Sierra Nevada Species: Garter Snake

I found this beautiful snake basking in barely flowing water at an elevation of about 5800′ in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. At first I thought it was a striped racer, but racers have two light stripes on their sides, while this one has a light stripe down the middle of its back and a light underbelly. It appears to be a juvenile garter snake, or at this altitude, it could be full-grown, morphologically adapted to a less plentiful food web. It’s rather small, about 24″ long.  Click any image below for full size.

Light belly, dark back with a single stripe down the middle.
It likes the water.


There Are No Saviors, Only Teachers

In our capitalist, conspicuously consumptive, greedily go-getting society, teaching has always been disrespected as a vocational pursuit.  They quip “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”  Meanwhile the public education system in the United States suffers from neglect, indifference, and outright enmity.  The most powerful nation on Earth can only claim to be mediocre when it comes to educating its children.

This is partly traced to the quintessential American attitude of self-reliance, which reacts to any public service with skepticism and distaste.  Charter schools, private schools, and home-schooling all claim to improve on public curricula that may not be good enough or spiritually suitable for your child.  The successful high-school or college dropout is especially venerated, upheld as an archetype of self-sufficiency and proof that all those physics formulae and copies of The Catcher in the Rye contribute nothing to an individual’s chance for success.

Although British, Pink Floyd said it up best.  “We don’t need no education; we don’t need no thought control.”  Although we might benefit from a refresher on the basic tenets of grammar.

Meanwhile, Christian fervor permeates American awareness, and many hold Christ the Savior in the highest regard.  The church says that not only does Christ forgive our sins, he will also return to Earth one day to right all wrongs.  The idea that Christ or another messiah is overdue to save humanity diminishes our own responsibility to make the world a better place.  Because there are no saviors, nor were there ever; there have only been men and women occasionally motivated to do or say something constructive.

Many pretenders have aspired to the role of savior since Jesus died on the cross, assuming the title of Christ or believing themselves to be his reincarnation.  The problem with thinking of yourself as a savior is that it defines you as exceptional, inhuman, infallible, and superior.  But when you think of yourself as a teacher, you are immediately humbled, made subservient to the interests of youth and inexperience, contributing whatever you can to the imperfect, cumulative development of future generations.  You don’t necessarily need a chalkboard or a classroom.  You only need to share your knowledge as best you can, and be open to the knowledge shared with you in return.

If we looked to a teacher instead of a savior, our lowest social ideal would become our highest.  And in a world abruptly faced with the drastic consequences of its history, we need teachers more than ever.

Spoiler Alert: Elysium

For writer and director Neill Blomkamp, Elysium is round two of sci-fi feature as social allegory, following in the footsteps of 2009’s District 9.  Whereas District 9 paralleled the history of apartheid in South Africa, Elysium deals with issues of illegal immigration and social class, centered on everyone’s favorite pre-apocalyptic wasteland, Los Angeles.

It’s a pure joy to see L.A. extrapolated to a vibrant, populous, spray-painted pile of rubble in the year 2154, where even gringos like Matt Damon hablan español.  This proletariat L.A., where ex-con Damon earns minimum wage building robot cops for “the man,” lies in stark contrast to the wheeling space station Elysium, where all the wealthy white people have gone to live lives of privilege and comfort.  On Elysium, if you break your leg or get your face blown off by a grenade, you have only to lie in a Med-Pod for a few seconds to be totally healed.  Then you can take your wine and picnic basket to a well-manicured lawn for lunch.

Wanting better healthcare, the denigrated residents of L.A. attempt to cross the “border” into Elysium illegally, and get blown out of space for their efforts.  One suspects Elysium would have less of a security problem if it weren’t parked in geosynchronous orbit directly above Los Angeles, taunting our heroes below.  Why hang your elitist space station like forbidden fruit over the heads of the downtrodden?

Unfortunately, all the allegory in the world can’t prevent this film from settling its differences with fisticuffs.  Sharlto Copley, as the bad guy Kruger, portrays one of the more nuanced and credible villains in recent memory, while Jodie Foster, exuding white-collar cruelty, delivers her lines on stilts.  But ultimately, it’s our star Matt Damon who brings about equality for all, sacrificing himself, Christ-like, for the welfare of the Hispanic peoples.   Why this requires an attractive white man is hard to say.  How can this film refute white exceptionalism while depending on it for a denouement?  In the world of Elysium, where do all the producers and movie stars live? And where would our friend Neill Blomkamp find himself?

Life and Lunar Influence

Posted to the homepage on August 11, 2013.

The Moon—like the sun, stars and Earth—is easy for a human being to take for granted.  But the Earth’s moon is truly exceptional, and should be appreciated for shaping the exceptional world we live on.  Earth is the only planet with a single moon, and relative to the Earth, Luna is the largest moon in the solar system.  The Moon thus exerts a strong, solitary influence on the planet it was torn from.  Evidence suggests that the Moon was blown into orbit by a massive asteroid impact about 4.5 billion years ago, shortly before the emergence of life on Earth.  Even if this cataclysm was incidental to abiogenesis, life as we know it would not exist without the Moon.  On Starts With a Bang, Ethan Siegel says that a moonless Earth would have drastically shorter days, and our tilt towards the sun would vary over time.  As Ethan explains, “without our Moon, there would be nothing preventing catastrophic shifts in our rotational axis” and at times—like Mercury—we would have no seasons.  So the Moon not only stabilizes our world, but adds another layer of periodicity, of yin and yang, to the forces that shape our lives.

Windows Phone Is Actually Awesome

Windows takes a lot of crap from fanboys, and Apple products do the same, but while our prejudices can be well-founded it’s always worth taking an honest look at the opposition.  With its Windows Phone mobile OS, Microsoft has built a very fun and functional platform that in some ways exceeds the user experience of Android and iOS.

Microsoft’s presence on mobile platforms somewhat changes its historical relationship with hardware.  In the days when you were a PC person or a Mac person, one advantage of the personal computer was an open hardware standard, allowing not only for custom computer appearance, but easy part interchangeability.  Apple, on the other hand, released highly integrated platforms that were much more likely to be replaced than repaired or modified.  With smartphones, this advantage for Microsoft no longer exists.  Smartphones are integrated platforms and can’t be upgraded in bits and pieces like the PCs of yore.  But Microsoft remains a software-centered business, allowing hardware partners like Nokia and HTC to take the lead even as it dabbles in offerings like the Surface tablet and the hugely successful Xbox line.

My first exposure to the future was Microsoft’s Zune HD, a media player without a cellular radio.  In 2009, the premium materials used (metal and glass) and the cutting edge-technology (flash storage and capacitative touchscreen) really anticipated the demands of smartphone consumers in 2013.  Microsoft’s user interface on the Zune was bold and thoughtful, and has clearly carried over to the new Windows Phone platform.  Text is large and clean and represents a highly evolved design sensibility.

But the star of Windows Phone is the new live tile interface, which allows you to customize what you most want to touch and where and how to touch it.  You can devote larger areas of the screen to represent more important or more frequently used apps.  I am most likely to be taking a picture, so I place the Camera app on the spot where my thumb extends most naturally, and enlarge it so I am more likely to actually select it with a hurried tap.  Put your favorite apps where your thumb swings most easily, and when you run out of room scroll down and start over from the center of action.  Live tiles can stretch on forever, like an infinite game of hopscotch.  And rearranging the placement and sizing of tiles is like modern art (a Mondrian) for the OCD power user.

Live tiles vs. Piet Mondrian
Live tiles vs. Piet Mondrian


The quality of Windows Phone might be a moot point in the face of Apple’s and Google’s dominant market positions, but Nokia has engineered a game-changing technology and promised it all, for now, to Microsoft.  The 41-megapixel Pro Cam found in Nokia’s Lumia 1020 redefines what a smartphone can and should be capable of.  You can read elsewhere about how the technology works, capturing a ton of data and down-sampling it into a stellar 5 megapixel image.  In a perverse fashion, Pro Cam proves that megapixels don’t matter: after all, the great quality of the final image is represented in 5 megapixels, not 41.  With a big enough sensor you wouldn’t need 41 million crappy, crammed-together photodiodes to make a great 5 megapixel image.

Of course, the image quality of Pro Cam still has limits imposed by its smaller sensor size relative to mirrorless cameras and DSLRs.  Noise is higher, and dynamic range is lower.  But you run into limitations with larger sensors as well, such as not being able to fit the damn camera in your pocket (with apologies to Sony’s RX100).

There is an old saying, you get what you pay for, and while this adage holds less true in the age of Google, Microsoft is working feverishly to uphold it.  And with the Gates Foundation working so progressively to better peoples’ lives through science, it’s hard to feel foolish putting money in Microsoft’s pockets.  I switched to the Lumia 1020 from a Nexus 4, and there is so much more in the handset to love.  The bulging lens assembly of the Pro Cam adds to the personality and fetish appeal of the phone, and the image stabilization system rattles faintly when you move the phone, which means you could use it to entertain your baby.  The 1020 offers more concrete advantages as well, such as a screen that is easily readable in sunlight and excellent battery life that can stretch to 2 days of moderate use.

But user experience is king, and without Microsoft’s live tiles and underlying OS all this technology would be wasted (as it was on Nokia’s 808 PureView, released in 2012 with a Symbian OS).  There are still a few drawbacks to Windows phone, such as a trailing app ecosystem, but I downloaded all the software I needed and used on Android without a problem.  The 1020 is also a large phone, especially compared to the lilliputian iPhone 5, but it’s not too big by any means.  Much respect to Apple and Google, but I’ve touched the future, and I won’t be going back.

John Oliver Flays TV Idiocy

In his role pinch-hitting as The Daily Show anchor while Jon Stewart directs a feature film called Rosewater, John Oliver has demonstrated a candid, hilarious fury that is unmatched in its impact by Stewart’s usual well-meant silliness.  People have called Stephen Colbert the heir to 1950’s primetime BS-caller Edward R. Murrow, and Colbert is certainly unmatched in his own way, but after seeing Oliver in the limelight, it’s hard to imagine a more urgent rebuttal to the media and political hypocrisy of our day.

Last night Oliver didn’t have to work hard to demonstrate the ridiculousness of television news coverage, which like the rest of the mediasphere was agog over a simple sketch by admittedly gifted businessperson Elon Musk.  First NBC called Musk “the inspiration for the Iron Man’s Tony Stark character,” but while Musk was indeed studied by director Jon Favreau for his depiction of Stark in the first two Iron Man movies, the comic book hero predates the birth of the South African entrepreneur by eight years.  CNN then demonstrated the relative speeds of trains, planes, space shuttles, and Musk’s Hyperloop concept by playing with toys and making childlike wooshing sounds.  Meanhwile an earnest co-anchor on a FOX affiliate repeatedly insisted to his colleague that Elon’s name was “Elton.”  As John Oliver says, “Clearly, no one in the media is able to understand this story.”  Maybe that’s because beyond the pipe dream, there’s very little to understand.  Musk made a drawing, but he’s expecting someone else to build it.  Oliver concludes, “That’s like saying, hey you know what we should do?  Find a vaccine for cancer.  Someone get on that, I’m just the ideas man.”

Don’t Teach Your Young to Attack the Planet

Life has been growing on Earth for about 4 billion years, and during that time there have been a handful of mass extinctions that have wiped out a large percentage of complex lifeforms.  Asteroid impact, volcanic eruption, climate change, anoxia, and poison have dispatched untold numbers of once-successful species to total oblivion or a few lucky fossils.  Species also die off regularly for much less spectacular reasons, and altogether about 98% of documented species no longer exist.

Cry me a river, you say, without all that death there would have been no gap for vertebrates, for mammals, for primates, for humanity.  The tyrannosaurus-less world we awoke to find ourselves on had regained an incredible array of plant, animal, fungal, and microbial diversity, exploiting and even seeming to celebrate every ecological niche on the planet.  Our ancestors, a small population of soft, slow-moving meatbags, lifted their hands from the ground and set about smashing, shaping, shooting, burning, cutting and eating their way to the top.  Although human tribes spread to inhabit every continent except Antarctica, the limits of the world remained unknown, no less to tribal cultures than to pre-Columbian Europe.  There was always the promise of more land, more meat, and more resources for the taking—perhaps not within easy reach, but somewhere near the horizon.

Even after Europe discovered the “new” world, attitudes of conquest and dominion were rarely given second thought.  Manifest destiny drove United States citizens from sea to shining sea, eradicating all kinds of biodiversity along the way.  We not only disregarded the finity of plants and animals, but of a remarkably diverse race of peoples who lived in equilibrium with a world they recognized as precious. But after the West was won, the global balance of power shifted very quickly.  Industry, technology, and medicine led to unprecedented health and fecundity.  Global population exploded exponentially.  There was nowhere left to go.

Now it is humanity that strives toward limitlessness while the world seems to dwindle, inexorably, under our feet.  Like a dark cloud of volcanic ash circling the globe, we stifle and kill species on a massive scale in not much less sudden a fashion.  Even when we keep our hands clean, we contribute to global warming, pollution, and deforestation just by maintaining a modern lifestyle.  We are a mass extinction event, and we are still unfolding.

But as we know, mass extinctions are not the end of the world, and on the contrary, they offer new beginnings for life on Earth.  Whether humanity remains a part of that life remains to be seen.  Complex, intelligent life has evolved from rudimentary beginnings before and can do so again.  And as one of the largest biomasses on the planet, humanity could speciate in the wake of ecological collapse and fragmentation.  How we evolve could surpass our wildest dreams.

But I like being human, and I consider our world a beautiful place, one worth savoring and not throwing away.  Unlike any natural disaster we have the gift of agency and choice, of intelligence, foresight, and decision.  We are coming to terms with a small world that is getting smaller, and we will surely react and adapt to this knowledge as best we can.  But no outcome is inevitable.  All action and inaction will have an impact.  If we want to remain who we believe ourselves to be, we must choose to respect life, to value and foster diversity, to just take it easy once in a while, to control our primal appetites, and to change our very nature.  Only by choosing to change, rather than having to change, can we truly stay human.