Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Star Trek movies and Beethoven symphonies

Beethoven symphonies and Star Trek movies follow similar (although complementary) patterns.

Odd-numbered Beethoven symphonies are the best loved.

Single important even-numbered exception: Beethoven 6, the "Pastoral" symphony, is perhaps the first example of Romantic-era programmatic music.

Runt of the litter (weakest odd-numbered symphony): Beethoven 1 is not nearly as well-loved as 3 ("Eroica"), 5, 7, or 9 ("Choral").

SymphonyYear of
YouTube views*
3 "Eroica"18051,292
41807 281
6 "Pastoral"1808873
9 "Choral"18244,426

*Table of YouTube views as an indicator of popularity from Classical Convert: Ranking Beethoven.

Even-numbered Star Trek movies are good. This pattern holds through the numbered films with the original cast as well as the films with the cast from The Next Generation.

Single important odd-numbered exception: Star Trek III: The Search For Spock provides essential aspects of the Star Trek II-III-IV story arc. Also: seeing Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future's Doc Brown) as a Klingon was pretty sweet.

Runt of the litter (weakest even-numbered film): Star Trek: Nemesis, the tenth movie of the franchise.

Tomatometer rating*
1Star Trek: The Motion Picture197947%
2Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan198290%
3Star Trek III: The Search for Spock198477%
4Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home198684%
5Star Trek V: The Final Frontier198921%
6Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country199183%
7Star Trek: Generations199448%
8Star Trek: First Contact199692%
9Star Trek: Insurrection199856%
10Star Trek: Nemesis200238%

* Tomatometer rating from Rotten Tomatoes.  What is the Tomatometer?


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Summer of ground squirrels

By all accounts, the summer of 2010 was a good one (though I waited until January 2012 to finish writing about it). My favorite count, though, is the number of species of ground squirrels I saw this summer: at least seven. I had the good fortune to travel to a number of places with new and different non-arboreal scurids this summer.

Why bother studying ground squirrels? The best reason is that they're adorable. The second-best reason is that their numbers and habits make them among the most readily observed mammals in North America. I could spend my whole vacation in a blind waiting for a monkey-faced disco hawk or some other rare bird or mammal to come into view for a few seconds, or I could take a short walk along a talus pile on a sunny day and see who pops up. I took all the pictures below with my Canon Powershot SX110 IS, a nice but not terribly expensive point-and-shoot with a 10x optical zoom.

1. California ground squirrel, Otospermophilus beecheyi
Lisa and I saw this little fella, formerly known as Spermophilus b., on a bay-front walking path in Alameda, California.

2. Golden-mantled ground squirrel, Callospermophilus lateralis
This handsome rodent, formerly called Spermophilus l., superficially resembles a chipmunk, but is distinct in that chipmunks' stripes extend onto the face. This guy was scampering among the rocks at a Donner Pass Road overlook in Nevada County, California, near the famous Donner Summit Bridge. The American Society of Mammologists species account describes its running gait as "clumsy" (ASM Report #440, Spermophilus lateralis, 1993), which seems unnecessarily harsh. Perhaps the authors had observed only pubescent ground squirrels going through that awkward phase - want to make fun of their cracking voices and acne, too? Not cool, mammologists.

We also saw a yellow-bellied marmot there; my mother-in-law almost ran it over (unintentionally), but he safely scampered away.

3. Belding's ground squirrel, Urocitellus beldingi
Despite appearances, this guy is not a prairie dog. Formerly known as Spermophilus b. (noticing a pattern here?), this squirrel hangs out in alpine meadows. His habit of standing bolt upright to watch for danger led early settlers to call him the "picket pin". There was a small colony of these guys in the summit resort area at Squaw Peak.

4. Yellow-bellied marmot, Marmota flaviventris
Mr. Chubby-Cheeks here was seen hiding in a landscaped rockpile next to the hot tub at the Squaw Valley summit resort area. Lisa pointed out that some of the teenagers in and around the hot tub probably thought I was being creepy, hanging around with a camera in hand. I don't care - this picture was worth it. Click to enlarge it - you can see the marmot's nose hairs!

5. Chipmunk, Tamias sp.
This handsome rodent was spotted on a talus pile at a Lake Tahoe overlook and could be one of three species:
Tamias amoenus - Yellow-pine Chipmunk
Tamias speciosus - Lodgepole chipmunk
Tamias quadrimaculatus - Long-eared Chipmunk

6. Thirteen-lined ground squirrel, Ictidomys tridecemlineatus
This many-striped ground squirrel was known as Spermophilus t. prior to taxonomic revision. Lisa and I saw this individual feeding on some spilled popcorn on the central mall at Brookfield Zoo, in the Chicago suburbs. Nothing like a good stretch while eating unpopped kernels of salty goodness, eh?

7. Woodchuck, Marmota monax
I saw this chunky 'chuck at a family friend's place in Waukesha County, Wisconsin, on Labor Day. I think he safely sneaks under the radar as the last official ground squirrel of the summer. In some parts of the country, it's socially acceptable to call this animal a "whistle-pig", which is awesome.

View Summer of Ground Squirrels in a larger map

My identifications were assisted by:
  • Squirrels of the West. by Tamara Hartson (Lone Pine Publishing, 1999). I stumbled across this book in a Forest Service visitor center and instantly knew I had struck gold. I also recently acquired Squirrels of North America by Tamara Eder, who apparently is the same person.
  • San Francisco State University - Sierra Nevada Field Campus species list
  • National Audubon Society Pocket Guide - Familiar Mammals of North America
  • American Society of Mammologists species accounts (#221, #440, and others); some of them are freely available

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

BWCA 2011: Day 3

Boundary Waters Adventure with Lisa, Eric Z., Jessica H., and Kate S.

August 8-12, 2011

Day 3 - Back to Day 2 - On to Day 4

By dawn Lac La Croix had calmed from whitecaps to millpond. We had breakfast on the rocky point by the campsite and broke camp. We were sad to leave the site, but we could not in good conscience ask our hosts to share their site with us another night, so it was time to set sail in search of a new home.
Sunrise on Lac La Croix

Breakfast on the point
The first order of business was to find a campsite. We found an open site further north on Lac La Croix. It looked perfectly serviceable, but since it was before noon, we decided to look for another site, one that would be on a point more exposed to wind, such that it would keep the mosquitoes down. We posted Eric and Lisa with one canoe and a few bags as guards at the first site, and Kate, Jess, and I grabbed some other gear and went to check out the alternate site. We found the alternate site guarded by turtles but otherwise unoccupied. We set up some a tent to call dibs on the alternate site and went back to the first to give Eric and Lisa the good news.
Turtles guard the entrance to the bay on which we camped
With our new home established, we grabbed the day bags and went out looking for adventure. There are several well known sets of pictographs on a cliff face on the Canadian side of Lac La Croix. We spent a long time admiring them from the water, and then stopped to to have a snack.

Approaching the pictographs on Lac La Croix
We happened to encounter our Tuesday night campsite hosts at the pictographs. They graciously took a picture of all of us, and conscientiously returned the air mattress repair cement that Jess had lent them. We made a leisurely return to our campsite. I fished a bit (unsuccessfully) but saw a cool frog.

Some members of the party found other forms of amusement.

Then there was dinner, listening to loons, and bed.

Evening on the bay

Back to Day 2 - On to Day 4 

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

BWCA 2011: Day 2

Boundary Waters Adventure with Lisa, Eric Z., Jessica H., and Kate S.
August 8-12, 2011

Day 2 - Back to Day 1 - On to Day 3

I woke up just after dawn, watched the sunrise, and fished a bit.

Sunrise on Lake Agnes
Then I went back to sleep for about two hours.

When I got up - for realsies this time - the rest of the crew was having breakfast.

As I was taking down our tent, out of view of the lake, I heard a yelp and a splash. I ran to investigate and found Lisa, fully dressed in her jacket and rain gear, in the water on her hands and knees. She had been trying to rinse off her camp shoes when she slid down the rock into the water.I was tremendously relieved when I saw her stand and I knew she wasn't hurt, but my heart sank when she tried to stand and walk back to shore only to slip and splash again - the rock shelf that extended from our campsite into the water was just too slippery. Finally, Jess, Kate, Eric, and I formed a human chain extending from an area we could get a solid footing down into the water, and with a fallen branch to provide extra reach, we gave Lisa a solid handhold and she was able to make it to shore. Her arms and legs were soaked, but, critically, the core of her body was dry, and she decided a change of clothes would be unnecessary. Even more importantly, she was still smiling. Soon we were underway, heading north to Lac La Croix, along the Canadian border. 

On Day One, Lisa and I were in one canoe and Eric, Jess, and Kate were in the other (the middle person in the three-person canoe did not paddle). For the sake of variety, and to share time in the non-paddling seat, we rearranged seating for Day Two: Eric and I were in one canoe, and Lisa, Kate, and Jess were in the other.

My journal entry for the day begins:
Awoke Tues am on L. Agnes. Broke camp in intermittent light shower. Paddled north to Boulder R., at north end of L. Agnes. Paddled/poled thru rocky section marked as "rapids" on Fisher map. No rapids per se, just big rocks with narrow channel between. Then two portages (23 rod and 69 rod) into Boulder Bay on Lac La Croix. Capsized the canoe while putting into Boulder Bay. All main packs fine - they floated - but day pack got wet. NOAA weather radio inoperable. Emptied canoe, repacked, and paddled across bay to an empty campsite to use the "biffy".
Rapids along Boulder River. I never get tired of scenes of water flowing over rocks.
Eric and I shook off the embarrassment of capsizing the canoe - in full view of the ladies! - while loading it. I was pretty peeved that the weather radio got dunked, but I had no one but myself to blame - inexplicably, I had stuffed it into a very non-waterproof day pack rather than a dry bag that morning. I should have taken it apart immediately to allow all the water to escape, but I didn't do so until we made camp that afternoon. 

As we paddled out of Boulder Bay, it started to rain off and on. I think everyone's extremities were wet by this point, so we didn't mind too much. Critically, everyone's core was dry; otherwise, we would have stopped immediately. Still, I was really, really happy that, on a whim, I had decided to treat myself to a pair of neoprene paddling gloves when we made our last stop at the gear shop in Ely.

As we turned the bows of our canoes back toward Lac La Croix, the wind picked up. My journal entry continues: 
North wind – which had been blowing all day – got stronger. Also rained on and off. Paddled along west edge of peninsula separating Boulder Bay from Tiger Bay, straight into the wind. Then turned east to cross to a campsite on a boomerang-shaped island we had heard was good. Waves hitting beam of canoe made for unpleasant ride. As we approached, saw that the site was apparently occupied by just one man with no gear. Waited a moment to see if he showed any signs of leaving, but we couldn’t linger as lake was getting rougher. Decided to cross channel to another island with sites at N and S ends. As we approached, saw that this other site was also occupied. North wind stronger and lake rougher, so beached on sandy beach just N of second site – out of wind in cove – to regroup.
After resting a moment, we decided to paddle into the lee of the island we had landed upon and check another potential campsite (in the BWCA, camping is permitted only in designated sites with a Forest Service pit toilet and fire ring). When we rounded the southern tip of the island, we saw another party waiting out the wind in the lee, and shortly thereafter we found the hoped-for campsite occupied. We decided to cross the open channel back to the boomerang-shaped island and look for a campsite in that area. 
Paddled back to S tip of island with intention of making a break to easternmost end of boomerang-shaped island. Crossing very rough. I steered one canoe (Eric in front), Kate steered the other (Jess in front, Lisa in middle). North wind now very strong and lake very rough. Taking waves on beam could have swamped or even capsized a canoe. Decided to paddle straight into wind and waves for a bit, then turn sharply to go south toward boomerang island with quartering/following waves. Used lots of rudder to keep canoe from being turned parallel to the waves. Took on water splashing over bow when moving upwind. Finally reached lee of boomerang-shaped island, a little rattled by the crossing. 
At this point I became convinced that Boreas, the North Wind, was out to get us personally. Perhaps the Her Majesty's government had summoned the wind to keep us away from Canadian territory on the other side of the lake.
Decided to go talk to the lone dude on point of the boomerang-shaped island to see what his plans were. Sent Jess to hike around island to be our diplomat. Too rough to leave lee of island in canoes without good cause. Jess returned some time later with the news that the site was occupied by a father and son that had set up base camp there and were planning to stay a few days, but that they would share the site with us if we could find no other – "come back if you can’t find anything else," they said. This would be ok per BWCA regs since there would be only seven people and three canoes all together [in the BWCA, a maximum of nine people and four canoes may travel or camp together]. Decided to check a few other sites. Decided to send Kate & Jess to check two sites on bigger island to E, since that area was mostly out of the wind. The returned within three minutes, so we immediately knew the sites were occupied. In fact there were so informed by a passing canoe so they didn’t bother to check.  With this news, and the wind strong as ever, we decided to prevail upon the kindness of the duo on the boomerang-shaped island. We lined/walked the canoes around the windward side of the island. 
Walking the canoe into camp

Once we had introduced ourselves to the father and son and thanked them for accommodating us, we set up tents and clotheslines and set our wet gear out to dry. 

Boreas, the North Wind, toyed with us while looking for a campsite on Lac La Croix. We walked/lined the canoes from east to west on the north shore of the boomerang-shaped island.

The clouds broke up and the sun warmed our faces and, with the still-strong wind, quickly dried our gear. We filtered water, had some snacks, and gradually discovered that we occupied what was probably the most beautiful campsite on the lake.

Looking north from our campsite toward evening

We discovered that, as a teenager, the father had gone on a Boundary Waters trip with the same summer camp that Kate had attended and later guided for. He also mentioned that before the previous evening's rain, the fly-fishing action for smallmouth bass on Lac La Croix had been outstanding. I had quit fishing on Lake Agnes earlier on that evening and, if the theories of the influence of barometric pressure on fish behavior are to be believed, missed the bite: Micropterus dolomieu 1, me 0. But as we watched the sun set and the stars appear over the rocky point at the edge of our campsite, I didn't mind too much.

Sunset on Lac La Croix
Back to Day 1 - On to Day 3 

Monday, August 8, 2011

BWCA 2011: Day 1

Boundary Waters Adventure with Eric Z., Jessica H., and Kate S.
August 8-12, 2011
Following last year's adventure, Lisa joined the crew for another Boundary Waters trip. We began our Minnesota adventure with a quick visit with Lisa's parents and friends in the Twin Cities. The trip started auspiciously with a meal at the world 's largest Culver's restaurant, in Edgerton, Wisconsin.

While Lisa and I were heading north from the Cities, Eric and Jess were passing through Duluth, where they made another pilgrimage to the Duluth Pack store and caught a view of the famous Aerial Bridge opening to accommodate an ore boat entering the harbor.

We all converged on Ely around dinnertime, meeting up with Kate who was already in town. We enjoyed a pre-trip feast and then got down to a frenzy of packing.

Day 1 - on to Day 2

We left Ely about 9:15 am and headed northwest on Echo Trail to BWCA Entry Point #16, Moose River North. The entry parking lot was packed, and a few small groups were entering and leaving the BWCA as we readied our gear.

It was a 160 rod (half-mile) portage from the parking area to the put-in. The weather was partly sunny and about 75 degrees. There was a sandy beach area at the put-in, nice for loading canoes. Just upstream (south) of the put-in, the river flowed through a rocky stretch. During high water, this was probably a rapids or small falls; in August, it was mostly rocks with a small stream gently flowing through. From the put-in north, we found the Moose River to be a slow-moving stream through a swampy lowland. The tannin-stained water was bordered by willows and other low brush.

The Moose River put-in

Downstream from the put-in, the Moose River was punctuated by a few small rapids and one old, very large beaver dam. We made short work of the 20 and 25 rod portages around these obstructions. Further downstream, we encountered two more beaver dams. We simply dragged the canoes over these. A third dam had been breached by flood or other activity, allowing us to paddle straight through. The Moose River emptied into Nina Moose Lake, and we paddled straight across Nina Moose Lake to its outlet, the Nina Moose River. We stopped for lunch at a small sand beach just west of the outlet. As we were crossing Nina Moose Lake, a south wind picked up. Maneuvering the canoes in the following waves got to be a little tricky.

Lunchtime on Nina Moose Lake

After lunch, we proceeded north along the Nina Moose River. Two small rapids - really just rocks, with very little water trickling among them - interrupted our paddling with 70 and 96 rod portages, respectively. We also dragged our canoes over another beaver dam. We saw a whitetail deer in the brush, a bit back from the water. This was to be the only large mammal we saw on the trip. The Nina Moose River seemed to go on for a long, long time. We had to push or pole the canoes through several shallow reaches. Finally, we reached Lake Agnes, where we planned to spend the night.

We grabbed the first open campsite on Lake Agnes, at the southwest end of the lake, just north of the mouth of the Nina Moose River. We had heard distant rumblings of thunder, so we set up camp quickly. The storm never passed near us, but we were treated to a rainbow over the north end of the lake anyway. We also discovered that some previous occupant of the campsite had assembled a rock windscreen around the Forest Service fire grate and fashioned a table out of some fairly substantial rocks. "Improvements" such as these are officially discouraged by the Forest Service; while we wouldn't build improvements ourselves, we had no qualms about taking advantage of someone else's handiwork.

Campsite on Lake Agnes

While setting up the tents on a grassy patch set back from the lake and our cooking area, we noticed that our footfalls made an odd hollow sound. We stomped around for a while and became convinced that the possible void beneath us posed no threat. Sure enough, we would sleep soundly atop this geological oddity.

We spent the remaining hours of daylight preparing dinner and defending it from the local ground squirrels. In keeping with tradition, our first evening's meal was the steaks that had been thawing in our food pack while we were paddling. Fry bread rounded out the meal.

First night's dinner: steak and fry bread

Toward evening, I made a few casts with the Scum Frog Tiny Toad. I fish with surface lures - floating plugs, poppers, sliders, dry flies - whenever possible, and it seemed to make sense to do my initial prospecting with a weedless floating lure, but I didn't get any strikes. Finally, just after sunset, we went to bed.

On to Day 2

Thursday, February 3, 2011

45 N, 90 W

GPS dorks (e.g., yours truly) think it's cool to visit points on the surface of the earth where imaginary lines of latitude and longitude intersect. These points are called "confluences" to make them sound more awesome.

It should be noted that latitudes are a lot less arbitrary than longitude: the latitude of a given point corresponds directly to the elevation angle of the North Star above the horizon at that point; the locus of points at which this elevation is a given number is a circle around the earth.

That's why crossing the 45th parallel is neat- you're halfway between the Equator and the North Pole. Of course, if you started from 42°N, as I did, it's less exciting. However, during the summer, those three degrees of latitude mean noticeably more daylight. This is important for one of two reasons: 1) like a reptile, I need to bask; or 2) like Kal-El, the last son of Krypton, I gain my powers from the Earth's yellow sun. Believe whichever of those you like.

I'm not the only one who thinks this is cool. The park district of Marathon County, Wisconsin, put up a sign on the confluence of 45°N and 90°W. According to the writeup at, the very existence of this monument is the culmination of one man's personal quest.

It's worth noting that the marker was probably placed without benefit of GPS. Geographic nerdosity existed long before (artificial) satellites could tell us anything useful. GPS just helped. A lot.

Coordinates: (surprise!) 45°N, 90°W. There's a signed access road from Highway 29.

I visited the site and took this picture over five years ago. The current winter wonderland reminded me of stomping around in the snow to find the marker.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Sleepy badger

Look at him, he's probably dreaming about mauling prairie dogs.

Sleep well, my ill-tempered friend.

Seen a while ago at the NEW Zoo, near Green Bay, Wisconsin.