Spring

I’m not ready for this. I still expect it to be winter. In fact, we will still—as you can see above—have freezing temperatures in our future. But spring has sprung and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

My left elbow has been barking at me for weeks now and I suspect it is tendinitis. The dreaded “tennis elbow” can strike anyone, even those of us who don’t play racket sports. It’s robbed me of my desire to ski and thus my raison d’être for loving the winter months. Routine tasks like picking up a glass of water with my left hand are currently a challenge. And not much can be done for lateral epicondylitis except resting and waiting.

But spring has sprung and that means weed pulling, weed whacking, pruning, prepping, composting, irrigating and all the other landscape and garden tasks that emerge with the warmer weather and longer days. I’ll need both arms for those things and thus I’m avoiding strenuous athletic endeavors like alpine skiing.

When we go for our daily walks around the neighborhood, which we do rain or shine, we often encounter our neighbors. They almost always want to comment on the weather, especially when the days are warm and sunny.

“Lovely weather we are having, isn’t it?”

“Don’t you just love these gorgeous days?”

“Oh, I’m so happy the sun is shining!”

I bite my tongue and smile and nod. I want to scream “NOOOOOOOO!” I want to shout “I WANT SNOW AND STORMS AND COLD AND WET AND RAIN!!!”

No one wants to hear that. Everyone expects you to happily agree with them that sunshine and blue skies are what we all want and what we all enjoy.

Don’t get me wrong. I like nice days, too. But we have to have winter. We have to have snow and rain and all that because the dry season is coming and we won’t get any more snow and rain for six months. And we all know that California is drought-prone and vulnerable to severe wildfires. So I don’t want it to stop raining and snowing until all our reservoirs are full to the brim and all our snow stations are reporting record levels.

Here’s the state of our major reservoirs:

That’s just a snip. As you can see I clipped off the Southern California portion, but I think the rest speaks for itself. Right now we are a little short of where we ought to be.

Here’s a look at the snowpack:

Once again you can see that we are a little short of where we’d all like to be. The bottom line is that WE NEED MORE RAIN AND SNOW! (These charts are from the California Department of Water Resources.)

Here’s some disturbing news from the DWR director:

“We are now facing the reality that it will be a second dry year for California and that is having a significant impact on our water supply,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth. “The Department of Water Resources is working with our federal and state partners to plan for the impacts of limited water supplies this summer for agriculture as well as urban and rural water users. We encourage everyone to look for ways to use water efficiently in their everyday lives.”

https://water.ca.gov/News/News-Releases/2021/March-21/SWP-Allocation-Update-March-23

I think we all knew the drought conditions we experienced last year were continuing through this year. Despite the many storms we’ve experienced this winter the accumulation did not occur. We’ve had several stretches of warm, sunny weather in between the storms and that melted the snowpack and increased evaporation from surface water sources.

I note that today is Passover and tomorrow is Palm Sunday. Next Sunday is Easter. People are celebrating the arrival of spring. One of my neighbors already has her house decked out with balloons and Easter eggs. I don’t want to be that grumpy old man who complains, but goddamnit, I don’t want to hear any more about “nice” days ahead! I want more snow and rain and “foul” weather.

But I probably won’t get it. So I think we should all prepare ourselves for another long, hot dry season.

Happy spring!

Hype and Hope

Mars has been in the news lately because of NASA’s stunning success with Perseverance but it seems like we might be missing the point of the entire enterprise. For example, why go to Mars at all? There are plenty of Earth-bound problems to solve, so why spend the enormous intellectual and economic capital required to explore space?

In 1969, when Eagle landed on the moon, the technological achievement played second fiddle to the political triumph. This was the Cold War after all, and beating the Soviets at something was the first priority. No one who watched the Olympics in those days, for example, could avoid the commies-vs.-capitalists or Free World-vs.-Iron Curtain vibe in every event.

Landing on the moon turned out to be a sensational international coup for Americans as the entire world tuned in to Armstrong’s first steps. People actually felt a sense of universal brotherhood in that moment. It was as if anything was possible, and that humanity, because of technology, had a brighter future. What people forget about that time is how quickly everyone forgot about the moon landings! By the time of Apollo XVII (the sixth and final successful moon mission) in 1972 only a fraction of the original audience was tuning in. NASA, unfortunately, made the missions seem routine. They were anything but routine, but the viewing public was bored and moved on to other things. Not to mention that Congress was getting increasingly leery of NASA’s growing budget and was eager to trim the fat from the program.

It turns out the men walking on the moon, as amazing as that was, looks in hindsight more like a stunt than anything. Neil Armstrong was my childhood hero and I don’t mean to diminish his courage and skill nor the tremendous effort thousands of people made to make his journey possible. But all that drama up there in space was more about human sentiment and social aspirations than it was about science and engineering. After all it wasn’t until the final moon flight that NASA decided to add a geologist to the crew! The science, and its applications to human needs, was secondary to the dream, to the yearnings of the people. We are a culture that venerates explorers, and spaceflight takes us to that elusive “final frontier” that the TV-show Star Trek articulated so memorably.

Even after all the challenges of the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station, and the continuous reminding that it is very difficult for humans to live and work in space, NASA still says stuff like this:

[Mars] could someday be a destination for survival of humankind.

Uh, no. If by “someday” they mean many decades in the future, then maybe. But anytime soon? Don’t be silly.

Mars is not, by any reasonable definition, habitable. Humans cannot live there. It is too far from the Sun and so it isn’t warm enough. In fact it gets really cold there. The atmosphere is too thin for a greenhouse effect, so Mars does not trap heat and there are very large temperature swings. The atmosphere is mostly carbon dioxide, so you’d have to wear breathing apparatus, and the atmospheric pressure is minuscule, so you’d have to wear a pressure suit. That would be offset a bit by the much lower gravity, but that has its own deleterious effect on the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems. There are regular, planet-wide dust storms. There is no magnetosphere so you’d be constantly bombarded by cosmic rays and any human habitation would require so much shielding that you’d have to live underground. There’s not much in the way of soil, and what soil is there is toxic. Water is scarcer there than any of the most arid places on our home planet.

Now I’m all for interplanetary dreaming. I love science fiction. And I also think that the stuff we will learn about ourselves and our terrestrial abode will more than pay for the costs of these space journeys. I’m all for going into space. But I think putting humans on Mars is mostly a bad idea. We can do so much really good work with robots and remote probes and rovers and such. We, the two-legged we, don’t have to be there. The logistical challenges of sending humans to Mars would only work if they were one-way trips. Perhaps in the 22nd century or something we’ll be able to terra-form the planet and make a viable colony, but I’m not holding my breath. We are stuck here on the third rock for the foreseeable future.

Then there’s this guy:

Mars is one of Earth’s closest habitable neighbors.

Elon Musk is a hell of a salesman. And he’s obviously a great businessman—he has the billions to prove it. But he doesn’t know shit about space. We don’t have any “habitable neighbors!” And 140 million miles away is not exactly close. For comparison, the moon is about a quarter of a million miles away and that trip took the world’s biggest-ever rocket.

Studying Mars will enlarge our understanding of our own origins, and of our home the Earth and its many systems. The scientific and engineering achievements will lead to many advances for our civilization. But we aren’t leaving home just yet.

It’s a small world, after all

Humans like to think big. Skyscrapers, bridges, interstate highways, that sort of thing. Lake Powell has about 1900 miles of shoreline. The Bingham Canyon open-pit copper mine is 2-1/2 miles wide and covers almost 2000 acres. The Great Wall of China stretches for 13,000 miles.

But the world is small, really. The coronavirus responsible for COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, is big for a virus but still really small. A typical virion is about 100 nanometers across. Nano– means 10-9 so that’s 0.0000001 meters in length. You’d need 10 million of them laid end-to-end to get a meter’s worth. One virion has a mass of about one femtogram. The prefix femto– means 10-15 or 0.000000000000001 grams. It would take a quadrillion coronaviruses to get a gram!

Micro-organisms rule your world. You harbor a bacterial colony in your gut. Without them you can’t digest food, so you’d die. Plants need nitrogen to live. They have bacteria on their roots that extract nitrogen from the air and convert it to a usable form. Without those helpers living there, the plants would die.

Microbes are the oldest and most diverse of all life forms. When microbes started to photosynthesize and produce oxygen the planet eventually became inhabitable for species like us. Microbes are found in every possible habitat. No ecological process is possible without them.

Now a virus is not like a bacteria or other microbe. It doesn’t really meet the textbook definition of “alive” although it certainly acts like a living thing once it gets the chance. A bacterium is huge by comparison, about 10 times bigger or 1000 nanometers across. But on a human scale that is still tiny.

I got to thinking about very small things because I got my first dose of the Moderna vaccine. The dose is 100 micrograms (10-6) or 0.000001 grams. With two shots you get 200 micrograms of the mRNA vaccine.

A COVID infection is estimated to be between 109 and 1011 virions per person. That’s a mass of between 1 to 100 micrograms. So, if you want to fight a war on a very small front you need very small soldiers but you still want to have more than the other guy!

The number of coronavirus cases in the world is about 115 million. That means all the SARS-CoV-2 in the world has, roughly, a mass* of no more than a dozen kilograms. That’s it. Somewhere around 25 pounds!

We humans spend our days in the macro-world. We drive cars and watch TV and play golf and all of those things we can see and touch and feel. But the REAL world is the micro-world, and especially the nano-, pico-, and femto-worlds. An atom is on the order of 100 picometers (pico- is 10-12) in size, and in the end, all we are is collections of atoms.

So, like I said, it’s a small world, after all.

*1 microgram times 115 million (1 E-6)(115 E6) is 115 grams (0.115 kg) and 100 micrograms times 115 million (100 E-6)(115 E6) is 11,500 grams (11.5 kg).

Perseverance!

Humans aren’t going to Mars anytime soon. There’s no reason to. Robots are much better suited to such endeavors.

NASA put another rover on the Martian surface today. It was a superb display of engineering and technical prowess. It’s also proof that complex, interdisciplinary problems can be solved. Obviously something like climate change is much bigger than this as the social, political, ecological, and economic constraints are greater. Not to mention more fluid and unpredictable. But that doesn’t negate the point—when people set their minds to solve something they can do great things.

Humans can do OK in earth orbit. They can live reasonably well in a low-flying spacecraft. They can stay in shape for several months to a year in the free-fall (“microgravity” in NASA-speak) environment. Individuals have to be selected carefully for such missions. The technical skills alone are daunting, not to mention the close-quarters living and separation from loved ones. Kind of like submariners, although they can always surface and get some fresh air. Not a choice for the astronauts and cosmonauts!

Supply of such vessels is a big task. Rockets can send about 50 to 100 tonnes of material per launch into a low-earth orbit. The Saturn V of Apollo days is still the king with a 140 tonne payload. A tonne is 2200 pounds (1000 kg), so 50 tonnes is 110,000 pounds and 100 tonnes is 220,000 pounds. SpaceX is supposedly developing a 150 tonne lifter this year.

How much is that? A Ford F-150 pickup weighs between 4000-5000 pounds so let’s call it 2 tonnes. So a 100-tonne lifter could bring 50 Ford pickups to the space station! That would be a big help, eh?

100 tonnes of water, good old H2O, is 100,000 Liters. That’s 50,000 2-L PET bottles! If you could gather that 100,000 L of water into a cube, it would be about 15 feet on a side. That much water takes one whole rocket launch.

You can imagine all the things the occupants of a space station need to survive, not to mention keeping the thing in working order and being able to do the work you are up there to do. 100 tonnes is really not that much stuff. The average American, by the way, creates about four pounds of trash, per day.

So you see that robots are far better for space exploration. I think there is a good chance that Perseverance or some other remote probe of Mars will find living things. I think it will happen in the next few years. There won’t be any little green men or Martian monsters (so disappointing!) but there will be something. It will not be “intelligent” in the sense we mean. And we mean that to say “like us.”

No, it will be more like something we find growing in acid mine drainage. Or perhaps at deep-sea hydrothermal vents. There are lots of extremophiles on earth, creatures like tardigrades that can survive and even thrive in extreme environments. You must check out methane ice worms!

Something is alive on Mars. Dormant, perhaps. Well hidden, to be sure. But I’m convinced we will have our “close encounter,” it will just be done remotely with a 20-minute time delay. That’s a good thing. If one of us was up there, fretting over our oxygen supply or return-launch window or any of the multitude of things worth fretting about, we might miss it. The instruments on the rover have a much better chance of getting the job done.

Good luck to ’em.

DVDs!

I like DVDs. I collect ’em. But I’m cheap. I try not to spend big money. So I spend a lot of time browsing the collection at Edward R. Hamilton, they usually have good deals.

Like this one, only $7.95 for 12 movies:

OK, so maybe this one is just twelve versions of the same movie, but you catch my drift. I like bargains.

I usually won’t spend more than five bucks for one movie. But I make exceptions if I find something interesting. I’m interested in what they call “classic film noir” which means Hollywood-made low-budget crime melodramas from the 40s and 50s. So if I find something like Woman on the Run or Too Late for Tears, I’ll spend a little more.

Movie art was very different then! Here’s what I mean:

By the way that’s the inimitable Lizabeth Scott being abused. If you are looking for the archetypal femme fatale, look no further.

Roger Corman is enjoying a renaissance with many of his 60s and 70s films being re-issued, like this enduring classic:

We just watched a mash-up of horror and comedy called Creature From the Haunted Sea which was hilarious and had a spectacularly wacky plot. No one will ever accuse Corman of making deep, thinking-man’s movies. He liked action and scantily-clad women. But that doesn’t mean the films lack any sort of theme or meaningful intent. Those things should be subordinate to the movie itself anyway, don’t you think? Corman’s goal was to entertain, and he did that on-time and under budget, which means he made money on almost all his films.

Movies are the ultimate collaborative art form. They require, at the very least, dozens if not hundreds of people to make. The big blockbusters cost tens of millions to produce. Over the years I’ve found that cost and quality are not necessarily connected. More expensive films look and sound better, but they aren’t always better films. Much of the appeal of classic film noir is the restricted palette. The producers and directors had to be brisk and efficient and work with what they had. They learned to create tension and urgency in the story-telling with a minimum of fuss.

I’m perfectly capable of being a movie snob. I took a film class in college. We watched (and analyzed) Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni and stuff like that. I can discuss auteur theory and semiotics and Russian Formalist Criticism if I have to.

But mostly I like to watch movies in the comfort of my own living room. I need breaks for things like using the toilet and re-filling my bourbon glass, and you can’t do that in the theater. Plus you have to be around a lot of noisy people and you have to watch what’s being shown instead of what you put in the DVD player.

Now I don’t mean to say anything bad about the theatrical experience. I still remember watching An American Werewolf in London in a packed theater and everyone in the place screaming and jumping at the same times. It was like being at a ball game! And I’ve made a point to go see a few movies when they came out, like Pulp Fiction (fabulous) and Eyes Wide Shut (terrible), but you can see how dated I am. If I go to a movie theater more than once in a decade that’s a lot! I think the last two films I saw in person were Master and Commander and The Simpsons Movie, and those were 2003 and 2007 releases.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Those are only the most recent major motion pictures I’ve seen in person. I have been to our local film festival in the Scott Valley which unfortunately focuses on documentaries (which I can’t stand) instead of feature films. I did see the excellent Bullit County in 2018, though.

So you can see I prefer the humble DVD. I don’t even stream movies or use Netflix or Prime or Hulu or any of that stuff. I like the actual, physical plastic box with its disc nestled inside. Believe it or not I keep up on some contemporary cinema. My lovely bride is a big Star Wars fan and we’ve watched all the latest films in that series. We both like the Mad Max franchise and we own the latest, Fury Road (2015). The most recent movie in the collection is probably 2017’s Small Town Crime. You usually have to wait a few years for recent releases to find their way to the DVD market and then a few more years until they show up in the bargain bins.

Now if Jason Statham and Amy Smart would get off their asses and make Crank 3 all will be right with the world!

X-C

I used to do a lot of Nordic skiing back in the day. Otherwise known as cross-country skiing. I’m a downhill skier these days, but once in a while you have to use those old X-C skills.

The best spot at the Mt Shasta Ski Park isn’t actually in the Ski Park but in the adjacent Forest Service lands. You get their via a chairlift, but you have to cross the boundary to access the area.

Today the off-piste skiing was hard going and we had to get around on the groomed runs. Fortunately the killer powder stash was in good shape and we were able to get in some big, fun, freshie runs. The road back to the Ski Park had not been plowed or groomed so it was a bit of work getting out the first time. A couple of guys had broken the trail so it wasn’t too bad. Soon enough a flock of powderhounds had hit the same slope and the same route back and the return trail got easier.

It’s a good workout, walking and/or skiing on a relatively level surface. At one point I loosened the top buckle of my boots so I could effect more of a kick-and-glide style, but with alpine (fixed-heel) bindings, there’s only so much flex, and it isn’t very efficient. I did a lot of old-fashioned tromping, not to mention plenty of vigorous poling, to propel myself. And there were spots where one could get a good skating rhythm going. That’s always satisfying because you can get up some speed and feel like your knocking off the yards quickly.

The sun came out and the blue skies and mountain views were spectacular. As much as I enjoy downhill skiing, I miss the peace and quiet (and lack of crowds) that come with cross-country skiing. It’s a whole different world outside the resort boundary. I think I need more of that.

Back-to-back

The recent snowstorm hit Siskiyou County hard and created havoc for travelers and truck traffic on the interstate. I-5 was closed for about 36 hours while crews rescued trapped motorists, cleared wrecks, and removed snow. Hundreds of southbound tractor-trailer rigs were parked in Yreka and along the shoulders of the freeway as they could not get through. The same thing happened in Redding as northbound lanes were closed at Fawndale.

Chaos for some is opportunity for others and my ski partner and I decided there would be excellent skiing at Mount Shasta Ski Park. Access to I-5 was blocked in Yreka so we went south on the old highway until we saw the backlog at the Edgewood on-ramp where the CHP had set up a control. No one was getting on I-5 so we turned around. The CalTrans information line said that motorists should look for “alternate routes” and that’s what we did. We tried to get across Louie Road towards Lake Shastina but were thwarted by snow drifts. We doubled back to the interstate (no one was on it!) and found our way to County Road A12. From there we found our way past Lake Shastina to Highway 97 and into Weed. The entrance to I-5 was open at College Avenue so we took advantage of that and continued south.

When the CHP says a road is “closed” what they really mean is that access is restricted. I-5 is a key artery and it was open to local traffic. You just had to find entrances that were not blocked! We fell in behind a plow just before the McCloud exit and he scraped the road clear of snow and laid down some cinders for us which made that big looping curve easier to navigate. He pulled to the side once we were on Highway 89 and it was smooth sailing from there to the Ski Park Road.

The skiing was challenging as the snow was quite deep, at least two feet in most places with some sections getting twice that. It was too thick and heavy for the intermediate runs—you had to stay on the groomed sections or you’d get stuck. On the steeper pitches you could get up enough speed to “plane” in the powder and actually make some turns. It stormed most of the morning and by noon we were wet and tired. The trip home was uneventful as there was still no traffic on I-5 (other than locals) and the surface had been continuously scraped and sanded.

The next morning we decided to try again and planned to head out to A12 and 97 but we changed our minds at the last second as we saw traffic moving on I-5. Just before the Weed Rest Area, at the Edgewood on-ramp, chain controls were being enforced and scores of trucks were making a mess of things. After crawling along for about 15 minutes through the craziness we slipped past the last of the big rigs chaining up and climbed over Black Butte summit. The road surface was packed snow with some icy spots but fortunately a CHP vehicle was out in front leading the pack at about 40-45 mph. I always say it isn’t the road conditions that make the driving dangerous, it’s all the idiots driving recklessly. The speed control kept us all in line and relaxed and we eased down to the turnoff without incident. The officer led us all the way to the Ski Park Road before pulling over. That’s the way it is supposed to work!

Like the previous day the crowd was small. Most skiers like good weather but there are a handful, like us, who enjoy the storm days. The snow is fresh and the “refills” are a delight to ski. It snowed heavily all morning and we chased the powder all over the mountain. It was much better skiing as the surface had firmed up a bit underneath and the new layer (about a foot) made for softer, easier turns. Nonetheless it was still challenging. If you fall in the big, deep drifts it can be a real hassle to get back up. There is often not enough firm surface for leverage and you can flounder around like a fish out of water. I fell once and pitched forward, heading for a face plant, but I was able to use my momentum to roll over and throw my feet (and skis) over my head and have them land downhill. It’s a lot easier to get up when your head is uphill and your feet are downhill!

Despite the challenges there was great skiing and beautiful snow in heaping piles everywhere so we had a lot of fun. The usual group of powder-hounds was in attendance and everyone was happy. Since I-5 was closed to northbound traffic the large numbers of Shasta County snow enthusiasts were unable to get to the Park so we locals had the place mostly to ourselves.

The trip home on I-5 was eerie. An enormous caravan of mostly trucks had been cleared and given the go-ahead to resume their southbound journey and the bumper-to-bumper traffic jam stretched for miles. My buddy and I had never seen anything like that before. The northbound flood of backed up traffic had not reached Mt Shasta City and there was no one behind us on the interstate most of the way home. It is the weirdest feeling to be on a freeway with no other vehicles behind you. I kept thinking I’d “missed the memo” or something. How could we be the only ones on the road?

The whole two-day adventure made me appreciate how dependent we are on our freeways and our commercial truck traffic. And how easy it is for Mother Nature to make a mockery of both!

Dust-on-crust

Mt Ashland lost a lot of its snow base over the last two weeks due to high temperatures and some rainfall. Fortunately a recent storm provided some replacement snow. We ventured out early yesterday morning on reports of six inches of fresh stuff and discovered that much of the mountain was still quite ski-able. Don’t get me wrong—they could use another foot or more! There were still hazards just poking out of the surface or lying in wait just under the snow cover.

In fact, my buddy took a spill on our first run and lost a ski when he clipped the top of small tree. We’d been in line for about half an hour before they loaded the Windsor lift and although there was no wind it was quite cold. I’m never cold when I ski, but when you stand around without much movement the chill sets in. We were both a little stiff and awkward going into our first turns and it took some time to get fully warmed up.

It was mostly grey and overcast but visibility was good and the conditions, overall, were decent. The soft layer on top of the packed snow made for some nice, easy turns but it wasn’t enough to keep you floating. We found ourselves, on the steep runs, having to really work our edges. Every run was an adventure as you could not predict the response from turn to turn. Sometimes you’d feel the hard bottom and sometimes you would encounter wind-blown areas that had iced over. On the gentler slopes the turning was nearly effortless and we hardly broke through the “dust” on top of the firm “crust.”

At the top of the Ariel lift (which takes you to the summit) the area off the chair and at the start of the runs was treacherous with icy spots and wind-packed bumps. You really had to concentrate (I fell twice!) to get past those hazards. Once you were down in the shelter of the trees the skiing was good and we managed to have some long sequences of easy turns. Exploring the rest of the mountain we found a lot of variability and we had to work hard to adjust to the changing surfaces underfoot.

Since we got there for the opening and skied without breaks by the time it was almost noon we were done. When we left the flood of half-day afternoon ski traffic coming up the hill was impressive. People are really starved for skiing!

On the last half mile of the road out I came around a turn and had to stop quickly because a big pickup was blocking both lanes. I put on my flashers and hoped the cars behind me would be able to slow down in time—that’s never a sure thing on snowy/icy blacktop. It turns out the pickup was using a chain-and-hook tow line to pull some fool in a Jeep out of the embankment. How that guy got his Jeep into the ditch I’ve no idea but it was a real redneck festival. They managed to get the Jeep back on the road and the guy in the pickup simply unhooked the chain from his rear hitch and then drove off. The fellow in the Jeep also drove away but he was still dragging the chain from the mount on the front bumper! He was lucky he didn’t run over the thing and seriously damage his tires or frame. It was a real hillbilly move, I hate to say. I mean, c’mon, you have to pick the damn chain up and stow it before you drive away. And next time, fellas, have someone run up the road and flag the traffic coming down so we don’t plow into you inadvertently. What a shit-show that would have been!

Big storms are a-comin’ and Mt Shasta Ski Park is poised to get absolutely hammered. They are predicting at least two feet tonight and maybe another foot tomorrow with more waves of snow to come on top of those. They need snow even more there than at Mt Ashland as many of the runs are closed due to lack of coverage. We will go exploring there later this week, probably Thursday or Friday (or both). Sometimes at Mt Shasta the snow can get so thick and deep that you can’t get down the hill on the moderate slopes, there’s just too much resistance. You have to be on the steepest pitches in those conditions in order to get enough momentum to bust through the “Cascade concrete.” Hey, it’s a great problem to have: too much snow!

New books!

Just when we needed new reading material a big box of books came in the mail today. Our favorite bookseller is Ziesings, a mom-&-pop on-line and print catalog shop. When I say mom-&-pop, I mean it literally. When you call to make an order you get either Cindy (mom) or Mark (pop).

They run their store out of their home in Shingletown, an alpine hamlet in Shasta County, east of Redding and on the way to Lassen Park. They still print and mail out a voluminous catalog, and used to do all their business that way, but they now of course have a full-fledged website and on-line business. I usually call in or email my orders.

This latest batch is not complete—Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future is backordered—but it’s chock full of goodies.

Starting at the bottom of the pile is Dopeworld by Niko Vorobyov. It is subtitled “Adventures in the Global Drug Trade.” I usually like fiction but this non-fiction story appealed to me. You can’t get much better than Don Winslow’s fictional takes on the U.S.-Mexico drug trade (like The Cartel and The Border), but sometimes you have to read a book with footnotes in it!

House of the Rising Sun by Richard Cox had an appealing title, for sure, and looks like one of those apocalyptic, dystopian SF tales we like. It’s new from Night Shade Books.

Lame Fate/Ugly Swans by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky is a reprint of a two novels from the 1960s Soviet Union. The brothers wrote in their native Russian and their work did not reach a Western audience until the 1980s. Roadside Picnic is their most famous work and deals with the aftermath of an extraterrestrial visitation, a theme they often returned to.

Stark House Press in Eureka, California, consistently publishes interesting reprints from the 1950s and 1960s paperback mystery and suspense market. Much of the great post-WWII American fiction writing emerged from the popular press, especially in crime and detective stories. We just finished the superb duo (“Beat Back the Tide” and “Footsteps in the Night”) from Dolores Hitchens, a largely unknown writer today but an accomplished and successful one during that time. The new duo is from Ruth Sawtell Wallis, another of the many women who wrote in these typically male-dominated genres.

Kimberly Unger is a game designer and Nucleation, a techno-thriller, is her debut novel.

Caldwell Turnbull delivers his first novel as well, the futuristic The Lesson, from Blackstone Publishing.

Red Dust is science fiction from Cuba. The writer goes by the pen name Yoss. He’s apparently a well-known and successful author in that part of the world and also sings in a heavy metal band.

One of my long-time favorites, Octavia E. Butler, is enjoying a bit of a literary renaissance. Unfortunately she died in 2006. Mind of My Mind is from 1977, and is one of her earliest books.

That’s quite a pile! Should be plenty of good reading ahead—crucial during this Isolation Apocalypse.

What’s on your bookshelf?

Vaccines are good

When the first polio vaccines were created and mass immunizations against that dreaded disease happened in this country the scientists who led the way (Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk) were hailed as heroes.

That’s right: the country—and the rest of the world—thought of them as heroes.

Many have greeted the emergence of the various corona virus vaccines as a godsend. Which they are, of course, as we can finally move toward that elusive goal of “herd immunity.” People have been aching for a “return to normal” after this long year of restrictions and lockdowns and the vaccines are a key piece, if not the most important step, in that process.

Then you have the anti-vaxxers. I can hardly maintain a rational, even-handed approach to the so-called arguments these people use. I’m going to say something I rarely say: they are wrong. Dead wrong. Stupid wrong. Dangerous wrong.

I like to keep an open mind. I like to recognize uncertainty. I try not to be doctrinaire, or rigidly opinionated.

But we are in the midst of a global health crisis. Many of the strategies to deal with COVID-19 involve only simple behavior changes. Wearing a mask, for example, and practicing social distancing. These are things that require no pharmaceutical companies and no multi-million-dollar research labs. The problem is that people have to actually do them! Unfortunately, we have conflated reasonable public health measures with an assault on civil liberties, and a significant number of people steadfastly refuse to participate and thus continue to spread the disease.

So we need a vaccine. We’d need one anyway, because that is how we deal with viral diseases. Some vaccines are spectacularly successful, like smallpox, and the aforementioned polio vaccines. In Afghanistan, where the Taliban have control, doctors and nurses who try to administer polio vaccines are intimidated, threatened, and even killed to prevent them from inoculating children. But we all know the Taliban is a morally corrupt, violent, and intellectually stunted bunch of fanatics. We should expect that kind of idiocy from them.

Here in the States we have educated, middle class people, along with their celebrity cheerleaders, who are opposed to vaccines for almost the same reasons the Taliban opposes them!

Somehow a vaccine is bad because it is not “natural.” What could be more natural than using the infectious agent against itself? Isn’t that the basis of homeopathy? Isn’t that one of the so-called “alternative” medicines embraced by the “natural” crowd? RNA is older than humanity. Older than most life forms. What could be more natural than RNA? Do these people really think essential oils and herbal potions will prevent them from getting a viral infection and/or viral disease?

As an old schoolteacher I have to say I see now who paid attention in science class!

People happily drive cars and use computers and cell phones, all of these things the products of a high-tech, industrial society with big, bad multinational corporations doing the bulk of the work. Yet people object to vaccines because they are produced by the same big, bad corporations in the same high-tech, industrial economy!

Almost everyone in the States was vaccinated as a child against things like diptheria, measles, pertussis, tetanus, etc. These things killed children by the score in every town in the world for millenia. Now they don’t. The very thing the anti-vaxxers are against actually protects their un-vaccinated children! Because almost everyone else is vaccinated, un-vaccinated children in the US are relatively safe. Things would be different if they were in a third-world country where those diseases are still prevalent.

People happily vaccinate their dogs against rabies, parvo, and distemper, but balk at getting vaccines for themselves. It doesn’t add up. It’s an intellectually indefensible position. I get that some folks have auto-immune diseases or other complications that make vaccines problematic for them. But that’s a very small subset of the general population. The vast majority of us will benefit from vaccines with little or no complications.

ALL MEDICAL PROCEDURES HAVE RISK. All medical procedures have risk. Say that again and again to yourself. There is no ABSOLUTELY SAFE treatment for anything! 100% safe is an illusion. NOTHING is 100% safe.

Vaccines are pretty damn close. One of the things that phased trials do is make things safe. Vaccines have to be safe FIRST, and effective SECOND. You can count on vaccines being safe. Some don’t work so well, but they won’t hurt you. Your risk from the vaccine is far, far, far, far less than the risk from the disease you are being inoculated against.

So when it is your turn to get the corona virus vaccine, go get it. Don’t hesitate. Do you want to get this pandemic under better control? Do you want some return to normalcy?

THEN GET THE VACCINE!

And don’t listen to celebrities, You-Tubers, conspiracy theorists, “natural” healers (hah!), and the other cranks who didn’t pay attention in science class.