In the Presence of Photographers

I went on an outing to Mammoth Mountain with the Rancho Photo Club to shoot autumn colors. I’m neither a member nor a photographer—I tagged along as ‘spouse of member.’ It was an educational experience. Photo shoots require a great deal of running back and forth on the same stretch of highway and a whole lot of waiting for the light. The daybreak shoots didn’t fit my schedule, but I went along for the ride of a few others.

 To say there were colors is misleading. There was yellow. The Sierra, lacking maples, is pretty exclusively decorated with the gold of aspens and cottonwoods. That’s not to say they weren’t spectacular.

Aspen close

Don’t get the idea that an accomplished photographer took these shots. It was me with my hand-me-down point-and-shoot camera.

The highlight of the trip was a sunset shoot at Mono Lake. That was a rather weird trip, but I learned a lot about the place. Did you know that Mono Lake is more than twice as salty as the ocean, and from the fifties to the nineties, it was a major source of drinking water for Los Angeles. The water level was drained by forty feet vertically. Then, of course, there was a big move to “Save Mono Lake” and the tap was closed. This raises two interesting points. The big attraction at Mono is the tufas. Otherworldly outcroppings of calcified stuff.

Tufa 1

The photo shoot took place at South Tufa where I don’t believe there were any tufas more than forty feet tall, therefore, if Los Angeles hadn’t raided the lake, the main attractions would be underwater. The other thing is that salinity business. If it was economically feasible to desalinate the water drawn from Mono Lake, why isn’t it feasible to desalinate seawater?

There were a surprising number of photography groups at South Tufa. In addition to my own great photographer, there was some joker making an Arabic music video, a native drummer having what looked like an out of body experience, a bunch of Japanese kids taking selfies, and I was later told there was a naked girl making promotional shots for a movie or something. I complained bitterly about only being informed of that last fact after we left the lake.

Clockwise from left: Great Photographer, bonehead Arab singer, spiritual drummer. Sorry, no naked girl.

This one tufa drew particular attention. The group waited breathlessly for that moment when the sun, having sunk below the horizon, reflects rosy light from the underside of clouds, and illuminates the subject in some preternatural glow. The first shot is in direct sunlight, the second is reflected light. Remember, I said there was a great deal of standing around waiting for the light? Full sun is on the left, reflected light is on the right.

Before leaving the Mammoth area, we visited the Devil’s Post Pile. I’m not sure what a post pile is, but surely the Devil must have one, and this is it. A very weird pile of rocks.

Devil pile

I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the TalibanI Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The whole world knows that Malala is the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban because she campaigned for girls’ education. I Am Malala is much more than recounting that gruesome event. It is a frank and accurate history of Pakistan, especially the Swat region and the Pashtun tribe. She is brutally honest about the barbarism of her people, particularly concerning the subjugation of women who are denied an education and forced to confine themselves to home and travel only with a husband or male relative. They often practice arranged marriages and sell daughters as brides to settle family blood feuds. Malala also reveals in vivid terms the dysfunction and duplicity of Pakistan’s government and army who, while claiming allegiance to the US and accepting billions of dollars, aided and abetted Osama bin Laden.

All this is very interesting and on the mark. Because Pakistan is supposedly an ally, we seldom hear the truth about this ruthless, backstabbing, hypocritical nation of tribal barbarians who possess nuclear weapons. We can see video of Taliban in Afghanistan herding women into soccer stadiums and shooting them in the head, or stoning women on the street. What we don’t see are videos of the same atrocities in Pakistan. Malala describes these outrages in an almost offhand tone and never once considers that the root cause of the problem is Islam. Despite her ordeal and having become a world-renowned proponent for educational reform, she faithfully accepts the repression of women, keeps the scarf on her head, and claims to want nothing more than to return to the Swat valley where her attempted assassin has become leader of the local Taliban. She tells about, when visiting Mecca, her mother bought a new burqa for the occasion. It can’t be both ways. One is either subjugated or not. She even sugar coats parts of the Quran, once stating that Mohamed “migrated” from Mecca to Medina. History tells us that the Meccans had had enough of him and ran his ass out of town.

I have to say that I am glad I read I Am Malala, but I can’t say that I ever warmed to the person. I also think that this book isn’t particularly well edited. How much the co-author contributed, I can’t say. The voice sounds genuinely Malala’s, but there are some places where a native English speaker might have suggested changes. It also bothered me that in her gushing admiration for Obama, she claimed that he rose from a struggling family. Struggling how? Is being raised by affluent white grandparents struggling? It’s a remarkable story that shines a light on a global crisis, but I’m not sure Malala Yousafzai actually sees the crisis.

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poggibonsipoggibonsi by Dan Alatorre

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mike was a venture capitalist with a plan to destroy Tuscany, so he started in the hole on the likeability index. He took his wife and young daughter to Italy for a vacation before settling into the business of plundering the fabled countryside. He fell on the wrong side of his wife, Mattie, and she went home in a huff. To make things worse, his local contact and business partner was hospitalized with heart trouble. Alberto tells him not to worry, that he will appoint an associate to help cement the deals. That associate happens to be the most beautiful young woman in Italy. This can only end badly.

Reading Poggibonsi, which is the name of the town on which Mike intends to do a hostile takeover, takes faith and patience. Until we meet the succulent Julietta, there’s not much happening. The first person narrative is burdened with excessive detail. There are some diversions to third person, which may have been a better choice of voices. Mike’s assistant, Samantha, is an endearing character who, in addition to being infatuated with Mike, is Mattie’s best friend. This is a complicated dynamic within the plot. Mike redeems himself from time to time with some insightful observations about the nature of life. The ending is fairly predictable and lingers longer than this reader thought it should. The meat of this story is Julietta, and that part is done extremely well. She has beauty, brains, and she knows how to go about getting what she wants. What’s not to like about that?

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Everyone Loves a Good Plague


Bubonic plague may not be the only star of the Black Death. Anthrax may have had a supporting role. Whether one, the other, or both, the Black Death killed twenty million people, a percentage of world population even greater than the fifty million killed by the Spanish Flu pandemic of the early twentieth century. A culling of that magnitude had a profound effect on the future world. It gave us Ring Around the Rosie and prevented the Plantagenet kings from seizing the rule of France, the Low Countries, Spain, and possibly even Germany.


Mr. Cantor delves deeply into the impact the plague had on historic individuals as well as facets of society. He explores the intricacies of land inheritance as it was impacted by the loss of heirs and convoluted English law. These aspects are the focus of this book more that the rampage of the epidemic across Europe and Britain. In the Wake of the Plague also tells of the contemporary attempts to rationalize the disaster. In various places Jews were tortured until they confessed to poisoning wells. The alignment of Jupiter and Saturn were blamed, and at later times, pathogens from outer space were the cause. This fascinating book is quite scholarly. It is definitely not light reading, but it is well worth the effort.

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Golden State Blues

NO capitol

Our shiny-headed governor says he will sign a bill into law ordering courts, police, cities, and all the way down to landlords, to violate Federal Law. If I recall, South Carolina did something similar to this in 1860, just before Lincoln sent federal troops to resupply Fort Sumter.

The California Constitution says this:

SEC. 3.5.  An administrative agency, including an administrative

agency created by the Constitution or an initiative statute, has no


   (a) To declare a statute unenforceable, or refuse to enforce a

statute, on the basis of it being unconstitutional unless an

appellate court has made a determination that such statute is


   (b) To declare a statute unconstitutional;

   (c) To declare a statute unenforceable, or to refuse to enforce a

statute on the basis that federal law or federal regulations prohibit

the enforcement of such statute unless an appellate court has made a

determination that the enforcement of such statute is prohibited by

federal law or federal regulations.

Part (c) seems to say to me, “Federal trumps State.” Furthermore, parts (a) and (b) make no distinction between state and federal statutes when denying administrative agencies the power to declare them unconstitutional.

By signing this bill, our governor will be committing an act of treason. It’s time for President Trump to declare Jerry Brown to be in a state of rebellion and send federal troops to throw his ass in jail along with the legislature and all the mayors—numerous police chiefs as well.

House of Spies

House of Spies (Gabriel Allon #17)House of Spies by Daniel Silva

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Julian Isherwood, geriatric art dealer, was stood-up by his date, who was half his age. His untimely exit from the posh London restaurant made him witness to the beginning of a terrorist attack. His panicked reaction saves dozens from annihilation. It just won’t do to have a terrorist attack without bringing that master of assassination, Gabriel Allon, out of the shadows where he has been lurking at the head of Israel’s intelligence service. The perpetrator is well known to the heads of intelligence across the globe, but how will they locate him and draw him into the open? Gabriel, as usual, has the solution. First steal a few hundred million Euros from Bashar Assad, then buy a villa at San Tropez in the name of a Russian arms dealer and his French wife. This was to attract the attention of a French billionaire and his stunning, almost wife, who is actually the largest importer of Moroccan hashish. Of course, we know that Gabriel won’t fail, but what will be the aftermath of the ISIS’s leader’s demise?

I first encountered Daniel Silva in Barbados. He wasn’t there, but one of his books was in the hotel’s ‘take a book, leave a book’ library. I’ve been hooked ever since. The Gabriel Allon character is a part-time assassin and a part-time art restorer who has a troubled past. He slips in and out of Europe and the U.S. with cat-like stealth mounting complex operations for the Israeli secret service. One can think of him as a Jewish James Bond who practices monogamy. As odd as that sounds, Allon is enormously appealing.

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The Great Quake

The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the PlanetThe Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet by Henry Fountain

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Alaska earthquake of 1964 was the largest seismic event to ever strike North America. It lasted for nearly five minutes and triggered a series of catastrophic tsunamis. I recall when it happened, and I even spoke to a person who experienced it. That is one reason why I wanted to read this book. The other reason is that I’m writing a book that begins with a big earthquake, and I wanted to do some fact checking. Mr. Fountain’s description of the earth movement and the tsunamis is marvelous. The truth in this case, is hyperbole. Towns vanish, ships and people disappear, the earth opens, and snaps shut repeatedly. Houses fall into great fissures. Those readers who are familiar with earthquakes should try to imagine one that lasts for five minutes and increases in intensity as it progresses.

I am disappointed to have to tell you that the actual description of the disaster is woefully brief. Most of this book is filler. We have the life story of the geologist who investigated the quake after the fact. We even got the life history of his father. We were subjected to the life story of one of the early proponents of the Continental Drift Theory. A few more biographies of some of the victims were thrown in to fill a couple more chapters. There is just too much uninteresting and unnecessary information. I suggest that you skim it or skip it. Go straight for the earthquake. That part is great.

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