’ll have to go reread the rest of the Federalist Papers.

This Election Cycle…

…I must remember that:

  1. Government is a positive good, according to Aristotle, Ss. Peter and Paul, Thomas and the Church – I’m not going to argue with that crowd!
  2. I’m still more free than 99.999% of people have ever been in all of history, and that figures to hold for the next election cycle or two, most likely;
  3. Many people have lead perfectly good lives under perfectly awful governments;
  4. Only one or two of the candidates are as bad as Mussolini. The others are, well, better than Mussolini. I think.

That said, Steven Wright once joked:

For my birthday, I got a humidifier and a dehumidifier… put ’em in the same room. Let ’em fight it out.

For my birthday, coming up in a couple weeks, I think I’d like to put Sara Hoyt, who has seen this movie before,  and John C. Wright, who endorses the Devil,  in a room, and have them fight it out over Trump. Because – yowsa!

I, for the sake of maintaining whatever shreds of sanity I still possess, am paying minimum attention until things are sorted out a little more. God save us from interesting times!

A Business Story: The Custom Die Maker

Continuing along the theme of showing what happens in business versus what people imagine happens in business, another story from my youth:

In the small job sheet metal fabrication business, (1) one often uses dies. Dies are special tools often custom built to punch a hole of a particular size and shape, or form a particular indentation, or both. Dies are used with punch presses or break presses – the piece to be worked is placed in the slot in the die, the press presses down on the top of the die with sufficient force to cause the hole(s) to get punched and the shapes formed.

Sheet Metal Component Dies
A typical sheet metal punch die. This is a small specialty die used to cut a particular notch or slot

If you are going to make more than a few copies of some piece that requires a non-standard (e.g., not perfectly round or square, or not a common size) hole or form, it’s usually economical to have a die custom made for the purpose.

So, after the manner of the free market, people set up specialty die making companies. Now, auto manufacturers or, indeed, any manufacturers that make millions of things out of formed metal either have their own die making teams within their companies, or order from large die making firms. But a little shop like my father’s would do business with correspondingly small die makers.

For the life of me (hey, it’s been 40 years!) I can’t remember the name of the guy who was one of our die makers. He had a one-man shop, where he had the specialized equipment needed to machine the specialized alloys used in die making. We’d get new dies made once in a while – by the time I worked at Astro-Fab, we had built up a pretty good inventory of custom dies, many of which got used over and over again as customers ordered more of the same pieces. This die maker had made many of them.

This die maker was a good, solid craftsman. There’s no way my dad would have used him if her were not. But, it turns out, he was a pretty terrible businessman. Steve, my dad’s chief engineer, the guy who would spec out any new dies and the guy who would estimate work, ordered new dies as needed.

Steve took to doing estimates for our die maker. In other words, when he ordered a die, he would make a educated guess about how much it would cost our die maker to make it. Then, if the die maker came in with a cost that was much too low – as he often did – Steve would instead tell him how much he needed to charge in order to make any money. Steve would offer to pay his supplier more than what the supplier was asking for.

This of course was not pure altruism: we wanted the die maker to stay in business. He served our needs, and Steve feared he would put himself out of business if he kept losing money on his bids. As a small businessman himself, Steve understood that risk all too well – it was his job with Astro-Fab to make sure that didn’t happen. My dad thoroughly approved of keeping the die maker in business.

But if wasn’t pure self interest, either. The sort of risk-taking, high-energy people who go start their own companies do, in my experience, feel a sort of camaraderie. My dad knew what it was like to start you own business and put yourself on the line every day, to experience the excitement of success and the fear of failure, often at the same time. He and Steve sincerely wanted the die maker to succeed.

In Walker Percy’s The Movie Goer, there is a scene where the protagonist, a private investment advisor/stock broker, meets another businessman on a train. They have nothing in common, really, except that they are both businessmen. But they see someone who understands them, someone facing the same challenges. They part on completely friendly terms, vowing to help each other out if the opportunity arises. And Percy’s character is sure that those feelings are true and honest, that they would help each other out.

In his weird, insightful way, Percy is both making gentle fun of his characters, and yet pointing out something profound: that even over something as trivial, in the big picture, as business, people can find a chance to be truly human.

  1. There are a fairly wide range of metal working companies, from giant steel mills down to super-specialized one-man precision shops. Astro-Fab, my dad’s shop, fell under the small job semi-precision sheet metal fabrication species. Semi-precision means we could get it real close – like, within a 1/100 of an inch – but were not, typically, getting much closer than that. For any greater precision, you’d want a machine shop or a specialized precision shop. Also, we didn’t do jobs that produced tens of thousands of items – that the ‘small job’ part. Larger shops could do those larger jobs more efficiently. Finally, we weren’t casting metal, but starting from standardized metal sheets (and beams, pipes, channels, etc.) – thus, the sheet metal fabrication part of the title.

An Interlude: Oaks

In the incessant education/culture/philosophy stream that goes on around here: some pretty plant pictures:

Oak 3
A local Valley Oak, looking up
Oak 1
Oak 2
Not a great photo, but here’s one that is probably a couple hundred years old. They can live up to 600 years or more, and get much larger than this. Characteristically, Valley Oaks are much wider than they are tall – a single large specimen can shade a good quarter acre or more.
Oak 5
Update: on my walk, saw a nice huge one alone in a field.

Valley Oaks are the largest variety(1) of oaks native to California. They grow mostly in the flatter, better watered areas, while a number of different varieties of smaller scrub oaks grow on the hillsides. Plus, people have introduced different non-native species – cork oaks grow well here, and you’ll see live oaks as well. Oaks are the characteristic trees for much of Northern California.

I find them beautiful all year long. In winter, their gnarled branches and the strength readily evident in their naked branches and trunk are nearly as lovely as the remarkable canopy they put on in summer.

I took these pictures maybe a week ago. Just yesterday, noticed the first green buds on a few oaks – spring has sprung. After a good six weeks of on and off rain, we’ve had a couple of sunny  weeks with temps in the 70s, so things have started to move. Especially for the non-native cherry trees:

Cherry 1

This is just an ornamental. Problem is, there are tons of commercial fruit trees around here, which have also most likely bloomed. It’s typical to get a few freezing nights well up into April. Hope our peaches, apricots, etc. make it through!

One last plant-related thing: spent a couple hours walking around the Ruth Bancroft Garden yesterday. Cthulhu put in an appearance:

Cthuhlu Plant
Or maybe it’s just Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean?
  1. Seems, genetically, there are several varieties of native oaks around here that cross rather easily – hard to say where to draw the species/variety lines.