Jun 30, 2010

The Silver Bullet

This was our rental car. It's a Hyundai Atos, which means "shoebox" in korean if I'm not mistaken. When I left we had put nearly 7000 km on the thing. Clocking in at a whopping 58 horsepower, we hit first gear a few times going up hills.

The puzzling thing to me was that it didn't even get very good gas milage. After numerous conversions, we figured it to get about 36 miles per gallon or so. I remember my mom's 2003 Honda Accord, with 160 horsepower and about twice the space, could easily get over 40 mpg.

The issue, I think, is that a car so underpowered actually becomes less efficient. Maintaining road speed with such a tiny engine makes you wind it up so much it's on a lousy place on the torque curve. About the only advantage is that they have to be dirt cheap to make.

Jun 29, 2010

Ivory Coast vs North Korea

This was the last game for me. Ivory Coast won but still didn't make it out of the group stage.

After that we went back to Pretoria where my friends from the USA dropped me off. They have tickets to a couple more games but I'm going to a computer conference for the next week or so.

Too bad about the USA team, but at least we made it out of the group stage. Now I'm rooting for Germany and Argentina.

Jun 27, 2010

I'm rich!

Oddly enough, this money is probably worth more now than it was back when it was real currency just in sheer bizarre factor.

Jun 24, 2010

Elephants of the day

This little one in front there flapped his ears and trumpeted at us in the cutest threat imaginable.

Jun 23, 2010


This is a Baobab tree, one of the iconic images of Africa. We've seen a whole pack of wildlife here, including baboons, vervet monkeys, hippos, giraffes, elephants, waterbucks, impalas, kudu, duiker, and a couple big cats, one of which was a probable lion.

The best sighting of the day, though, was a mother leopard with several cubs. We never would have seen her but for a ranger who gave us the tip-off.

Jun 21, 2010

Ivory Coast vs Brazil

After the USA game we spent an afternoon at the Apartheid museum. That night my friends went to the Ivory Coast game. I didn't have tickets, so I stayed behind. The loss to Brazil, combined with the drubbing Portugal gave to North Korea today, basically puts Ivory Coast out of contention.

Now we're in Kruger for a few days. The picture is of some Cape Buffalo we saw on the way in to the first camp.

Jun 19, 2010

Guest story: Samuel Manymules

[Front matter: My Dad wrote this one about a breakdown my family had in Arizona. I was present at the time and helped a bit to remember the conversation.]

It’s an hour before the sudden winter darkness will overtake us. We’re off on the side of the two-lane blacktop road, sixty miles out of Kayenta on the way to Flagstaff. The ramparts of ravaged Black Mesa rise in the south not a mile away and what little traffic there is consists of Native Americans, who get their coal from the mine for free, hauling flammable rocks back to their homes. Christmas is three days away .The back of the car is jammed with presents. There’s green stuff running out of the engine into the red sands of Navajoland like some sickly holiday metaphor. A conversation I’d had years earlier with an auto mechanic is slowly coming back to me.

“We changed all the belts and hoses, like you wanted, except that one there,” he’d said, pointing with disdain into the foreign-made guts of the engine compartment. “You’d have to take the engine out to get the clamps off. I can’t understand why anyone would build a car like that.” He sniffed.

I’d taken the Isuzu in for an evaluation, wanting to know if he thought we could pull a dory to Idaho with it. The Snake River is a 2,000 mile turn-around for us and the Trooper was showing its age with radical mood swings. Lately she had refused to idle below 1,800 rpm. She could maintain a brisk walking pace up most hills, but that was without a trailer. Trusting her to haul clan, baggage, and 16’9” of wooden watercraft to Hell’s Canyon was a leap of faith. Performing the motorhead equivalent of sacrificing a calf, I’d had the mechanic adjust the valves and replace the belts, hoses and plugs. That was six or seven years ago. As for the “impossible” repair, I’d gone down to the auto parts store and bought five feet of ¾ inch heater hose, tossed it in the back and figured I’d probably never have to deal with it.


My left arm is the only one I’ve got that will bend in all the right directions to enable me to feel the blown hose. I diagnose a two-inch aneurysm in the heater core supply hose brought to rupture by the stress of the holidays. It dribbles two ounces of 180 degree antifreeze over my fingertips. I pull back reflexively which takes the hide off a couple knuckles. No matter, I need a plan more than a flawless outer layer at this point. The cell phone doesn’t work. What about Gerry’s birthday in Tempe tomorrow? It would take a tow truck an hour to get here, cost a fortune. Where would they take us anyway, Mexican Water? There’s nothing there. Would insurance cover it? Not likely. I wonder if that hogan back there has a phone? It’s getting dark. Shit. Shit. Shit. “You’re going to have to fix it,” I tell myself. “Have to.” Hurry. I pull my emergency tool kit out of the back, find the length of hose.

I come from a family of car-fixers. My father, who instilled in me the working knowledge of this nation’s most indispensable machine, would have been astonished to learn that there are motorists out there who know nothing of motors. This ignorance could leave one helpless in the face of greedy mechanics or, as is common for some reason in our family, breakdowns. This is a disaster I’ve been anticipating.

By snaking my hand through the tangle of wires and tubes around the carburetor I can get under the intake manifold, between the starting motor and the bell housing and just graze the head of the hose clamp screw with one finger. I must force the back of my hand into a cheese grater of spring clips that hold the brake lines to the firewall. A pound of flesh is what I’m including in the estimate. Everything is slick with sprayed coolant and oil the Trooper has been leaking out the rear main seal for decades. There’s dust embedded in the goo from Diamond Creek, Lolo Pass and Cabeza Prieta. There’s grit from Elephant Hill and Ft. Scott, Kansas. Sand from Goblin Valley and Paradise Flats. The magic carpet has been grounded by faulty maintenance. I don’t blame the Isuzu, still giving it everything it had. It’s my own damn fault.

By the grace of God, I’ve got a stubby Phillips screwdriver and a further miracle allows me to engage the screw after dropping the tool in the dirt only 3,000 times. Each time I have to extricate my battered limb, crawl under the car for the screwdriver, and position it in my hand just so, because I can neither change my grip or see what I’m doing once I’m started. Then I re-insinuated myself into the vehicle’s entrails with the screwdriver poised like an ovipositor, deeper and deeper, till my shoulder jams against the distributor and my face is mashed on the fender, standing on the tiptoes of one foot. It must look as if the car just got me in its jaws and is waiting for the venom to take effect. I get a quarter turn on the screw and drop the tool. Another quarter turn and I managed to hold it in place and get another, then drop it three times in a row.

It’s starting to get cold. Unaccountably, I’m in my flip flops, Cholla Bay, the bottom of our projected loop, is still 600 miles off. My toes are numb. My left hand looks like a baggy full of hamburger and road tar. We’re not going to make the party at Brad’s. I get another turn and drop it. When I straighten up there’s Samuel Manymules standing at the opposite fender. He says, “Having a picnic?”

I laugh in spite of our predicament. “We pulled over to watch the sunset and I thought I might as well replace some hoses while we were stopped. This is such a pretty place.” Which, in fact, it is, though it’s harder to notice nowadays with the abandoned gas stations, overgrazing and sprinkling of Phase One Trailer Blight. Wind blows all the time. It’s blowing now.

“You going to need a tow truck?” he asks. “I hope not to,” I say. “I’ve got the parts to fix it, but I need to hire a left-handed Chinese dwarf to install them. You know any?”

“Noooo,” he says drawing in out while he considers. “I know some short people but no Chinese.” He speaks Navajo-English with its hard consonants and drawn out vowels. It has the punctuated rhythm of rap music but I can actually listen to a native speaker without comprehension and enjoy it. It’s more lyrical.

“Might need some water if I ever get it back together,” I say. There’s a gallon of antifreeze I carry around with us but that’s it. The system holds two. There’s a couple of partial Nalgene bottles for drinking. “Never leave home without enough water to get to the next spring afoot, you idiot,” I remind myself. “You live in a desert.”

Samuel asks his wife if they still have water. They do. She is sitting calmly in the idling Chevy S-10 full of the firewood they having been cutting, looking straight ahead. She will do this for the next two hours without comment.

Samuel grabs a flashlight out of his truck and plays it over the battlefield. No bulb on earth is going to enable me to see through the intake manifold but I am grateful. Maybe he could ride me to Tuba City if these efforts fail. “I used to drive a wrecker on this road,” he tells us. “Four years. You see all kinds of things. People hitting horses, cows, sheep, each other. Falling asleep. One night I walked up and down this road till dawn looking for four fingers this lady had got torn off in a roll over. She had her hand out the window, I guess. Never did find one. I was so tired, I was seeing fingers everywhere. Crawling under bushes like worms.”

I’ve got the miserable hose clamp off now, and also the easy one on the end I can see, but the hose is stuck to the fittings with eighteen years worth of tenacity. I vigorously wrench it back and forth the two degrees it will move and take the last of the dermis off my knuckles. Blood, oil and coolant mix in my veins. I am brother to internal combustion, at one with my rig. I measure a new piece of hose against the old one, cut it off with a multi-tool I’d been given as a free promo from an equipment rental company.

As it turns out, the Japanese hose clamps will not fit around the outside of the American heater hose, which is a thicker walled, more manly hose. It’s close but not quite. You can’t disengage the tightening mechanism completely and reassemble it around the fitting like the Gringo ones either. This is a show stopper. Maybe there’s something that would help in the bottom of the leave-it-in-the car box, I think; something in there with the dead AA batteries, shreds of map, tire inflator and dried-out diaper wipes still reeking of that awful “fragrance” they put on them. There are relics of a thousand adventures in the crannies of the Trooper and I might find anything; a piece of mystery hardware from Hidden Splendor Mine or wire from Imogene Pass, enough bread and cheese crumbs to sustain me in a hike to Bitter Spring. If history could fill the gas tank, we could drive this outfit to Anarctica nonstop.

We brought our daughter M. home from birthing center at LDS hospital in Salt Lake in this car. They handed me a $100 bill as encouragement to do a one-night stay again when we came in to have the inevitable next one. One-nighters are a big money maker for the hospital. This was Utah. They want your birthing business.

Her brother R. was three and had barely gotten used to having a back seat that was big enough for a fella to spread out in. He eyed the lump of new protoplasm with some suspicion. “Are you going to stop crying now, Mom?” he’d asked. Later he learned to shift gears in this car, as did his sister. It’s freighted with so many milestones, no wonder it’s slow.

We took our first bank loan to buy the Trooper, used, with 25,000 miles on it. The credit manager was astonished that we didn’t show up on any rating service. “Everyone’s rated,” he said, “You don’t exist.” Back then we lived in one of the most beautiful and empty places on earth –actually we still do, but this was the old Torrey, Utah, the good Torrey, before the hotels and B&Bs. We haunted the canyons in the Trooper, occupied the Aquarius Plateau. The Isuzu would go anywhere and that’s where we went. When the road turned to single-track, we’d put the kids on our backs and walked. I carried R. on my shoulders into the Maze, but it was the Isuzu that delivered us to the bottom of the terrifying Flint Trail and waited at Lizard Rock with the life support systems at ready and battery charged. The Trooper was just that, before the SUV thing went over to the dark side; a simple, practical, durable, slow-moving, good-natured, unstoppable brontosaurus of a car. I wasn’t just trying to fix it, I was trying to give back to an old friend in need.

From the bottom of the car box, I surface with—glory hallelujah—a one-inch helical hose clamp. Just one. Damn. There’s two ends.

Samuel turns his truck to point the headlight at us. It is now completely dark and quite cold. “You need a jacket?” he asks. “I got anudder one in the truck.” “Thanks,” I say but the stress is keeping my core temperature up. “I just got in the habit of seeing if everyone was OK out here,” he says. “It’s a long way to anywhere. I haven’t drove the tow truck for a long time.” “What do you do now?” my wife L. asks him.

“I’m a potter,” he says “I make pots.” Of course. “We been driving around all over out on second mesa and up there,” he nods toward Black Mesa. “We get a load of wood and I gather what I need for my glazes. The minerals.” I regard him anew. “The glazes?” I ask. “Yeah, he says. “I make my own glazes from what I find around here. Out by Kaibito, Ganado, all over. I get clay too, down by the river, there’s a few spots that’s pretty good, but those pots was breaking, a lot of them, you know, in the kiln. Costs a lot to fire the kiln. Now I mix it with half the stuff from the supplier, off the truck. It’s one thing that makes my pots different. For the market, you know. People like that. It’s native.” He laughs.

I’m thinking of the roadside stands that sell “Indian” jewelry and rubber tomahawks when I ask, “How’s business?” “Pretty good,” he says “I got “Best of Show” in Santa Fe last month. Sold that pot for $3,000. The lady that bought it, you know, she slept under my table the night before the bidding. It didn’t even start till nine, but she wanted to be sure she was first. I thought that was a little bit nuts. She was from Norway... or Sweden or someplace. She said my pots were so beautiful, they made her cry. My pots made her cry. I thought that was pretty good.” He laughs again.

There is blood dripping off the elbow of the arm that has the hand that’s trying to ratchet the hose clamp down, but I’m focused momentarily on Mr. Manymules. Why is he being so nice? Why isn’t he out in the hot tub with a glass of white wine? I offer him an escape route. “You don’t need to spend all evening out here in the cold with us, Samuel, “I say, “We’ll get this figured out.” Though I’m clueless how. “Let’s see if you get going,” he says.

I am able to use a socket wrench to tighten the “impossible” clamp, but it will only move the screw one click at a time, 24 clicks per revolution. Usually the ratchet handle clatters through the engine compartment to the dirt between clicks. It is maddening, but my rage is contained by the cold clarity of necessity. R. cannot believe that I haven’t flattened the Trooper into a steel wafer with whatever was at hand by now, but...where would we be then? “Temper, temper,” I repeat like a mantra. “We must persist at the task at hand.” Finally, the clamp seems to snug up. I can’t be sure.

For the visible end of the hose, my strategy is to modify one if the original hose clamps with Fleet’s multi-tool, tweaking the mechanism here and there to gain an added fraction of capacity. I will have to remove the tightening screw altogether, which means the retaining nut, the size of a tic tac and gravel colored, will be free to fall into the churned earth below the car in the pitch black. R. has the cool LED headlamp that Gary gave me, focused on the arena. L. has a flashlight. Samuel has a 12 volt Navajo substation lightsource.

Right about then I have this thought that maybe I know why Samuel is out here, holding his flashlight in the cold, with his wife patiently idling in the Chevy. I think I’ve got it. There’s “Revival” signs along this highway year long and the big blue tents of the evangelicals are a common sight. Missionaries crawl the ridges. The Rez is a great place to hunt for lost souls. I’m thinking maybe Samuel is counting on a heavenly reward for this miserable evening. I wonder if he’s been waiting for an opening. I decide to give it to him. Next time I drop the wrench, I say, “Makes you wonder how hose clamps could be a part of God’s plan.”

“God’s plan?” Samuel says right off. “You guys religious?” I admit that we are not. I am sorry for this at the moment. I would beseech any higher authority to fix this car, but none has proven adept at auto mechanics. “We are kind of non-religious, in fact.” By this I hope to shorten the inevitable sermon.

“You know,” begins Samuel, “My Grandmother wanted me to learn about the white man’s religion. She said the religion of the Dineh must not have any power any more because look how things are going. I went to different religious schools my whole life. Catholic, Jesuit, Methodist, I went to them all. My Grandmother, she said I had to go to all these schools to learn about the white man’s religion. To see what’s there. To see what gives them power. I went clear through high school. I went to them all. I came back and said Grandma, I know what’s there. Now I know. Nothing. There’s nothing there.” I can see his backlit profile in headlights, looking away. “Religion is poison,” he says. “Poison that makes you blind. Like bad alcohol.”

He was positive about this. “You live your life as best you can,” said Samuel, “You get old and die. What’s the matter with that? You die like a dog or a deer. What’s the matter with that? Why do you have to make it any different than that? It’s nuts.”

There is the empty wind, the starry fullness of the reservation’s night sky. “Nobody wants to die,” I finally say.

“Well, that’s tough,” says Samuel Manymules. I don’t have any argument.

“I did see something once,” he says “Something like a spirit or a chindi, I don’t know. My cousin and I were out at my uncle’s old house one night, nobody’s lived there for years, you know, and we’re hearing this sound that’s not like the wind, like giant bee or something. My cousin wanted me to go outside to see. He was scared. I was a little too, but I don’t believe all that stuff so I did. I walked out of the house about from here to the road, that far. This thing comes from behind me, brushes my leg, shoots off about thirty feet that way, faster than anything can go. Stops, turns around, comes right at me. I couldn’t move. I’m like a tree. It went right by me again, then it was over there, instantly. This thing was like a piece of the dark. It didn’t have any shape, you know, wasn’t very big either, like dog sized. As big as a dog, but I could see the bushes right through it in the star light. You can’t see through a dog.

My own skin is crawling. I’ve forgotten about the hose.

“I didn’t know what it was. I just stood there with this thing shooting all around me. Stood there for a long time. Sometimes it would stop for a second and I said this one time, ‘Go ahead and kill me if that’s what you’re going to do. Go ahead. I’m getting real tired standing here.’ Then it started shooting around again. I just sat down after a while, crossed my legs and sat down. Stayed like that for hours with this thing shooting all around me. Finally it left. My cousin, he was sure I was dead. I’d been out there so long it was almost morning. I was out there all night. That’s the only thing that ever happened. The only thing I can’t understand.”

I go back to my clamp. The night is darker still and more inhabited. I think I’ve about got it done though and I’m trying to replace the various tubes and wires I’ve knocked off in my frenzy. I’m sticking vacuum hoses on any vacant fitting and twisting green wires together with white ones. I throw all the tools and trash in a bag and toss the oily mess onto a heap of Christmas presents in the back. The motor starts right up and fires on a small majority of cylinders. In the daylight I will find the loose vacuum advance hose without which the engine will scarcely run. There is no stream of coolant visible, but the thermostat isn’t going to deliver any juice to the heater till the engine warms up, so I can’t really tell if it’s leaking. No time for that. I’ll just have to keep one eye glued to the gauge. You can never let a Trooper get too hot. Its aluminum cylinder head will warp. Then the whole engine is toast.

Samuel and his wife follow our sputtering rig into Tuba City. We burn a half tank of gas going 60 miles. Something’s not right but it’s running. We pull over to thank the Manymules at the gas station. Her tells us where he lives, offers us a place to stay but I’m taking this oil-soaked road show to a motel. “Come by in the morning if you need a mechanic or parts, I know someone who would open up,” he says. “I make pretty good coffee.”

“I can’t thank you enough,” I say. I’m afloat in a sea of the milk of human kindness, buoyed by the relief of disaster averted. “That’s one heck of a good man you have there,” I tell his wife. “I know,” she says. We wave goodbye. I drive off into the glittering sprawl of Tuba City, wondering whom it is I need to thank for the many roots of compassion.

Copyright 2010. No part of this writing may be reproduced without written permission from the author. Image credit: Wikipedia/Creative Commons.

USA vs Slovenia

After a freezing night at Cathedral Peak, we drove to Johannesburg for the game. The USA played terribly at first, but managed to pull out a two-all tie. With England's miserable performance against Algeria last night, that puts us very much in the running for the next round.

Jun 16, 2010

Ivory Coast vs Portugal

After seeing some elephants (they were quiet and mostly just seemed hungry), several jackals, a kudu, a bushbuck, and some cape buffalo at Addo, we drove into Port Elizabeth for the game.

Ivory Coast put up a strong defense and fought Portugal to a draw. This was the first major sporting event I have ever attended, and it was great fun. Drogba was put in at the end to rousing cheers.

After the game we drove to East London for the night. Today we're staying in Port St. John's. We had a quick swim in the ocean, which was suprisingly warm. Tonight we'll watch bafana bafana play Uruguay.

Jun 14, 2010

World Cup update

From Cape Town we drove down the coast to the Tsitsikamma National Park. This morning we took a hike to this suspension bridge and then to the waterfall posted earlier. On the way back we saw Southern Right whales breaching about 100 meters off shore.

After that we drove through Port Elizabeth, with some intermittent heavy rain, to the Addo Elephant National Park. Tonight we sleep here and we'll hopefully see some big mammals tomorrow before our first game in Port Elizabeth.

Handstand of the day

In Tsitsikhama National Park.

Jun 13, 2010

USA vs England

Yesterday we drove down to the Cape of Good Hope. We saw penguins, baboons, and an ostrich. On the way back we stopped for fish and chips in Fish Hoek, which were greasy and delicious. The whole cape area has been one towering spectacle after another; we almost feel unable to appreciate so much beauty in one go.

Last night we went to the Cape Town fan park to watch the USA game. We America fans were badly outnumbered, but the England fans were good sports, save for some chants of "USA! You are gay!" I thought we played very well, especially considering the quality of the opposition.

Today we're driving toward Port Elizabeth and resting our vocal cords from screaming ourselves hoarse.

Handstand of the day

Cape Point, looking across False Bay.

Jun 12, 2010

Guest story: Nechako

[Front matter: Today we've got yet another wonderful story from my father. This one is pure action.]

It was Vince who made me promise to follow through for once. “You’ve got to write it down before it fades to nothing,” he’d said. “Promise me that you’ll do it.” I promised. It was long ago already, and the central event took perhaps only five minutes to play out. Still, it was one of those occurrences around which the personal histories of the witness and participants are dated. This is particularly true in my own case, though I’d begun as a player of a very minor part. Vince thought I should call it “The Price of Friendship,” but I thought a better title might be “My Biggest Wreck”.

It all started when our trip leader, RD, was out reassuring himself of the location of the “goalpost” run in Unkar Rapid, all by himself. He slipped on a rock, fell down and busted his thumb. He couldn’t hold a fork, never mind an oar, and we had to pull Vince off the trainee raft to replace him. That left Lori in the raft, our one rubber boat, all by herself.

It was thought that Vince should probably row the only aluminum dory we had. In a metal boat you can be a little off course and tap a rock without sinking the thing. Vince had never been down the Grand Canyon before. It’s not rocket science, but a little practice helps.

The only drawback was that the aluminum boat was the Nechako, a vessel of unprecedented girth and a reputation for being unwieldy. Her lines had been sketched on the back of a cocktail napkin and built to full scale by dumpster fabricator that same evening – or so the story went. You sat in the rowing seat and couldn’t see anything but boat for 15 degrees either side of the bow and stern because she was shaped like a section of cantaloupe and your butt was down where the seeds and stringy stuff would be. The gunnels swept down from the lofty ends in an arc that came perilously close to the river. “Freeboard” is the distance between the lowest part of the hull and the surface of water when the boat is carrying the load it’s designed for. At midship, Nechako had the freeboard of a log raft. She was so beamy, that during a night of revelry we once got eleven people in the front cross hatch alone, a mass of drunks roughly equal to three times the theoretical payload.

With all her curves, Nechako looked almost graceful on the warehouse floor, but most of her bulk was rarely in the water. She made a square hole in river, one that was four inches deeper than any boat in the fleet. Every stroke was an effort to drag the boat out of the hole. The location of the laden waterline had been severely misjudged and the oarlocks had therefore needed to be raised six inches by means of a crude wooden frame, made from pieces of an oar shaft, bolted to the sides. The oars themselves had to be two feet longer than usual just to reach the water, which put them at an angle where the average- sized person was more hanging from the handles than pulling on them. An exaggerated flare to her sides and a continuous fore and aft curve of her bottom made “Nechako” sit deep and heavy on the water, like an aluminum cannonball, but still bob and pitch about wildly in the rapids.
Fully conscious of the irony, the company’s owner, Marin Litton, had named her Nechako River after a tributary of the Fraser in British Columbia, which was drowned by a hydropower dam built to supply an aluminum refinery. Her primary operator and chief maintenance man for a number of years, one O’Connor Dale, had shortened the name to a single word when he couldn’t find any ‘V’s’ to spell “River” in the skimpy stock of letter decals.

She was a tough boat to love and since O’Connor had gone back to driving motor rigs, nobody had. The deck seals were shot, latches were missing and the oarlocks knocked in their stanchions like a ‘53 Hudson with two bad rod bearings. Still, she was stable on the water, in the same sense that a coal barge is, and stout as a fireplug, both qualities we deemed useful in a rookie boat. While it was more likely that you were going to end up going somewhere besides where you’d hoped, the consequences were far less dire. It could take all day to put a wood boat back together. The Nechako could sustain a canyon-ringing hit and you wouldn’t be late for lunch. Her wobbly heft and bone-deep sluggishness would be like wearing ankle weights. Everything seems much easier once you take them off.

Vince put on a pair of rowing gloves, which none of us neighborhood types had ever seen, and took over the Nechako like a good soldier. The gloves seemed a little unboatman-like, I thought, but hey, different strokes… Tuck, the company manager, got in RD’s boat, the Makaha.

Tuck had come on the trip to prove to the skeptical staff that it was really no big deal to put five people, instead of the usual four, in a dory and row them down the Grand Canyon. An accountant had pointed out that the company would never make any money with a four to one client/staff ratio. A fifth paying passenger was the difference between profitability and extinction. The arithmetic had to be made to work. Boats the size of the Nechako were part of the answer. In this case, as it somehow came to happen, it meant the rookie was pulling an overloaded boxcar down a river he’d never seen before. He took it very well. Unkar is arguably the first of the Grand Canyon’s really large rapids, and Vince’s first strokes aboard his new commission were to set up for the entry. Events weren’t cutting him a lot of slack, but he made it to the bottom of that one, and all the rest of the big ones down to camp.

Over the course of the next few days, Vince proved equal to the task at hand. There are a few moments when extreme exertion is demanded. Below the bigger drops I would find him leaning on his oars, spent and shaking his head, staring into the bilge. Then he’d look up and grin. If you got within earshot he’d start the narrative right there. He paid attention as if his life depended on it, a point with some validity. He never complained and you had to give him credit for that. We quickly became friends.

Vince had rowed most of the big stuff and most of the doldrums too, where the current seems to simply spin in circles and the wind often blows like a bastard. Nechako’s square waterline made her particularly unruly in the swirlies and her towering stem and stern could send her skittering into the eddies like a water strider in the mildest gale. Vince’s hands were raw through the gloves. We’d gone two hundred miles and were heading for the top of Lake Mead that afternoon. On the last day of moving water, we decided he deserved a break. A couple of us offered to trade boats with him now and then, over the course of the day, so he could try out the other dories.

But there are still some significant rapids in the lower gorge.

I had already taken my turn in the Nechako, and when we got down to Travertine Grotto I was ready to trade back. The boat I had been rowing since I started with Grand Canyon Dories was a 1975 Briggs dory, the sweetest watercraft to ever displace her weight of Colorado River water. She was made of Doug Fir marine ply, Port Orford cedar and ring-shanked copper boat nails in a wizard’s workshop in Grants Pass, Oregon and I was one spoiled boatboy.

You can develop a relationship with a rowboat much more readily than you can with most inanimate objects. Sure, people love their cars, but it would certainly be a different matter if they had to pull them to work. You might start to appreciate how easily that old VW rolled or cuss the brand-new Ford Exhibition till the paint all blistered off. The “Roaring Springs” and I were a team. It had taken her about two years to teach me to row. I just wasn’t that adept. Persistence can often win out over ineptitude though, and I had developed a few good moves.

The “Springs” designer and builder, Jerry Briggs, had grown up building boats and put everything he knew about them into one design during a rare conjunction of the planets one winter solstice night. The dogs stopped barking and all the sheep lay down at once. Briggs boats have a straight section of waterline, about eight feet, which we all thought was responsible for their ability to hold a line like they were on some invisible track. The hull speed seemed to be about two miles an hour, a pretty good clip for one person pushing ¾ ton of stuff through still water. You could get them going that fast with a half dozen solid push strokes and keep it up all day without breaking a sweat.

If you stop rowing a raft for a moment, it is anchored in the surface tension like a lily pad. A Briggs boat will skate over the eddylines, bounce off the cross-currents and hold her momentum like my maiden Aunt Bertha. It’s uncanny and a person can get spoiled. There’s something about the way the bow rises out of the water that gives the stem a clean entry into the biggest waves and still shortens the waterline to where you can turn on a dime. You don't want to examine it too closely. Just row the damn boat and smile. You’re getting paid.

The Roaring Springs was equipped with a set of oars that I’d picked out of a fresh shipment of a hundred one Spring, before anyone else had gotten to the warehouse. They were ten feet of flawless, laser-straight American ash that would flex through the middle of the stroke and whip at the finish like a fish’s tail. The blades were long and narrow so they didn’t try to twist in your hand, though they had as much flat surface as you could pull through the water. They could be feathered in an instant and cocked for another stroke with the boat heeled over in a North Sea chop and the blade still under two feet of green water. Try that with your three-hundred-dollar, axially-wound, carbon fiber sinkers and your risible blade locators. These sticks were very nearly perfectly balanced at the oarlock when the blades were in the water, because wood floats. You could let go of them and grab another beer from the side hatch before they crabbed under the boat. Usually. I don’t care what you say, plastic will never come close.

The thing I liked about them most though, was the way you could slip the blades into the water, matching their entry angle to the speed of the boat and have the surface of the river heal up behind the oar with a gentle “pock” like a raindrop hitting the water. You could move fifteen hundred pounds around in absolute silence except for that sound. If you could get everyone to shut up for a minute.

But I digress. When we got down to Travertine nobody wanted to finish out the last few rapids in Nechako. So I re-enlisted. In an hour we’d be tying all the boats together and it wouldn’t matter which one you were on. We’d mount an outboard engine on the transom of a couple dories, fashion a floating carnival platform out of boats, oars, tarps and two miles of quarter-inch line and motor across Lake Mead for a couple of days.

The water was sort of low, around 10,000 cubic feet per second. At this level 231 Mile Rapid turns into a couple of short steep drops instead of the roller coaster it is at 18,000 cfs. It was heads-up boating.

The next rapid, 232, deserved its nasty reputation. The honeymooning Hyde party is thought to have drowned here in 1928, and wrecks are not infrequent. Debris fans from tributary canyons on either side constrict a river already narrowed by the vertical black walls of the inner gorge. The rapid scrapes down the right wall in a series of big standing waves with breaking crests. Towards the bottom are the Fangs, a group of bedrock granite pinnacles smack in the middle of the current and sharp as scimitars. They are either exposed or just below the surface depending on river level. Other towers of polished stone stand just off the right wall. We scouted 232 to see if the Fangs were out or not. The consensus was that the Fangs were covered.

All the boats gathered at the scant beach on the right. I left the sandy spot to the wood boats and tethered Nechako amongst the rocks. The hard metamorphic and igneous strata along this stretch of shore have been carved into a gallery of oddly sensuous forms. The passengers wandered around rubbing the rocks and taking pictures. We were running the rapid in two groups. Half the people could take pictures of the run from the top, the others from the bottom. The boatmen had stood in a knot and talked through the run. There’s a sharp hole on the top left that keeps you from getting into an optimal entry position. You have to stay out in the glassy water of the tongue, picking up speed as the river pours over the pile of rocky outwash from the two lateral canyons.

I had a strategy that had been working so well that I actually looked forward to doing it. I never considered anything else.

I’d start pushing on the oars well above the tongue, just enough to get some steerage, then lean on ‘em like a madman once I could see the right side of the top hole. Sliding down the glassy incline of the tongue and urged on by the accelerating water, I’d squeeze as close to the edge backbreaking hole as I’d dare, trying to blast the crest of the left lateral into shimmering mist with “Roaring Springs” bowpost. By adding all the hickory wind I could muster, I might get most of my Briggs boat airborne if the wave was big enough that day. Once I was surfing down its backside, still headed left, I could just straighten out and watch the deadly dentition of 232 sail by two boat-lengths to my right. It was a beautiful run.

We watched the first group grease it. Dimock, a pioneer of the new school, pushed bow first, as I favored. Others pulled, their backs to the rapid. It all worked. I gathered up all five of my passengers. The youngest was around 70. I piled them into the boat and took up all 24 feet of Nechako’s oars.

They were plastic-wrapped aluminum flagpoles with blades shaped like a speed limit sign. A metal tube stiffened the blade and when you dipped them in the water they sounded like someone had slung a poodle off the rim. Urging the ward to hold on in earnest, we splashed into 232 like a sternwheeler, pushing leftward to beat hell.

The top lateral stopped us dead. Nechako rocked back on her stern and rode the crest to the center with her nose in the air. The next one stopped us again and we came out with momentum towards the wall. I was still pushing left, but it obviously wasn’t working. I was going to have to crank her around and pull, which maneuver I initiated by taking a couple of prodigious strokes on the right oar.

I had gotten her all the way around broadside in the current and was just starting my first stroke to pull away from the wall when we hit the uppermost Fang a foot forward of the oarlock. There was a terrific deafening crash, like a car wreck. Everyone was thrown into a jumble on the left rail and I almost went overboard. My head was out over the side, which gave me a good look at the paramount Fang, inches away and undamaged. It had been lurking just under the surface but the eddy caused by our boat now left a hand span of its tip visible. I scrambled back to the seat and hauled on the right oar to spin us off because we weren’t moving at all, which is a little disconcerting in the middle of a large rapid. The boat peeled off easily but we were careening down the wall, totally out of control.

The current pushed the stern into a tight little eddy amongst the rocks and the boat whirled into the wall in an instant. The right oar blade clattered up the vertical rock and jammed in a crack, snapping in half. The jagged fragment of plastic flew across the boat at head level, but the oar handle had already hit me squarely in the sternum, flattening me to the deck and pinning me there like a bug. My feet were up in the air, flailing about wildly, which, observers later remarked, added greatly to the “bug” simile. Struggling to keep my head up, I was looking right down what remained of the oar, which was bent into a parabola by pressure against the canyon wall and my chest. I still had a hand on it but I could no longer breathe.

Somehow, I wedged my other hand under the handle and pushed up for all I was worth. I remember shaking with the effort as I slowly forced the shaft off me and let it crack down onto the deck. The handle broke off with the force of the impact and sailed into the front footwell: the only oar I’ve ever broken in three. “I’ll have to do something about that pretty quick,” I thought, but at that moment noticed a more immediate problem.

Free now of the oar snag, the boat was slowly drifting into a passage between a tower of stone and the wall. A quick visual comparison between the width of the passage and the beam of Nechako indicated a bad match. We’d stick like a driven nail. I had but one oar. The only water available to use it in was part of the rapid, flowing in the wrong direction at 25 miles per hour. Leaping to the starboard side, I grabbed two handfuls of fluted granite and willed the boat to stop. Then I began to claw my way back up the eddy dragging Nechako along the wall, leaving a trail of blood and fingernails, with the boat repeatedly surging into the cliff and ringing like a Chinese gong. At the upstream end of the eddy was another tower of rock. The water right behind it wasn’t going anywhere. There was a tiny eddy where I could park the boat without straining to hold it. Maybe I could regroup, get in a spare oar, save our lives and so on. But I had yet another problem.

The initial impact had been directly on a seam in the plate aluminum and had split the Nechako from gunnel to chine. It had also blown out an internal bulkhead, so the tremendous gash in her hull was leaking water into the cavernous front cross hatch and the left side. We were sinking. Nechako didn’t have much freeboard to begin with, but I noticed the water was already sloshing in with the surge. It was probably only the fact that the front cross hatch was jammed with lightweight gear in waterproof bags that was keeping us afloat. Then I noticed all the latches, save one, were missing on that particular hatch cover. Buoyant black neoprene sacks were bulging out from underneath it like loops of some monstrous entrails. If that single latch were to blow, we’d loose our flotation and go to the bottom like a marble. Two tiny # 6 screws and a $1.89 sash latch were keeping us afloat for now. I needed to get busy.

I loosed a spare oar from the keeper and made to insert it in the vacant right oarlock. Unaccountably, I was unable to do this. Every time I’d get the throat of the oar close to the lock it would seem to jump out of my hand. The damn thing was so long that I had to lean way over the opposite side to keep it balanced, attempting to drop it into a two-inch space 8 feet away, while wallowing in the swell. I was concentrating my hardest, but it wasn’t working. The oar seemed to be twitching around as if alive. After several tries I happened to look behind me where a lady named Martha was seated, eyes wide with terror, waiting for me to try to bludgeon her with the oar once again. She’d been fending it off with both hands whenever it got within reach. “Martha,” I cried, “Stop that.” These were the first word anyone had spoken since we entered the rapid. I slipped in the oar. We were only going to get one try at this.

We were dead in the water, sinking rapidly, with the right gunnel scraping against the wall and a sizable rapid immediately to our left. I was going to have to get enough of the Nechako’s bulk into the current to insure that she would continue downstream and not wrap on the rock pinnacle immediately below. This from a standing start. Never nimble, a Nechako burdened with a thousand of pounds of river water seemed a poor choice for this maneuver. Options were limited. Our predicament was rapidly worsening.

“Be ready to highside,” I suggested to the crew. When we hit the current it was going to suck the upstream gunnel down, raising the left side like the bow of the Titanic going under. By throwing themselves on the high side my passengers might keep the boat from being rolled right over by the force of the incoming water. Remaining upright would probably be best. We were going to hit some more rocks. That was certain, and I didn’t care. If we didn’t get out of the eddy, the molars of 232 were going to be flossed with elderly people. We just needed to get out of the rapid.

I stood up and hiked over to the right side where I put both hands on the polished stone. “Ready?” I told them. I shoved the boat away from the rock and leapt to the oars. There still wasn’t enough room to use the right oar, so – praying this one wouldn’t break too – I drew in the oar, jammed the blade into the rock to pushed us off a little more and levered the boat towards the current.

About 300 tons of Colorado River slammed into Nechako’s aft starboard quarter, whipping her stern downstream. “Highside!” I suggested earnestly. Everyone waded to the left rail. I only got one real stroke. The blade was still in the eddy, and all I had to do was keep the force of the current from folding the oar against the boat. I was looking right down the shaft of the miserable thing at the looming black obelisk. Both hands were on the handle of that one oar and it was bending like a soda straw, but Nechako was still coming around in a drunken spin. There wasn’t time to do anything else, so I grabbed another stroke and held on till we went broadside into the tower, dead amidship.

I remember the echo it made. Maybe it was the surge of adrenaline, but I’d missed the reverberation of the first crash, which must have been terrific. This one seemed to return from miles away. I’d been thrown out of my seat by the impact and was trying to get resituated when I heard the echo. “That must have been really loud,” I had time to think. Then the right oar was in my hand somehow and I was trying to get a stroke in the rocketing current, hoping to spin us off the rock. We were very near the point of a perfect “postage stamp” pin, which would wrap the Nechako’s aluminum hull around the rock protuberance like the foil on a baked potato. With the forces involved, I wasn’t likely to be doing much, but I did it with everything I had.

Like a glacier making up its mind, Nechako rolled off into the current and wallowed into the tail waves, gulping great slugs of river. My passengers sat uncomplaining in nipple-deep, frigid water. Bless their hearts. The slightest wavelet slopped onboard. “We’re sinking,” I explained. They didn’t seem to have any problem with that. Tuck rowed up and asked if we could make it to camp. “We might not make to shore,” I said.

We managed to get over to the right side where we beached her on a flat rock and bailed her out. Duct tape and contact cement would serve to get Nechako to the welders. The ten miles I rowed the Nechako that morning were the first and last time I would ever lay hand to her oars. And these days, I seldom volunteer for anything.

Copyright 2010. No part of this work can be reproduced without the written permission of the author. Image credit: Wikipedia/Creative Commons.

Cape Town

We arrived here Wednesday afternoon and went to the most bizarre parade I've seen in quite some time. It was kind of a San Francisco vibe.

Yesterday we climbed Table Mountain. It's the rainy season, and we were lucky to have it clear, warm, and dead calm. Cape Town has about the most spectacular setting I've seen for a city. My friends compared it to Rio de Jainero. Today my calves are aching from all the climbing.

We spent last night at Long Street watching the South Africa-Mexico game outside a bar. The energy was unbelievable. When South Africa scored I thought the vuvuzelas would shatter my eardrums. Even with the tie it's still a great start for bafana bafana.

The police presence is very heavy. Even with all the craziness I still feel quite safe.

Jun 10, 2010

First look at Western Cape

This is wine country. It looks like a cross between northern California and Austria.

Road trip!

I'm on the road with my friends from high school. We took the N14 across the top of Northern Cape and spent the night at a campground in Springbok. It was a bit out of the way but it turned out to be a splendid idea as it's some spectacular country, reminiscent of New Mexico and Utah. Today we're taking the N7 down the coast to Cape Town, which has been beautiful so far. Stay tuned.

Jun 9, 2010

2010 World Cup!

Today I leave on a trip to Cape Town and a few other places to see a couple soccer matches, so updates here will probably get pretty sporadic. This will actually be the first professional or world-league game I've ever seen. I'm going with some friends from back home that I haven't seen in a long time. I'll try to post at least occasional updates, but hopefully I can talk my family into keeping this place alive. Wish me luck!

Jun 8, 2010

Book review: A Scanner Darkly

Up today: A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick. (It's been a bit of a binge on the PKD, I know.) Yet another audiobook, this one recorded by Paul Giamatti. It is a bit odd to hear a big-name actor reading to you, and Giamatti really acts some of the more intense scenes, more so than the average reader. But once I got used to his voice, he did an excellent job.

This is again classic Dick, introspective, paranoid, and philosophical. It consists of several interrelated topics. The first is the paranoid story of Bob Arctor, an undercover police officer who, due to infiltration, wears an "scramble suit," which hides his identity even from his police colleagues. He is addicted to "Substance D," which causes the hemispheres of his brain to split. Arctor develops two personalities, one police, one druggie, and begins to forget he is not the same person, and Dick provides some deeply creepy internal thoughts of Arctor as he slowly loses his mind. Dick proposes some novel psychological theories to account for this madness.

The second is an extremely good depiction of drug culture, the best I've ever read. Dick's collection of stoners have long, hilarious conversations about random topics--Dick weaves a perfect combination of concentrated focus and compounding errors in logic and facts. It's obvious (as Dick states at the end of the book) that he himself was heavily into the drug scene at one point.

The third is a disturbing prediction of a near-police state where surveillance is ubiquitous and the line between criminal and law enforcement is extremely unclear, boosted by Dick creativity like the scramble suit, leading to a man conducting surveillance on himself. The book is worth reading for these three levels alone, but I would like to set them aside.

The fourth section doesn't come into clear view until the Author's Note at the very end. Dick describes how himself and the people he knew were affected by drugs:
This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them being killed--run over, maimed, destroyed--but they continued to play anyhow. We really all were very happy for a while, sitting around not toiling but just bullshitting and playing, but it was for such a terrible brief time, and then the punishment was beyond belief: even when we could see it, we could not believe it.


Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car. You would call that not a disease but an error in judgment.

When a bunch of people begin to do it, it is a social error,a life-style. In this particular life-style the motto is "Be happy now because tomorrow you are dying," but the dying begins almost at once, and the happiness is a memory.


I loved them all. Here is the list, to whom I dedicate my love:

To Gaylene deceased
To Ray deceased
To Francy permanent psychosis
To Kathy permanent brain damage
To Jim deceased
To Val massive permanent brain damage
To Nancy permanent psychosis
To Joanne permanent brain damage
To Maren deceased
To Nick deceased
To Terry deceased
To Dennis deceased
To Phil permanent pancreatic damage
To Sue permanent vascular damage
To Jerri permanent psychosis and vascular damage

. . . and so forth.
In Memoriam. These were comrades whom I had; there are no better. They remain in my mind, and the enemy will never be forgiven. The "enemy" was their mistake in playing. Let them all play again, in some other way, and let them be happy.
Clearly this is an intensely personal list, and Dick avoids the usual cliches about drugs. Clearly he has the right to speak about his own life, and I don't want to cast aspersions on the novel as a novel--I thought it was very good.

But one of my pet peeves is people who portray drug addiction and all the accompanying misery as a natural consequence of any drug use, as Dick does in his Note. The street name of Substance D in the book is "death," or even "sudden death." It's incredibly addictive, and quickly causes massive and irreversible brain damage--far more dangerous than any real drug. It's like what drug warriors would have you believe about Ecstasy--any casual use leads you inexorably down a road where you end up so fried you can't remember your own name.

I've long thought the stories of junkies, with all their gritty realism, give a misleading view of the reality of drugs--a reality that must be handled with policy, not novels. Take, for example, cocaine. This review article (which I highly recommend) by Peele and Stanton lays out some statistics:
After a decade when cocaine use was reported to be rampant and uncontrollable for a sizable group of Americans, the 1990 National Household Survey of Drug Abuse (NHSDA) found that 11.5 percent of Americans reported ever using cocaine, 3 percent used cocaine within the past year, and 0.9 percent used in the last month (NIDA, 1991; see Harrison, 1994). Of current users (those who have used the drug in the last year), a third used the drug 12 or more times a year, and 10 percent used cocaine once a week or more. These results replicate another, earlier study:
Cocaine use appears to be experimental in nature and to involve few experiences for a substantial portion of those who report any lifetime experience with the drug. One-half (53%) of the male users and two-thirds (67 %) of the female users have used cocaine less than 10 times in their lives; 34% and 28 %, respectively, have used 10 to 99 times, 9% and 3% have used 100 to 999 times, 3% and 2% have used 1,000 or more times. (Kandel, Murphy, & Karus, 1985)
A Canadian survey found 5 percent of current users used monthly or more often (Adlaf, Smart, & Canale, 1991). But monthly and weekly use are far from addiction, and only 10-25 percent of regular users resemble clinical addicts, or about 1-2 percent of all current users (Erickson & Alexander, 1989).
One of my many insane ambitions as a writer is to wrest the characterization of drug use away from depictions like Dick's, away from the leer of the hedonists. It's a difficult task because drug use and abuse make such great dramatic seasoning. Yet characterizations like Dick's are fundamentally misleading about the nature of drug use and play into the war on drugs, one of the worst failures of any US policy. That was basically the only flaw in an otherwise excellent book.

I hope I don't have to emphasize that I'm not recommending drug use here. This is a policy argument, not a personal one. Obviously you would be better off staying away from cocaine and the like, but I'm not going to beat down your door and shoot your dog to stop you from doing so.

(Further reading: The Consumer's Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs. A bit dated but absolutely essential for a good understanding of drug effects and policy.

This study by Glenn Greenwald, done for the Cato Institute on Portugal's recent decriminalization policy.)

Album of the week

LP4, by Ratatat. It comes out today. See here for a sample track. As they say, this is an album to be preferably played through some massive speakers, wired for heavy bass; anyway at least through a decent set of earbuds.

I've always been a huge fan of Ratatat; their album Classics is among my favorites of all time. It's totally instrumental, but fairly accessible for electronic music. I highly recommend. Here's "Nostrand" from that album:

Jun 7, 2010

Department of WTF, soccer bureau

The folks from the Kalahari Experience left a few sports balls here when they left. There were three soccer balls, a basketball, three volleyballs, and a rugby ball. The only one left is the rugby ball (because they don't play rugby). Every other one has been destroyed; in fact, they lasted about two weeks total. I was a bit stunned when I found the shredded remains of a soccer ball on the way back from a run the other day.

I thought back to the days when I used to play--I was never anywhere close to as soccer-mad as the kids here, but I played pretty frequently and consistently for a number of years when I was growing up. (Let's not start a discussion about how bad I was. Suffice to say that after seven years of play, I was worse than when I started out.) I remember a particular ball that I had for at least four years, probably more, and while it was beat to hell, it still held air.

I know there are a lot of thorns around here, and the kids have no easy way to top up the ball (though people in the village do have pumps), but it still seemed preposterous how quickly they annihilated these things. I watched them take a brand-new soccer ball and reduce it to a flabby, leaky mess in one day. Curious, I inspected the ball to see if there were any obvious damage. Sure enough, there was a slash about an inch long. I looked at the rest of the balls. Every one had an identical cut. The kids had stabbed a hole in every ball.

The only possible justification I can see for this is for trying to top the ball up, even though it won't stay up, what with the giant slash in the side and all. The thing that baffles me is that the kids love soccer. These balls could last them, if treated well, for years. Treated incredibly poorly, they could last months. This is just one step above throwing the thing right in a wood chipper. Judging by how long a ball lasts, the very first thing the kids must do is cut it--"Say, is that a brand-new charity ball you have there? Well, obviously the best thing to do is to insert this knife in the side."

Philanthropy has its limits.

Jun 6, 2010

I've been in South Africa for awhile

While reading this amusing (but rather entitled) rant from a Porsche Boxter driver, I noticed this picture: The first thought that popped into my head: why the hell is he driving on the wrong side of the road?!


Audiobooks are great

Being read to is a wonderful experience with a good reader like George Guidall. I maintain that it's just as legitimate as normal reading, and perhaps even better with some books, because one can't skip words.

The oil spill

Today the NYT has a must-read article on the Gulf spill. It lays out, blow-by-blow, the numerous exceptions and foolish decisions that led to the spill:
Investigators have focused on the minute-to-minute decisions and breakdowns to understand what led to the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon, killing 11 people and setting off the largest oil spill in United States history and an environmental disaster. But the lack of coordination was not limited to the day of the explosion.

New government and BP documents, interviews with experts and testimony by witnesses provide the clearest indication to date that a hodgepodge of oversight agencies granted exceptions to rules, allowed risks to accumulate and made a disaster more likely on the rig, particularly with a mix of different companies operating on the Deepwater whose interests were not always in sync.

And in the aftermath, arguments about who is in charge of the cleanup — often a signal that no one is in charge — have led to delays, distractions and disagreements over how to cap the well and defend the coastline. As a result, with oil continuing to gush a mile below the surface in the Gulf of Mexico, the laws of physics are largely in control, creating the daunting challenge of trying to plug a hole at depths where equipment is straining under more than a ton of pressure per square inch.
The climax of the well explosion is blackly hilarious microcosm of the whole mess:
When the explosion occurred around 9:50 p.m. on April 20, there was pandemonium on the rig. Most workers headed for lifeboats. Others rescued shipmates trapped under equipment. On the bridge, Captain Kuchta gathered with at least eight other managers and crew members to decide on an emergency plan.

Steve Bertone, the chief engineer for Transocean, wrote in his witness statement that he ran up to the bridge where he heard Captain Kuchta screaming at a worker, Andrea Fleytas, because she had pressed the distress button without authorization.

Mr. Bertone turned to another worker and asked him if he had called to shore for help but was told he did not have permission to do so. Another manager tried to give the go-ahead, the testimony said, but someone else said the order needed to come from the rig’s offshore installation manager.
Frank Rich adds some analysis as to the fault of Obama:
By now, he also should have learned that the best and the brightest can get it wrong — and do. His economic advisers predicted that without the stimulus the unemployment rate might reach 9 percent — a projection that was quickly exceeded even with the stimulus and that has haunted the administration ever since. Other White House geniuses persuaded the president to make his fateful claim in early April that “oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills” — a particularly specious (indeed false) plank in the argument for his spectacularly ill-timed expansion of offshore oil drilling. The Times reported last week that at the administration meetings leading to this new drilling policy the subject of the vast dysfunction at the Minerals Management Service, the agency charged with regulating the drilling, never even came up.
It's fair to say that most of the blame for the problems that led to this mess can be laid at the feet of Bush and his anti-regulatory zeal. The relevant agencies were cored out with a melon baller and stocked with industry lobbyists. Yet Obama, had he a bit more awareness of the scope of the Bush disaster, should seen this coming and done more--or at least appointed a more energetic manager than Ken Salazar (sadly from Colorado). To me what Obama lacks most is cynicism. Maybe he doesn't need as much as George Carlin, but a healthy distrust of human nature and some more immersion in the twisted spectacle of Bush failures and corruption would help him anticipate disasters like this. International corporations must be kept on an extremely short leash.

Probably the most infuriating thing about the whole mess is the missed opportunity. Global environmental catastrophe is looming. The Copenhagen negotiations collapsed in disgrace. The US is saddled with a terribly outdated energy infrastructure, requiring tremendous effort to replace. Yet Obama and congressional Democrats can't seem to harness even this spill as a motivation for energy revolution. It's pathetic.

Jun 5, 2010

Book review: The Man in the High Castle

Up today: The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick. It's an alternate history piece, one of the most influential. Though it wasn't the first of its kind, it brought that kind of novel into the popular consciousness, especially the kind where Germany and Japan won World War II. It won the Hugo Award in 1962.

Side note: once again, I didn't read this, rather I listened to it. The reading was by George Guidall, an amazingly prolific guy who's turned up all over the place. I think this is the sixth performance of his I've experienced, and he has yet to disappoint.

The setting is post WWII. Japan has taken the west coast of America, the Reich the east coast, while the middle has been left as a nominally independent buffer zone. Dick is absolutely fantastic at describing the situation, weaving just enough details and hints through the narrative and internal thoughts of his characters to make a totally convincing world, while your imagination is left to roam at the same time. The Mediterranean has been dammed and drained, and the Nazis have tried their level best to exterminate all of Africa. The Japanese come off as, while racist and imperialist, much more sympathetically than the Reich, which is of course brutal and insane.

A lot of the plot is driven by the I Ching, which is a book of ancient Chinese philosophy and a divination tool. (I had to look it up, not having much experience with Eastern philosophy.) It was a bit distracting, but apparently Dick himself used the book to help him write The Man in the High Castle.

Like the other Dick novels I've read up to now this one is shot through with a heavy dose of philosophy and takes place largely in the minds of the characters (who are depicted brilliantly). It's about history, and anticipates a lot of postmodern critiques of more traditional historical theory. In a key passage, one character compares two lighters:
She said, 'what is "historicity"?'

'When a thing has history in it. Listen. One of those two Zippo lighters was in Franklin D. Roosevelt's pocket when he was assassinated. And one wasn't. One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object ever had. And one has nothing .... You can't tell which is which. There's no "mystical plasmic presence", no "aura" around it.
This relativist position is not convincing, but disturbing to contemplate. A major device in the book is a book within the book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an alternate history where the Allies won WWII. What is true? What is reality? Dick's not going to give you a straight answer.

Overall, this was classic PKD: a head-spinning philosophical masterpiece that left me pondering for days. Highly recommended.

Department of WTF

Jun 4, 2010


Ezra Klein just got back from a trip he took with Yglesias to China. At the end of his post about Chinese food, he includes this little tidbit:
Apparently, the most popular chain restaurant in China is KFC. It's killing McDonald's. Here are four reasons why.
This is also true in South Africa. I can't tell you exactly why, but I can speculate. First, people here (black and white) love fried chicken, much more than hamburgers. Second, KFC is much better-run here, or at least better than I remember from back home. The restaurants are clean, the food is fresh and delicious, and the service good.

I'm not kidding, though. KFC here really is delicious. Best fast food in South Africa (with Fish Place a close second). As Chappelle says, if you don't like chicken, there's something wrong with you!

Peace Corps post of the week

My friend Noah runs into some trouble:
The people in the villages in this dirt road area have been asking for an asphalt road, or a tar road as it is called here, to be put in for some time. I have heard that they had been promised this road for years. Apparently it was all set to happen this year and the money was even allocated. Then the money was unallocated by some unexplained event and now the road is not going to be built. This made people angry, above all it made the taxi owners and operators very angry. The taxis don't last very long on the wash-boarded and rutted dirt roads which end up costing more for the taxis than travel on the tar roads. Money is a powerful motivator and the taxis were fed up so the next step they decided was to strike.


It really was not a good time for school to be let out because all of this week the 3rd, 6th, 9th, and 12th graders are taking national tests. So I felt that we should at least try to let the learners finish the test. Alas, about 5 minutes later a bus stopped by and about 30 or 40 people came out and about 5 or 6 came into the office. They then had a brief conversation that I somewhat understood. Basically, they politely threatened to do bad things unless the school shut down. The students were sent home, which the students were happy about, and I watched on broodingly. I felt powerless and resented the fact that they were dragging people into their strike. As I said, the teachers were not very keen on keeping the school going and it really wasn't my place to get involved anyway so I watched in silence. In retrospect, it was probably a good idea to just shut the school down anyway, even if all the teachers did want to keep school going, we would not have lasted long against a bus full of angry people.

Since then, the schools have been closed and there have been regular protests bordering on riots in "T". They have been burning tires and blockading roads as well as burning tires outside of the post office and government halls and even burning some schools. There were many arrests and some people were shot with rubber bullets. I have heard lots of rumors but I can't be sure of their validity so I won't repeat them here. It sounds much worse than it actually is.


My thoughts on the whole situation are somewhat mixed. I do think the strikers/rioters are partially justified because the money they were promised for a fairly important project was mysteriously spent elsewhere. I don't think this was a particularly good time or way to go about showing their discontent though, almost everyone's attention and most of SA's money is being funneled to the World Cup so I don't think they will see anything until July. Moreover, why set fire to the school's and the post office? That seems like they are only hurting themselves or at least their own community but I don't know much about effective riots.
This kind of thing happens all the time--they've got a word for it, toi toi. It's always called "striking" here, but this case (like many others) seems categorically different--a strike is where you refuse to work en masse, not where you also force other entirely unrelated businesses and activities to stop as well, with accompanying random violence. What do you call it? Riot seems too unfocused, but perhaps it's good enough. (Noah's example, while disturbing, is pretty tame by the standards here. The taxi associations in Joburg have been waging war on a new bus system in Soweto.)

One wonders what happened to the money, but the "tenderpreneurs" (in Pierre De Vos's phrase) are the first likely suspects. I agree with Noah's feelings on the matter--that the riot (or whatever) was at least somewhat justified, but not to the scale and level of destruction it reached. It seems a common feature of the culture of entitlement I see often here, where if needs are not met immediately, the first reaction of a small but sizable number is to burn shit down. Regardless, I'm glad Noah's safe and let's hope this all blows over soon.

Jun 3, 2010


TNC has a great series of posts going on historical racism against the Irish compared to the black equivalent. It's a bit staggering to look at some of the primary sources he has unearthed. I'm about 25% Irish myself, as a matter of fact. It seems like practically everyone in the US, it seems (shoot, even Barack Obama is part Irish).

See here for more.

My five favorite books

I once got a question similar to this, and it seemed like a good post topic. (There were a plague of similar posts floating around the blogosphere awhile back too. I encourage other PCVs with blogs to post their list!) I'm not saying this is the best five books ever written, rather the ones that have influenced me the most.

5) Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut. This little sci-fi classic upended my worldview the first time I read it. Vonnegut's views on writing are still some of the most profound that I know. (See here to see what I mean.)

4) Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy. This astonishingly brutal story is written with equally astonishing lyricism. It's also one of the few books that improves with the audiobook version. I highly recommend this version read by Richard Poe.

3) Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner. This was the first really good nonfiction book I ever read, and the one that remains dearest to my heart. It was the first unarguable demonstration that even in a successful country like the US, vast sections of policy can have basically no connection to reality or the rational needs of people. Reisner's analysis of the situation is probably more poignant today than it was when it was published in 1986; many of the water crises he predicted are taking place now across the West.

2) War and Peace, by Tolstoy. This is probably the best book I've ever read, or perhaps the best book I understood as a really good book. The only book where I've had to sit back and say just meditate on how damn good the book is. I've read Ulysses, and while I could see how someone might think it was a really good book, I don't have the literary chops to appreciate it. Plus, really introspective books are kind of obnoxious. In War and Peace, the story is as ambitious and epic as its title, and Tolstoy succeeds wildly.

1) Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey. This just proves my poor literary taste, apparently. I've loaned this out to several volunteers now, and none have been able to finish so far. But Abbey's caustic wit, his eloquent praise of the desert (my home country) and his trenchant barbs aimed at the very underpinnings of society keep this one fresh for me even after dozens of readings.

Jun 2, 2010

A poem for Wednesday

 The Germans from Kalahari Experience taped this to the wall of the senior phase classrooms. If you click to embiggen, you should be able to read it.

I'll leave it to the literary types to judge the merits of it. Suffice to say that I have never before seen "donkeys braying" set to verse.
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Jun 1, 2010

Roger Federer goes down at the French Open

Wow. Federer lost to Robin Soderling, a Swede, the man who upset Rafael Nadal last year. This ends Federer's streak of 23 consecutive Grand Slam competitions where he made at least the semifinals. I was watching it on a live chat, which was not the most straightforward way to experience it, but it was still pretty gripping.

Blog of the week

I've been scouring the tubes for a decent South African political blog. I've found a few, but by far the best so far is Constitutionally Speaking, written by Pierre De Vos, a professor at Cape Town University. Check him out here crunching the numbers on a recent by-election in Cape Town. I also learned something--the city council of Cape Town is not ANC-run, rather it's the Democratic Alliance! Apparently there has been a shift of Coloured* support for the ANC in the last couple years:
First, the ANC’s support amongst “coloured” voters in the constituency collapsed dramatically. In the local government election the ANC attracted about 15% of the vote in these traditional working class communities. This collapsed to below 1% at some voting stations this week. The racial nationalism of Julius Malema and Jacob Zuma obviously holds no attraction for coloured voters in the Western Cape.

Second, the Independent Democrats (ID) did not contest the election and its voters did not stay home but voted for the DA. One can probably assume that this means support for the ID is collapsing and that its voters are now supporting the DA. Based on the results of this by-election the DA seems to have consolidated its support amongst working class coloured people in Cape Town.
Also check him out on toilets in the poor areas around Cape Town.

Any other suggestions for good South African political blogs?

*This is a term for mixed-race people that is not considered offensive here. It's more like a separate ethnicity than a catch-all term--a mixed baby wouldn't be automatically considered Coloured.

Album of the week

LCD Soundsystem, This Is Happening. This one has one of the best intro tracks I've heard in a long time, called "Dance Yrself Clean."

If you don't have their 2007 album Sound of Silver, that was excellent as well. Here's "Someone Great" from that one.

The flotilla raid

Events seem to be conspiring to make me keep writing about Israel:
At least nine people have been killed after Israeli commandos stormed a convoy of ships carrying aid to the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army says.

Armed forces boarded the largest vessel overnight, clashing with some of the 500 people on board.

It happened about 40 miles (64 km) out to sea, in international waters.

Israel says its soldiers were shot at and attacked with weapons; the activists say Israeli troops came on board shooting.

The activists were attempting to defy a blockade imposed by Israel after the Islamist movement Hamas took power in Gaza in 2007.
The best remark on the whole situation comes from Flyingrodent: "I'm now certain that the Israeli government is packed to the hoop with Iranian sleeper agents." More information here, here, and here.

Jim Henley had an interesting thought:
Every time Israel takes major, disproportionate action, the “counterproductivity corps” tells us that very soon now Israel’s high-handedness will cost it essential allies, alienate the United States and set the country on the road to ruin. Every time, the furor passes. In particular, the United States has attempted no material rebuke of Israel since the administration of Bush the Elder, and these days barely bothers with rhetorical rebukes.


Look, maybe this is the time the wolf of meaningful international sanction is truly among the flock of Israeli policies, but I think it’s more likely that shepherd kid is spoofing again. Will the US really let a Security-Council condemnation pass? Bet against it. But if it does, from the Israeli perspective it’s just words. Are the Turks really willing to go to war over getting a successor convoy safely to Gaza? With the proviso that crises can spin out of control, bet against that too.

This is not Israel “shooting itself in the foot.” This is Israel winning. Be for that or against it, but at least recognize it.
I agree with Jim--for the time being. My feeling is that despite all the bluster everyone is serving up now, no serious action, like UN sanctions, will be taken against Israel. Turkey will not declare war. However, one wonders what the endgame will look like. It seems like all the incentives are pointing towards more and more extreme behavior, enabled by the US through the actions of AIPAC and right-wing Christians.

But it can't go on forever. Right now Israel is leading the US around by the short hairs, and taking increasingly extreme and counterproductive measures against Hamas, while continuing construction, expansion, and seizures in the West Bank and Jerusalem. The day may come when Obama or a future president is so irritated by Israel's continued arrogant provocation that diplomatic ties are scaled back or severed. The whiplash from such a move would be catastrophic.