Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Say What?

The BBC has plenty to choose from if you find yourself in the market for a new language. Their main language site is here; basic Spanish, Italian, Chinese, and even Greek are there for the taking, as are smatterings of other languages (lots of sound files too, so no need to wonder about pronunciation). Best of all, they are able to offer some languages from closer to home (closer to home for the BBC, that is.) My favorite, at the moment is Beag air Bheag, an introductory Gaelic course. There is a similar offering for Irish, and Catchphrase for Welsh.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Spring, Springing.

This tree is down the street from my apartment, so I was passing it incessantly this month; I finally had to go down and get a picture. The idea was kind of "stop and smell the roses"...except there aren't any roses up here this time of year. So stop and look at the (plum?) tree!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Squid, Again.

I was looking for information on squid to link to when I was sidetracked by the Build-a-Squid a few days back. I'll have another try here at serious teuthology. . .Very serious. For example, if you click on the last picture in the gallery here, you get a prime example of a googly-eyed glass squid. That really is what they call it! I have yet to find assurance that anyone can discuss it with a properly straight face.
I myself have never taken a good picture of a squid, so here is the closest thing I can offer:
That is a relief map (from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, of course) of Monterey Bay. Under the water, there is a canyon comparable to the Grand Canyon, and you betcha there's some creatures way down there. Like the Vampire Squid from Hell--now there's a serious name! As a matter of fact, the creature itself is quite diminuitive, and the only thing that might warrant a "vampire" label is the webbing between its arms, which has the effect of a darkly mysterious cloak.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

There's Gold in. . .on. . .

This is the current view if you're heading East from Tehachapi on Highway 58. The hills look for all the world as though somebody decided yellow was the chalk of the day and proceded to color in very random spots with it. . . .Or not so random, perhaps. I pulled off the highway and drove out towards Sand Canyon to get another angle and realized that all of the yellow patches are on south(ish) facing slopes.
Like this one.

I never did get close enough to see what flowers were for certain, but I am pretty sure they were buttercups.

Friday, March 27, 2009


An extra post today to remind folks that the Bakersfield Highland Games are coming up in about a week, on April 4, at Bakersfield College. If anyone is in the area and wants to watch big guys throwing telephone poles around. . .oh, or listen to piping and drumming, well this is probably the best place in Bakersfield to do it.

Petrologic Linguistics

I thought I had read somewhere that today was the exact date of the announcement carved on the Rosetta Stone, but since I've been unable to confirm that, I'll just use it as an excuse to post a link to a very clear, concise essay (including a few pictures) on the stone's history and eventual decipherment.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Somewhat Culinary

One of my students recently shared a generous portion of her homemade soup. It was a hearty beef-and-vegetable mix that would have been quite satisfying--except that the mix also included okra, so it was not only satisfying; it was phenomenal. (The okra was homegrown, I might add!)

This was the first time I had ever had okra in soup. In fact, it has been quite some time since I had it at all. (My Mom has coated slices of the fresh vegetable in egg and cornmeal and fried with bacon--beyond phenomenal, that, but of course, when you add bacon, you bring any food up to a whole new level!) I got into a bit of an okra frenzy, and have been buying it frozen so I can have a wee bit in soup or in scrambled eggs. Tasty stuff indeed, although texture-oriented eaters stand forewarned--it has been called "slimy."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Who Could Ask For More?

This afternoon I took my bagpipes for what I thought was a secluded walk in a corner of the park. Somehow, however, a small person of my acquaintance found me and coaxed me into coming over and socializing with some other friends who were there. Somebody asked me to play a bit, a request always guaranteed to make me forget I ever knew a single tune. . .I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and played a short set. When I finished at last, the sight my eyes opened to was one of the dearest I could ever have imagined. Great big blue eyes, bigger brown eyes, freckled noses, braids, tousled hair--an overwhelming number of children had gathered in front of me, and were standing stock-still, regarding my musical efforts with the puzzled solemnity that I myself might reserve for physics. As the last notes died away, the crowd burst like fireworks on the Fourth of July, pinwheeling back to basketball games and swings, though a few remained to cautiously observe the silenced instrument at close range, reaching out tentative fingers, slowly least they awaken it again.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

C'mon--You Know You Want To!

Today's link is entirely pointless, but if you have five minutes to spare, why not--Build-A-Squid ?

Monday, March 23, 2009

It was all fun and games after I was sick a couple of weeks ago as, since I hadn't been able to get out and about, I stacked up pre-written posts and the blog had about a week's worth of autopiloting in it. But all good things must end, as they say, and I am back to inventing daily posts for the moment. Just to mix things up a little, here are a couple of photos from last year.

This is a hawk from the Birds of Prey exhibit at the Lancaster Poppy Festival in April. The fellow in charge had all manner of interesting birds to display, and he was full of facts about them. . .of course, I didn't write any of it down at the time. I couldn't even tell you the proper name for this creature. The Highland Games at Pleasanton over Labor Day weekend had a similar exhibit, and a chance to get a picture of a falcon.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Useful Tool

It is a very cold and windy Sunday afternoon (snow was attempted this morning) so I am more than happy to stick around the house and try a few projects that have been long neglected. One of these was transcribing a reel I liked off a CD. . .well, transcribing is a large exaggeration for what I am doing with it. Luckily, I already have the sheet music; I am just trying to resolve the few, but effective, differences between what I am reading and what I am hearing. Also luckily, Windows Media Player has a feature that allows you to slow down a sound file without changing its pitch. The tone suffers something awful (I'll say up front that listening to a bagpipe like this is quite conducive to nausea) but the notes are true.

If anybody else is in a transcribing mood, here's the way you bring up the play speed monitor:

If you click on the picture, it should get a bit bigger, but in plain prose, the instructions are:

-Open the "Now Playing" screen

-Click the arrow below "Now Playing" to bring up the drop-down menu for that screen

-Click on "Enhancements"

-Click on "Play Speed Settings".

-A gauge should appear in the lower left corner of the screen--set it as far left as you can, and the music slows down.

No, it doesn't sound nice. I never said it sounded nice.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

. . .and More News

Now here is an article I found interesting from the beginning of the headline to the last period. You don't suppose I could be a little biased, do you?

For those of you who don't have time to follow the link, the short version: an alumnus of Simon Fraser University, who, among other accomplishments, happens to be a pro-grade piper, is one of 16 remaining candidates (out of 5,500 applicants) for the Canadian space program.

Okay, okay, here's an article that's actually about the selection process, with no mention of piping, proving that it is still a pretty interesting subject.

Friday, March 20, 2009

No Doubt Important

Generally I find the headlines much more interesting than the articles. Like this one that popped up on Yahoo a few days ago:

I was unaware of this international crisis, though I am quite sympathetic. Opening a door to find a polar bear behind it must be a nasty surprise.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Yet More Yellow Flowers

Back at the end of January, I was rather obsessed with identifying a yellow-flowered bush that bore rattling seed packets. It turned out to be bladderpod, Isomeris arborea. I recently got a picture of the pods in a green and growing state:Supposedly some of the Aborigines of Australia had a belief that a thing does not exist until it has a name. Case in point: once I had a name to tack onto the bladderpod bush, it began to exist with a vengeance--or at least, I started noticing a good deal more of it. Perhaps it isn't the clearest illustration at this size, but those bushes on the hill are all Isomeris arborea!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Worth Remembering

Here is a set of pictures my Dad captured in Stanley Park, Vancouver a few years ago. There are very few things more delightful than coming around that point in time for a good sunset. Now, if you painted water like that nobody would believe you!
Siwash Rock. It has an interesting Indian legend associated with it. The short version: it was a man who was transformed into a rock as a reward for his generosity. At first, I can't say that appealed to me much as rewards go. On second thought, several thousand years of watching for sunsets like this one mightn't be all bad.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

  • Did someone just protest, "That's not Ireland?" Well, right you are, but the grass and rocks are close, no? (For those of you who have never had the fortune to drive Highway 58, that is the San Joaquin Valley in the distance.) The music links of the day, however, are quite thoroughly Irish.
  • DanĂº (Instrumentals/Irish Gaelic singing)
  • Lunasa (Instrumentals)

Monday, March 16, 2009

And Did I Mention the Fiddlenecks?

Sunday afternoon I tried to get the Big Picture of fiddlenecks. As I think I mentioned a few posts back, it's been an exceptional year for them.The focus here is not what I would have wished, but you get an idea of the muchness of a certain flower.
And, of course, Bear Mountain just has to work its way in somehow!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Natalis menziesii

"At the present time, students, especially of botany, in the western portion of America are familiar with his name, though few of them have taken the trouble to learn about the man," wrote Edmond Meany in a footnote to Vancouver's Discovery of Puget Sound. The man he was speaking of was the botanist/surgeon Archibald Menzies, born 255 years ago today, whose name is commemorated in that of several North American plants. In the interest of taking at least a little trouble to become acquainted, here is a link to a short biography which touches on the key events of Menzies' life, including his time on the West Coast.
* * *
The pictures are two of the California species which have borrowed Menzies' name. The orange fiddleneck is Amsinckia menziesii (if I am right; there are a couple of close relations around here as well). The baby blue-eyes are Nemophilia menzenzii.
* * *
The linguistic sidenote--it's pronounced "ming-iss". The reason? In times past, that "z" was a "yogh", a yogh of the "y" variety, and when you put "n" and "3" together, it confuses into a bit of an "ng". The Scottish company John Menzies PLC offers a useful poem on the subject:
A lively young damsel named Menzies
Inquired: "Do you know what this thenzies?"
Her aunt, with a gasp,
Replied: "It's a wasp,
And you're holding the end where the stenzies."

Saturday, March 14, 2009


This is yogh. Yogh (pronounced "yohk"or "yohg," among other things) was a multitalented Middle English letter. According to Tolkien and Gordon in their definitive edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, yogh could be used to represent:

  • the "y" sound, as in our "yes"
  • fricative phonemes rather like the "ch" in "loch"
  • "w"

The letter came to be represented in print by a figure quite similar to a "3". In the passage below (also from the Tolkien/Gordon edition of Gawain), you can see a yogh in each of the top three lines. Many other editions of the poem (including the one I met in school) have had the various yoghs replaced by letters which more clearly mark their pronunciations for a modern audience. In R.A. Waldron's edition, for example, the three "3's" below have been replaced by "gh's" indicating that they were meant to be pronounced as fricatives.

The letter lasted longer in Scots than it did in English, but even there it began to cause some confusion, a small effect of which I'll post tomorrow.

Friday, March 13, 2009

A Bird in the Hand

Some months ago, I had an interesting conversation at the music store that has served as food for thought since. We were talking about piobaireachd and veered onto the tangent of the part time had played in developing the style to the point it is now. I expressed a wish to hear how piobaireachd must have sounded back in its golden age and my friend offered the caution, "But if you could go back and hear it, you wouldn't have what you have now." The remark, unfortunately, did very little to quench my enthusiasm for time-traveling to 17th-century Skye, but he was quite right.

I remembered the conversation when I came across a statement in an Irish fiddle book Mel Bay recently published. The author, Philip Berthoud, was discussing regional styles and pointing out how, due to the wide availability of recordings, regional differences are disappearing. That is, a good number of people are learning from a comparatively few recordings, and styles are becoming more universal; the idiom of regional fiddling is going the way of regional dialects. You can argue for the right or the wrong of it, but all that aside, I thought it was kind of ironic that the very tool that could be used to preserve music "in its day" could also decrease its vibrance.

Quite unrepentant, I should still very much like to hear piobaireachd as it was. All the same, I wonder, if we had been able to record, say Patrick Og MacCrimmon, preserving his technique indefinitely, isn't it likely we would have lost some of the other charms that have filtered into the Great Music since his time?

Thoughts on the amalgamation of fiddle styles sprang from Irish Fiddle Playing: A Guide for the Serious Player, Vol. 2 by Philip J. Berthoud, Mel Bay, 2008

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Going Places

Here's another round of pictures in the vein of the road pictures I posted a little while ago. These aren't roads in the strictest sense, but the notion of going somewhere is still there.
Now, with a set of stairs like these, the trouble is, do you walk up, or stay at the bottom where you can admire the tilework?
(Hearst Castle)
The mission porches are quite austere by comparison, but solid and welcoming.
(Carmel Mission)
For my money, there's nothing quite so alluring as a footpath--especially on a foggy day. (Pebble Beach)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Sort of a Timid Naturalist

Well now, I have this book called Principles of Physics, an overly ambitious purchase from the library booksale. It has earned its keep, however, as the introduction can almost be twisted to justify the confession I am about to make. The author was gently explaining why different people must specialise in different studies, as there is too much to be taught in any given subject to allow any one human to be a true expert at all of them: "For this reason, each man must choose from among these a group of answers which he can learn. In doing so, he chooses not to learn the known answers to many other questions." Fair enough. Especially if you are dealing with arachnology. I would say there is a pretty good chance I will choose not to learn the known answers in that high, bold corner of science.

I was down near General Beale Road, hoping to get a shot at some new wildflower, or at least a new shot at some old wildflowers when I ran across a sandy space. To a beetle, it might have seemed a small desert. Like a desert it had skeletons, or what pass for the skeletons of beetles, bleaching away in the sun--a rather large number of them. I wondered what might have killed so many in one place. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but there was an ominous, silk-lined hole at the edge of the gravel, near the grass.
So I got a wee bit closer (though not as close as this picture makes it look)

And poked at the silk, strong sticky stuff, with a handy twig.

It came out. Very fast. It had many, many legs. It was black. It was about as big as a horse--a Clydesdale, I think. I did not get the picture. In fact, I was suddenly seized by an overwhelming desire to get a picture of an isomeris bush some distance away.

After some time, I persuaded myself that this was a rare opportunity (oh, I was glad that it was rare, all right!) and I should go back and give it a fair try, so I secured a piece of grass that was somewhat longer than the stick (which had shrunk, I was sure, to matchstick size) and tickled at the web again, not very enthusiastically.

I did tease it out once more, noting without due appreciation, the way the hole suddenly flowered into. . .legs. Once more I missed the picture. The creature was almost impossibly quick, and didn't come all the way out of its hole before it popped back down into the darkness. Perhaps when you have eight eyes, you can take in a scene quicker than the rest of us can. Perhaps it formed a sudden resolve to leave anthropology among its unstudied subjects. Anyway, it would not come out again after that, and I saw no sense in pushing my luck. I left.

Useful quote from Principles of Physics by F. Bueche, McGraw-Hill, 1972

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Plaintive Abalone

A fairly common installment along the California coast is the abalone shell. This bowl-sized structure is an enduring feature of many gardens, as here in the cemetery at Carmel Mission. I mentioned quite some time ago the possibility that "abalone" could be a Native Californian word, though if so, we got it already filtered through Spanish. At any rate, the Indians of California had extensive uses for this mollusk; it was excellent food, and the polished shells were used as a type of money, as described in the following quote:
"The money answering to gold is made from varieties of the earshell (Haliotis) and is called ullo. [. . .] They cut these shells with flints into oblong strips from and inch to two inches in length, according to the curvature of the shell, and about as broad as long. Two holes are drilled near the narrow end of each piece, and they are thereby fastened to a string (made of the inne[r] bark of the wild cotton or milkweed--Asclepias) hanging edge to edge. [. . .] Being susceptible of a high polish this money forms a beautiful ornament, and is worn for necklaces on gala days."
At the turn of the century, there was a thriving abalone industry in California, an industry of largely Japanese fishermen who used diving suits which enabled them to stay submerged in the cold waters off Monterey for three hours at a time. The boat above is a model of the type they employed; the unique oar at the stern helped the rower to hover above the submerged diver.
The forgoing touched on man's interest in abalone, but of the abalone itself? Wikipedia will have to suffice to explain its true habits; all I could garner from my personal library was a poem, largely culinary, containing a verse which would have done Lewis Carroll proud:
He wanders free beside the sea,
Where e'er the coast is stony;
He flaps his wings and madly sings--
The plaintive abalone
  • The description of ullo was by Stephen Powers, quoted in "Abalone Industry of the California Coast" by Mrs. M. Burton Williams. Printed in Out West: A Magazine of the Old Pacific and the New, Ed. Lummis & Moody, 1908
  • The polished abalone shell and the model boat are both in the Monterey Maritime and History Museum. The model was built by Tom Fordham.
  • The verse is from "The Abalone Song," attributed to George Sterling and published in California Heritage by John & Laree Caughey

Monday, March 9, 2009


Yesterday afternoon, Tehachapi was treated to a flood of incredible music from Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas. It was kind of a day for firsts--the first time the duo had visited Tehachapi and the first time the new BeeKay Theatre had been used for a concert. For me it was a first, too: despite years of listening to Mr. Fraser on CD, this was the first time I had ever seen him live. All I can say is, if you get a chance to do the same, please do! Even if Scottish fiddling isn't your thing, there is an excellent chance you will enjoy it thoroughly. The drive and the exceptional sweetness of Mr. Fraser's playing would probably hold its own in any setting, but it is hard to imagine a better complement for it than Natalie Haas' equally adept cello work. The entire show was just the two of them, and yet they more than adequately conveyed an infectious sense of rhythm that might be thought impossible without, say, a constant guitar going in the background. Both, likewise, had a true understanding of the tunes, as if every note was given due consideration and played in the manner that best suited it. If a phrase called for silence, it was whispered. If a bar was naturally exuberant, it fairly danced off the strings. In all, I would call it a rare thing to hear music that is so alive.
* * * * *
A bit of a tangent--one of the loveliest pieces of the afternoon was the Shetlander Tom Anderson's air, "Da Slockit Light". It was a piece whose title I had run across a fair amount when I was going through the books at the music store, and, without really thinking about it, had formed a vague (and incorrect) notion in my mind that "Slockit" was a headland in Shetland that had a lighthouse built on it. Not so! Mr. Fraser explained, before playing the tune, that the composer was looking down on a village at night, noticing how fewer lights were shining than had shone when he was young. "Slockit" means roughly, "extinguished," in this case. And yes, as a matter of fact, I do want to know if it's of Norse origin, and whether it is related to the archaic "slake". (And yes, it was a beautiful, beautiful tune!)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Birds of a Feather. . .

You know those names for groups of animals that span the common ("a swarm of bees," "a pack of wolves") to the obscure ("a sedge of bitterns")? Well, if you're in the mood for mind-bending, here is a page dedicated to bird-groups. I never called goldfinches plural anything but a flock, but having seen the tiny things at their tiny meals of, I would agree, a "charm" is somewhat more descriptive.
What brought on this particular subject was the rediscovery of a note I wrote myself last year, about a "Pfretzchner." I believe this was a German-made viola that I had some slight acquaintance with, but it was the spelling that impressed me most. It would make a grand collective noun for use in linguistics: "a Pfretzchner of consonants".

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is--not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself.
George MacDonald (1824-1905)
From "The Fantastic Imagination", republished in The Complete Fairy Tales by George MacDonald, Penguin Books, 1999

Friday, March 6, 2009

Flower of the Week

No, I wasn't actually planning to invent a regular "Flower-of-the-Week" post (and I'm still not), but by coincidence, it's exactly a week since I wrote the last wildflower-related one. This week's botanical offering is the fiddleneck, Amsinckia menziesii. Down toward the Valley, there are hillsides covered with these. I'll try to get a few pictures before the month is out, as it is a view not to be missed.

And they call it "fiddleneck" because...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

More Musings of an Idle Mind

Over the end of last week, I caught a Pestilence (actually just a cold) and, preferring not to go out and cough on the world at large, had a good deal of time to stay home and think about things. Like leaves. And leafs. No, really, "I saw a single leaf falling past the window, and when I came out, there were leaves all over the lawn." Right? But the hockey team is the Maple Leafs. I had never really thought about that before. It is quite reasonable, since they are named after a single important leaf, but. . .well, I still do find it quite interesting. A singular plural, if I do say so.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Coming of the Roads

Road pictures can be rather intriguing, perhaps mostly because of all the things that aren't in the pictures, all the places any road might lead to. Still, Kern County has its fair share of nice settings along the way. Below is a recent picture of Bena Road, over between Highway 58 and the Arvin turn-off. The blue piney bit on the left is Bear Mountain. This one is Cummings Valley Road, again with a mountain, Tehachapi Peak.
Like the picture above, this one is almost a year old, and a vaguely similar picture already did find its way onto the blog. This is just north of Tehachapi. I believe the yellow flowers are buttercups (never did settle that last year). When I picked these three pictures, I didn't pay much attention to the mountains. What is odder, they happen also to be the only three local mountains I know by name. So last, but not least, that's Black Mountain off in the distance.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Sound Clips of a Different Sort

Every time I go to the library I end up bringing home much more than I went in for (and that's not counting the delights of the ongoing book sale!) For instance, the last time I went in, I think it was just to pay my overdue fines (again), and I somehow ended up with one of those nature books that is heavy on photographs with just enough written about them to pique your interest. Somewhere between the beginning and the end, there was a short bit about humpback whales and their songs. I haven't been able to find too much more on the subject, but here are a couple of webpages with sound clips of the same. . .can't say I would be jumping up and down to listen to 'em all day, in a strictly musical sense, but it is interesting:

The main thing which struck me about the humpbacks' songs, as you can read here, is that they have a discernable structure, and can be broken down into phrases. Different pods of whales have different variations on the song, and even among those pods, the song changes over time.

Monday, March 2, 2009


Yet more picture from the Monterey trip (last July). . . I bet almost every single person who stands where I was standing when I took this picture takes the same picture; the dock is quite a foreign sight for land-weary eyes. The hardworking boat tied up there only added to the beauty.
And talk about beautiful! This little boat is hanging from the rafters in the Monterey Bay Aquarium. (The downside. . .there was nowhere a human being could stand get a picture of the entire vessel.) It is a felucca, (also called a selena), a type of boat built by Italian immigrants in the late 1800's. According to the plaque nearby, it was meant to be handled by one man, and was used mainly for handline fishing. Its direct descendant was the Monterey clipper, which had a heyday of 40-odd years in the California sardine industry.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

It's That Time of Year

With all the early--and welcome--rain, spring arrived a bit early this year. Here's a flower I haven't posted yet, if I remember aright. This is purple owl's clover, Castilleja exserta. . .weeeel, okay, I'm not too sure about the species, but as the Calflora page explains, C. exserta does tend to cross with other close relations.