Archive for February, 2013

Less than seven months have passed since our jubilation at the historic events of August 5, 2012, and yet most folks seem to have almost forgotten about them.

No, I’m not talking about the 100th anniversary of Tomales High’s opening. Yes, the school did open on August 5, 1912. And, yes, Tomales Regional History Center on August 5, 2012, (which conveniently fell on a Sunday) held a lively reception for a new exhibit on the school’s evolution. None of that will ever be forgotten.

What seems to be fading from memory are the events that occurred a few hours after the History Center’s reception had ended. NASA scientists endured what they called “seven minutes of terror” and gently landed an automobile-size robot called Curiosity Rover on the planet Mars.

Mars is a mere 154 million miles away as the crow flies. The spacecraft carrying Curiosity, however, took a circuitous route, so the trip expanded to 350 million miles and took eight months.

Back in August, Curiosity’s landing on Mars was news around the globe, but that news cycle is long gone. Nowadays, the press rarely reports on NASA’s curious robot. Nonetheless, Curiosity is still up there, and it’s doing stuff even more significant than landing gently.

Of late, the rover has been drilling holes in Martian rocks. It is now analyzing bits of ground-up rock to learn what Mars is made of.

— Photos in this posting are  from NASA/Jet Propulsion Lab-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity Rover’s self-portrait at what NASA has named the “John Klein” drilling site. The picture is a “mosaic” of dozens of exposures taken on February 3.

“The rover’s robotic arm is not visible in the mosaic,” NASA explains. The camera “which took the component images for this mosaic is mounted on a turret at the end of [the] arm.”

“The rover’s drill in action on Feb. 8, 2013, Curiosity’s 182nd Martian day of operations,” NASA says. “This was the first use of the drill for rock-sample collection. The target was a rock called ‘John Klein,’ in the Yellowknife Bay region of Gale Crater.”

Why does NASA call the rock outcropping “John Klein?” The Los Angeles Times’ answer: The drilled rock is named John Klein after a deputy principal investigator for the [Mars] mission who died in 2011.”

As for the “Gale” of crater fame, that would be Walter Frederick Gale, an amateur astronomer from Sydney, Australia, who observed Mars in the late 1800s.

Yellowknife Bay, meanwhile, takes its name from the small city of  Yellowknife on the shore of Great Slave Lake in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Last August, Curiosity chief scientist John Grotzinger of Caltech sipposedly gave this explanation for why a chunk of Martian landscape had been given the name Yellowknife Bay: “If you ask, ‘What is the port of call you leave from to go on the great missions of geological mapping to the oldest rocks in North America?’ — it’s Yellowknife.”

The “Slave” in Great Slave Lake, by the way, has nothing to do with slavery. It refers to the Slavey people, a tribe indigenous to the area who nowadays usually call themselves Dene. The “Yellowknife,” who gave their name to the area, were a local tribe of Dene. Using copper from deposits near the Arctic Coast, the tribe made knifes and various tools to trade with outsiders.

Drilling a hole in Mars. To satisfy your Curiosity, I should note the hole is 0.63 inches (1.6 centimeters) in diameter and 2.5 inches (6.4 centimeters) deep.

This, says NASA, is “where the rover conducted its first sample drilling on Mars…. Several preparatory activities with the drill preceded this operation, including a test that produced the shallower hole on the right two days earlier. The deeper hole resulted from the first use of the drill for rock-sample collection.”

A handful of dust.

Here, NASA reports, is “the first sample of powdered rock extracted by the rover’s drill. The image was taken after the sample was transferred from the drill to the rover’s scoop.

“In planned subsequent steps, the sample will be sieved, and portions of it delivered to the ‘Chemistry and Mineralogy’ instrument and the ‘Sample Analysis at Mars’ instrument.” The instruments are, of course, onboard the robot.

Mars takes its name from ancient Rome’s god of war. The planet looks red because of iron oxide on its surface, so I guess it was reasonable to name it after the god of bloodshed. Curiosity’s drilling, however, has determined that Mars’ red color is only superficial. The planet isn’t rusty below its surface.

During the 1930s, California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena established the antecedents for what would become NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Eighty years later, engineers at that lab are giving orders to a robot that’s on a planet 154 million miles away and all the while getting back scientific data. Of all the mind-boggling accomplishments of California’s current technology, operating an automobile-size, multi-talented robot as it carries out various tasks here and there around Mars would seem to top the list.

These are the eight presently accepted “planets” in our solar system, but that can always change. When I was growing up, Pluto was a ninth planet, but it got kicked out of the club in 2006 for being too small (about a third the volume of our moon). It is now dismissed as a “dwarf planet.” For the most part, Pluto’s orbit is outside Neptune’s. Its orbit, however, has been called “eccentric” because every so once in awhile Pluto gets closer to the sun than Neptune.

I gather that Curiosity’s analysis of the John Klein rock is turning up pretty much the same old minerals we have here on earth. No one, therefore, is likely to spend any money trying to strip mine the red planet. I’m sure extra-terrestrial environmentalists are pleased.

Of course, if NASA could manage to bring a bunch of martian rocks back to earth, they probably could be auctioned off for enough to finance a future mission to Mars.

Getting a robotic “rover” named Curiosity to Gale Crater took eight years of preparation and $2.5 billion. In comparison, the war in Afghanistan has been costing well over $2.5 billion every three days. This country would be in far better economic health if its rockets had been trained on outer space and not the Middle East.

Actress Meryl Streep is reported to have said, “It was the greatest night of my life.” A bit of how that night in November 2011 looked can now be seen thanks to The Atlantic Monthly. The magazine a week ago put online a 22-minute documentary, Lil’ Buck Goes to China, which was directed by Ole Schell, who grew up in Bolinas and now lives in Manhattan.

Ole’s documentary follows Lil’ Buck, a street dancer from Memphis where he had briefly been a gang member, as he travels from storm-sewer gates along the Los Angeles River to the Great Wall of China and Tiananmen Square. Ms. Streep and the world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma appear in supporting roles.

All this is extremely convoluted, so please pay close attention.

Ole Schell, the son of highly accomplished parents, has begun racking up his own accomplishments. In 2010, his full-length documentary on the exploitation of fashion models, Picture Me, debuted in theaters on both side of the Atlantic.

Ole, 38, is the son of Ilka Hartmann of Bolinas. Ilka is a native of Germany, who as a small girl during World War II barely survived the fire bombing of Hamburg. She came to the United States in 1964. Ilka has taught classes on the Holocaust and on German literature at Sonoma State University, but she is best known for her documentary photographs of the Black Panthers, the anti-War Movement, the United Farm Workers, the 1969-71 American Indian occupation of Alcatraz, and other social causes.

Ole’s father is China scholar Orville Schell of Berkeley, where he formerly was dean of the University of California’s Graduate School of Journalism. Previously a resident of Bolinas, he authored The Town that Fought to Save Itself (with photos by his then-wife Ilka) and was once a partner with rancher Bill Niman, raising cattle and hogs in a humane and environmentally sound fashion. He is currently Director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society. We’ll get back to that in a moment.

The subject of Ole’s film could not be more unlikely. Lil’ Buck performs a Memphis version of hip-hop known as jookin’. The dance style originated in the late 1980s, says Ole, but it never caught on in the rest of the country. In jookin’, the top of the dancer’s body remains stiff while the legs are fluid, moving almost like water, Ole explains.

Performing along with Lil’ Buck at the National Performing Arts Center in Beijing, Meryl Streep recites a Chinese poem in English accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma on the cello. Although of Chinese descent, Ma was born in France and moved to New York with his family when he was five. The concert was part of a Forum on Arts and Culture organized by the Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations, of which Ole’s father is director.

Lil’ Buck jookin’ beside the Los Angeles River at the beginning of the film.

In Ole’s documentary, Charles “Lil’ Buck” Riley says that some of his friends in Memphis have been incarcerated; some still are; some have been killed by police and some others in shootouts. In escaping from street life, Lil’ Buck says, he told himself, “I got this gift [as a dancer], and I gotta do something with it.” So he did and eventually studied classical ballet.

A former principal dancer with the New York Ballet, Damian Woetzel, took Lil’ Buck under his wing, and during a party in Los Angeles, Woetzel introduced him to Yo-Yo Ma. With Ma playing the cello, Lil’ Buck then danced to Saint-Saens’ The Swan. The performance was videoed, and millions later watched it on YouTube.

By coincidence, the concert in Beijing was organized by the Chinese musician Wu Tong and by Ma. The cellest — because of his experience playing with Lil’ Buck a year earlier — quickly agreed when the suggestion was made to include the street dancer in the concert, Ole said. During the concert, Lil’ Buck again dances as Ma performs The Swan and then performs an impromptu dance during Ma’s final number.

Ole films an interview with Lil’ Buck, who says of his dance style, “I get motivation and inspiration watching water and seeing how smooth it is.”

Dancing at Tiananmen Square. “I’m the only black person in a hundred-mile radius,” he says with a laugh.

Like the woman at left with her camera, many Chinese citizens were surprised and amused by Lil’ Buck’s impromptu dances. One couple is so intrigued they take turns posing for photos with him. He so delights one street vendor that she begins dancing beside him. Lil’ Buck’s public dancing encountered no problems except when he danced too close to the late Mao Zedong’s turf at Tiananmen Square and guards hustled him away, Ole told me.

Jookin’ at the Great Wall of China. On the drive there, Lil’ Buck comments to Ole, “I understand this Wall of China is an old-ass wall. I don’t know anything [about it] other than that.”

Lil’ Buck says none of his friends or relatives has ever been to the Great Wall — or Asia, for that matter. In fact, he adds, he is the first person in his family to ever leave the United States.

World politics are clearly not Lil’ Buck’s cup of tea. “What do you know about communism?” Ole asks him at one point. “Communism?” replies Lil’ Buck. “China’s a communist country,” Ole says. “So I’ve heard,” is Lil’ Buck’s only response.

You can watch Lil’ Buck Goes to China by clicking here. Or you can see the documentary, as well as an interview with Ole about making the movie, by clicking here. The film has already been shown at the Oldenburg Film Fest in Germany and the New Orleans Timecode Film Festival.

Lil’ Buck, meanwhile, has now spent six months touring the world with the singer Madonna and has appeared in magazines and on billboards as part of a Gap stores advertising campaign. The Wall Street Journal is currently preparing a story about him, and on Thursday, Feb. 21, he will be on the Colbert Report.

I wouldn’t normally visit the Point Reyes Lighthouse on a Feb. 8, but Guido wanted to go there and look for whales. Dr. Guido Hennig, a German who lives in Switzerland, had flown to San Francisco, as he does every year, to attend the “Laser Applications in Microelectronic and Optoelectronic Manufacturing” conference at Mosconi Center.

The Point Reyes Lighthouse was built in 1870 and was manned round the clock until 1975 when it was automated.

This year was the 18th annual laser-applications conference. Last year Guido chaired the whole shebang; this year he chaired part of it. Guido, who works for the Max Daetwyler Corporation, invented a technique for using lasers in “the patterning of micro cells on rolls in the printing industry.” (In the company’s words.)

Ever since we met in the Station House Café seven years ago, he always visits when he’s in town.

The view from Sir Francis Drake Boulevard looking down to Drakes Estero at Historic E Ranch, which is operated by the Nunes family.

Because Guido and I headed out to the lighthouse on a Friday and not the weekend, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard was mostly empty. The lack of traffic also meant we could drive all the way to the lighthouse parking lot and just walk the last quarter mile to the information station and overlook. On busy weekends, visitors have to park in bigger parking lots further away and take shuttlebuses to where we parked.

The Great Beach as seen while walking between the lighthouse and its parking lot.

We had no sooner gotten out of our car than we saw a ranger sticking up a sign that said the steps from the overlook down to the lighthouse were closed. “Due to high wind,” he explained.

Just how fierce the wind was quickly became obvious on our walk to the lighthouse overlook. It was so strong and cold it made the inside of my ears ache, but I’ve put up with worse and kept on walking.

A ranger returns from the Point Reyes Lighthouse after all the public has left and the stairs are closed.

Two hundred and sixty-nine stairs lead down to the lighthouse from the overlook. It’s not too bad going down, but the return is equivalent to climbing a 30-story staircase.

A ranger at the information office told me his gauge showed the wind speed at 51 mph. (That’s a strong gale on the Beaufort Scale.) The temperature was in the 40s, he said and estimated the wind-chill factor was down to freezing.

The ranger said the risk from high wind for someone on the staircase is that it can cause a person to trip and fall down the stairs. If the person were injured, a rescue wouldn’t be quick, he added, since it couldn’t be done by helicopter in a high wind. It would require getting the victim all the way to the top of the stairs and an ambulance all the way out to the Point.

Sea spray.

Incidental to the high wind were whitecaps that hid any whales that Guido might see. Nor were there many to be seen. Just an occasional juvenile, a ranger said.

California gray whales winter in the shallow lagoons of Baja California where their calves are born. The southbound migration peaks here in mid-January. They migrate back to their feeding grounds in the waters of Alaska for the summer, with the northbound migration peaking here in mid-March.

When Guido and I returned to my car, I was amazed to see a raven briefly hovering in one place despite the strong gale. Ravens really are as agile in the air as they’re reputed to be.

Elephant seal colony at Drakes Bay.

With Guido unable to see any whales, a docent at the lighthouse overlook suggested we instead take a look at the elephant seal colony at nearby Chimney Rock. We did, and from an overlook there we could see pups, mothers, and bulls sunning themselves beside Drakes Bay.

Elephant seals spend 80 percent of their lives in the open ocean with 90 percent of that being spent underwater “eating, sleeping, digesting, and traveling,” according to the Park Service.

Elephant seals are big and heavy — a bull Northern elephant seal can get up to 16 feet long and weight 5,400 pounds — but it’s the bull’s elephantine proboscis that give them their name.

Point St. Joseph commercial fishing-boat dock as seen from the path between the Chimney Rock parking lot and the elephant seal overlook.

A short turnoff along the road to Chimney Rock took us to yet another overlook, this one for viewing a sea-lion colony.

The “colony,” however, turned out to include a few elephant seals (such as the bull at upper right) basking in the sun with their sea lion cousins.

Elephant seals were hunted almost to extinction during the 1800s, and there were none at Point Reyes for 150 years. In the early 1970s, they began showing up again, with the first breeding pair being found in 1981.

Since then the colony has grown rapidly, and today “the Point Reyes elephant seal population is between 1,500 and 2,000,” the Park Service says. This growth has, in turn, caused some elephant seals to fan out to other beaches in the area, the Park Service adds. Perhaps that explains why some of them now hang out on the sea lions’ beach.

South Beach.

On our way home, Guido wanted to stop at South Beach to shoot a few last photos, so we did. What the wind did to surf was impressive, but what it did on the beach was less so. The blowing sand was almost blinding, and the wind-chill factor felt even colder than at the lighthouse.

I finally retreated to my car and watched the scene through the windshield. Guido, however, decided to spend some time on the beach. He could handle the wind and sand, he said, because he was used to blizzards in Switzerland. It was a telling comparison. A windy, wintry day on Point Reyes is about as punishing as a blizzard in Switzerland. After Guido returned to the car, we drove straight back to Mitchell cabin, managing to get there before Lynn sent out a St. Bernard with a brandy barrel.

Watching wild animals is a lot like watching people. We form judgements about their dispositions based on their movements.

The lone peacock that showed up back in November is still around, as can be seen in this photo shot from the deck of Mitchell cabin on Jan. 29. The type of peacock we have in California originated in India. It was introduced onto the US mainland in this state back in 1879.

Three months after I first noticed, I still see the lone peacock finding companionship in a flock of wild turkeys, which seems fine with them.

The bobcat I mentioned a week ago is also still hanging around Mitchell cabin. Leaning out my kitchen window, I shot this photo of it hunting rodents on Wednesday, Jan. 30.

However, I wasn’t the only one watching the bobcat. Lynn pointed out to me that the blacktail buck at left was also interested in it.

Before long the bobcat disappeared into a patch of coyote brush. The buck cautiously approached the clump of brush and sniffed around but didn’t seem particularly concerned. The bobcat didn’t stir. Apparently it wasn’t about to attack a standing buck.

Before long other deer began arriving, and right behind them were some more wild turkeys. The horse at the right then showed up to watch what might be happening.

I too started wondering what would happen when the turkeys began pecking around the edge of same patch of coyote brush the bobcat was in. Bobcats will eat wild turkeys, but this one continued to lie low.

The deer meanwhile crawled through a barbed-wire fence to join horses grazing in the field beside Mitchell cabin. For one sunny afternoon, there was peace in the world of peacock, wild turkey, bobcat, deer, horse, and human. Like the young doe seen here watching me, everyone watched someone else, but no one bothered anyone.