Monthly Archives: September 2007

No end intended

Went out running as the sky turned dark, and at about the one and a half kilometer mark I did not turn away from the Bay where I usually do, but instead, on a whim ran up a bayside hill. A few blocks on well-lit streets to a trail that snaked around behind the houses, and I ran that trail around a duckweed-choked pond, through a copse of eucalyptus. There were muledeer there, flanking the trail as they browsed. They looked up at me, started as I passed, paced me easily. We ran together for a few yards: They stopped when they realized I meant them no ill, went back to trimming the coyote brush.

Past a tule pond and catttails, up a long, sloping trail behind more houses and back onto the streets, and I ran breathing hard through sterile suburban streets named Titan and Olympus and Zeus. My hair kept out of my eyes by a bandana, it streamed back over my shoulders. I watched it in the streetlight shadow, a distraction from my burning lungs.

And then the intersection with my usual route, a few feet shy of my usual 100-foot “summit,” up and down toward the railroad and the stable, and back again into the streets. Three blocks from where I usually reach the bay again, on a long slope downhill toward the levee, I eyed the hill I’d just come down. The wild hair stood on end again. I ran uphill, away from the bay again.  When I reached my starting point, at 6K and change of solid running and a climb a bit shy of 200 feet, I felt no impetus to stop except my judgment, which I heeded.

I won’t run tomorrow. I have a walk in mind.

These hills I see have names I’ll never know

Linda Kelsey is the last living fluent speaker of Elem Pomo, which you can hear her speak in this podcast, in between the bits of clueless condescension from the white reporter, who expresses surprise that the Elem Pomo language did not ossify in 6,000 BCE, but in fact contains words for such objects as motor vehicles.

(Do not read the comments to the Chronicle article unless you need a reminder that San Francisco is not a haven from hateful ignorance. This is actually good advice for any article on the Chronicle’s site.)

Those of us who speak more than one language at all fluently will know this: each language offers ways to think about things, to express things in one’s mind, that are unique to that tongue. And Orwell knew this:

“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible.”

(Thanks to The Theriomorph for reminding me of that passage recently.)

Some estimate that half the world’s languages are threatened with extinction, the majority of them spoken by indigenous people, at least a hundred of them in home ranges less than a day’s drive from Pinole Creek. Each language gone extinct takes its unique senses with it: there lie thoughts that will never live again in neural flesh.

I wonder sometimes if one reason for the current spiked hatred of immigrants is fear of alien thought, el miedo de los pensamientos que resisten la traducción en inglés. Xenophobia looms large, of course, but one hears so many complaints from the Know-Nothings about being forced to “press 1 for English.” The same people who despise immigrants from Asia, or Latin America tend also to despise those of us who speak casually in English words of more than three syllables, whose facility with language is sufficient to allow us to write a mediocre haiku in less than a day of effort, or in fact even to know what a haiku is.

One need not be a linguist, nor a Native Rights activist, to mourn the looming loss of Elem Pomo, though those are both fine things to be. One need only be in favor of thought.

Hills Ferry

There was a meeting here once, a merging of water,
two streams whose watersheds stood back to back
along the smooth granite planes of Donahue Pass
where once I thought the pounding in my chest would be my end.
I lay on my back that day, gasping,
head pressed hard up against the lichened rock, each turn
in rugged trail brought disappointment,
the pass still out of view.
Mount Lyell stood there, remote, and out of sight around
a monolith pink-speckled, Rodgers Peak,
a quadruple divide country. One face flowed down toward
the Lyell fork, where bears would take our food;
another to the east, to dissipate in sterile
alkaline and salty sumps, and the remainder
into the San Joaquin and the Merced. An inch apart,
the San Joaquin and the Merced, up in the land
of Adams and of Muir, and then a hundred miles apart
they reach the Valley.

There was a merging here once, a confluence of water,
til the dams went up, and sucked the Sierran riverbeds
for liquid Federal cotton subsidies, this was the spot
where San Joaquin chinook saw their Merced companions
depart eastward, where storms that spent themselves on the divide
were once again made whole, but now
the San Joaquin is drained, its water drizzled out
to leach salts from valley soils, to collect and pool,
to lure migrating birds looking for lakes gone half a century
which drop gratefully into the selenium-marred waste.
Their young hatch out blind and wingless.
Once a sodden mass of tules grew here, grapevines
thick for miles, and sycamores, box elders,
once Lasthenia and Fritillaria filled the broad
wide spaces in between riparian tangles,
but now the land is sterile, furrowed,
an expanse of brown corduroy pressed flat upon a flat table.
Walk down to the bank, walk past
the broken white foam cups, old alternators,
bottles of motor oil, their caps long gone and
dry star thistle, wind-whipped plastic bags,
walk past the ankle-high barbed wire kept treacherously strung
along a row of downed and hidden fenceposts, to find the water
thick algae-roped, warm, mucilaginous and green.

There is a spot upon the Merced’s banks
where, sunwarmed but still clear, the river glides
on glacier-polished rock, flows fast and sweet and smooth
and then? And then the earth falls out from underneath.
Six hundred feet the river drops, Nevada Fall,
and though the brink is marked abundantly
by signs — “If you swim here you will die” —
each year a few walk past the warnings, swim,
are flung out into space, and fall.


Today was an off-day, so I ran just 2.5K. Sun shining, blue sky and clear,  65 degrees Fahrenheit.

At 1.4K, a possum lay in the road, dead and newly discovered. A turkey vulture approached. I slowed, stopped to watch for a moment. The bird was a bit shy, despite my wearing unobtrusive green and black, so I used a car as a blind. It worked over the possum methodically, plucking at loose flaps of skin where the deceased’s abdomen had burst. Cars approached and swerved, and the vulture would look up placidly, saunter to the curb and back again when traffic calmed. I wondered whether I ought to kick the possum to the curb, decided against soiling my shoes, and started running again. The vulture startled a bit when I came out from behind the car, then sauntered back again.

2.0K: An orbweaver’s mesh shines in a bit of sun. A cricket leaps away from the sidewalk as I pass and lands sidelong on the web. The lady of the house leaps up to answer the door. Sorry, cricket. I didn’t mean to.

2.5K: I am stern with myself and my tendency to overtrain, and end my run. I walk toward home.

2.7K: A sweet mare, black with white socks (three ankle-length and one calf-length), pulls up the last remaining dried grass from the south end of her paddock. I gaze at her for a moment. She is too preoccupied to gaze back. I head down the embanked cut toward the railroad, cross the tracks.

3K: From the Fernandez Park bridge over Pinole Creek, I watch a great egret standing among swimming mallards. A fish wriggles in the egret’s beak. A stickleback, by the size of it, or perhaps a steelhead fry. Egret tosses its head, swallows, takes another desultory stab at the placid water among the ducks.

Clampdown in Burma


After decades of military dictatorship, the people of Burma are rising – and they need our help. Marches begun by monks and nuns have snowballed, bringing hundreds of thousands to the streets. Now the crackdown has begun…

When the Burmese last marched in 1988, the military massacred thousands. But if the world stands up and supports their struggle, this time they could succeed. We’ll send our petition to United Nations Security Council members (including the dictatorship’s main backer China) and to media at the UN, while also alerting the Burmese to our support:

To Chinese President Hu Jintao and the UN Security Council:

We stand alongside the citizens of Burma in their peaceful protests. We urge you to oppose a violent crackdown on the demonstrators, and to support genuine reconciliation and democracy in Burma. We pledge to hold you accountable for any further bloodshed.

Nanette has more background.

Pressure on China, seeking to gloss over its human rights image in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, is particularly important now. You can sign the letter here. They’re about 3/4 of the way to their goal of 250,000 signatures. You know what to do.

Updated: The American Association for the Advancement of Science has released a report, based on study of satellite imagery, that offers clear evidence of massive human rights violations by SLORC:

AAAS precisely mapped the locations of 31 of some 70 reported human rights violations by comparing field notes with information provided by the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Satellite image analysis then revealed physical evidence to corroborate reported instances of human rights violations at 25 of the 31 accurately mapped sites. Wherever possible, Bromley compared archival satellite images with newly acquired shots to examine sites before as well as after the reported military activity. In other cases, recent images revealed clear signs of destruction.

“Eighteen of the locations showed evidence consistent with destroyed or damaged villages,” Bromley reported. “We found evidence of expanded military camps in four other locations as well as multiple possibly relocated villages, and we documented growth in one refugee camp on the Thai border. All of this was very consistent with reporting by multiple human rights groups on the ground in Burma.”

Within the Papun District, human rights groups had described increasing conflicts and displacement, and the development of 33 new military camps beginning in late March 2006. Field reports then allowed Bromley to map the location of Papun District villages burned on and around 22 April 2007. Newly acquired satellite images revealed multiple burn scars in the midst of an otherwise thick green forest. Before-and-after images showed the removal of structures, consistent with eye-witness reports of village destruction. Signs of an expanded military presence, such as the buildup of bamboo fencing around a camp, and construction of a satellite camp, also were identified.

North of the Papun District, in the Toungoo District, human rights groups have reported military camp buildup, village buildings burned, and dam and road construction by military forces. Again, AAAS before-and-after satellite images provided evidence consistent with ground reports of such incidents.

Similarly, Bromley documented human rights violations in the Dooplaya District and the Shan State, where 23,700 people are said to be living in relocation sites, as well as the expansion of refugee camps in Thailand near the Burmese border. Nearly 160,000 refugees were believed to have crossed the border into Thailand as of 2006. One dramatic pair of images from Shan State reveals a 24-structure settlement in January 2000 where nearly all structures had been either completely destroyed or severely damaged by February 2007.

Breathing in, breathing out

I ran, Tuesday night, probably the fastest 5K I have ever run. I don’t know how long it took. I didn’t time it. But I know that I started out at a good clip and thought “I’ll have to slow down to make 5K,” and then I didn’t slow down. I didn’t slow down, and I was at the top of the hill and running down the other side before I realized I had been climbing, and was a little disappointed when it came time to stop at the 5K point.

But stop I did, because it’s best not to over-train. That’s how you get the shin splints, the pronated ankles and blown-out knees, and I’m beginning again to think in the long term. The common advice is that when you’ve just started being able to run 5K, that each long run be followed by a day of rest.

So I only ran 2.5K on Wednesday afternoon. I ran a little slower, knees aching a bit at first, calves throbbing, and then — as usually happens when I’m not already distracted by work, or love, or heartache — my breathing rhythm filled my mind, and before long my legs felt loose and comfortable.

I time my breaths to my hoof beats. I start out at a measured pace, breathing in for four steps and out for four. When I feel a little bit of anoxia I move up to a three and three rhythm, IN (two three) OUT (two three), running and breathing in waltz time. These days I’m usually about a kilometer down the path when I again feel shortness of breath, and I move up to what has become my default, long-haul respiring rhythm, drawing deep breaths in for three steps and then exhaling forcefully in two. The hard exhalation raises the air pressure in my lungs, thus raising the partial pressure of oxygen, I tell myself, and I thus increase the efficiency with which my lungs extract that oxygen from the ambient air. I have no idea if that’s true, but it feels good. Heading uphill I will often find myself breathing faster still, a two-steps-in, two-steps-out rhythm, or even one and one if I am pushing myself too hard. As soon as the trail levels out I drop back to the three and two, usually without thinking about it.

It is often said, counterintuitively, that a man can outrun a horse. It seems stupid on the face of it, and in fact Olympic athletes have lost demonstration 100-yard dashes to near-senescent horses. But as PZ pointed out in a post about three years ago, that equine advantage dwindles when you lengthen the track. Quadrupeds are often excellent sprinters — I once, based on dead reckoning and guesswork, figured that the young Zeke’s “not really trying” fun sprints averaged around 25 mph — but not so good at the long haul endurance running thing. It is indeed quite possible for a well-conditioned human to outrun a horse in a race of ten miles or so.

The difference between sprinting and endurance running? Oxygen. In sprinting, you use up oxygen faster than you can breathe it in. It’s anaerobic exercise, and no animal can exercise anaerobically for very long. Endurance running is aerobic: you use only as much oxygen as you take in. Barring injury or hunger or stoplights, human endurance runners can keep going a very long way.

PZ’s post was spurred by a paper in Nature that postulated that much about the human body’s morphology could be attributed to selection for endurance running. He offers, in table form, a long list of human physical features that make endurance running easier, along with the service they offer the runner and the possible evolutionary points of origin for each feature. Of course, whether it was selection for running that sculpted each and every such feature is open to conjecture. It’s tempting to speculate as to the selective advantage of being able to run at moderate speeds for a very long time. It’s not much help when confronted by a jaguar 20 yards away intent on crunching on your temporal bone: the jaguar would find it fairly easy to outpace you, knowing it could relax and reoxygenate once it had made sure, by collapsing your trachea, that you couldn’t reoxygenate. But it’s easy to see advantages in running toward animals rather than from them (a.k.a. hunting), in warfare, perhaps in traversing bleak Miocene landscapes with miles of baboon-infested veldt between spots of suitable habitat.

Anyway, it’s a good post, and you ought to take the time to read it, perhaps ignoring the usual assortment of wise-ass Pharyngula commenters.

But I’ve been thinking, as I run, about one of PZ’s assertions in that post:

Just walking bipedally is a precarious exercise, and running amplifies the problem.

It’s true: compared to precarious bipeds, quadrupeds rarely find themselves doing face plants (though again, there are some Zeke anecdotes relevant here) and running makes the falling not only more likely but more spectacular. Some of the adaptations listed in PZ’s old post address the issue, such as our relatively larger inner ear organs.

But I wonder if our bipedalism might not be the reason we can run for such long distances relative to quadrupedal mammals.

This isn’t my insight, or it least it wasn’t until I borrowed it. In Peter D. Ward’s Out of Thin Air: Dinosaurs, Birds, And Earth’s Ancient Atmosphere, which I have been reading in between runs, Ward proposes that atmospheric oxygen levels throughout the history of earth have had dramatic effects on animal life. It’s a good read, so far, though it suffers a bit from the “one thing to rule them all and in the hypothesis bind them” syndrome. Ward proposes to explain a whole lot of stuff with atmospheric O2, enough to trip one’s inner skeptic.

But some of what Ward proposes seems fairly sensible. Take the early Triassic, for instance, and the astounding change in animal life that took place back then. Before the end-Permian extinction, the therapsids — once called “mammal-like reptiles,” but called that no longer since they were neither — dominated the land, with gorgonopsians as perhaps the top predator in the late Permian. Then whatever it was that caused the end-Permian extinction happened — three guesses what Ward suggests it was — and the gorgonopsians died out along with 95 percent of all the species on the planet, and with conditions pretty damn bleak for those who survived.

Atmospheric oxygen levels in the early Triassic were as low as they’d been since the invention of photosynthesis, Ward says, and the Triassic air at sea level might have offered as much oxygen as modern-day air at 11,000 feet. You and I can survive indefinitely at 11,000 feet: it just takes acclimation, a bit more lethargy relative to life at sea level, and if we’re lucky, coca leaf tea. But our lungs are much better at wresting oxygen from the atmosphere than were the standard-model surviving Triassic therapsids. It’s likely that therapsids spent much of their time breathing hard, eking out a living as herbivores and ambush predators in habitable pockets along the Triassic coasts. Elevations higher than about 3,000 feet would likely have been unpopulated, even by plants, which need sufficient oxygen to diffuse into the soil to keep root cells alive. This low-oxygen climate lasted for tens of millions of years.

And then the first dinosaurs showed up, and ruled the earth. Their lungs were likely far more efficient than the therapsids’. Their present-day descendants, the birds, can fly at altitudes far higher than those humans can reach without canned air. They could get enough O2 from the Triassic air, Ward suggests, that they could hunt cursorially — by running, like wolves and cheetahs, instead of by laying in wait to ambush like moray eels. Not only could they outrun their prey, they could run around all day looking for it. This gave them a huge advantage.

Part of this, Ward suggests, was due to those highly efficient, innovative lungs, which allow them still to dominate the earth to this day: with 10,000 known species, their bird descendants make up the most diverse group of terrestrial vertebrates.

But another part of the reason for the dinos’ advantage, offers Ward, was their good posture. The first dinosaurs were bipeds.

Horses are excellent runners indeed, for quadrupeds. They’ve evolved strong and sturdy streamlined legs, shock-absorbing and tough hooves, pretty flowing manes, the whole gamut. Here’s a famous set of photos of a horse running quite fast, taken by Eadweard Muybridge, collated into animated gif form. Enjoy it for a moment — it’s an important document in the history of visual representation of scientific information — and then we’ll continue.


OK. Now if you will, please watch the horse’s thoracic area for a bit. You’ve got the scapulae and associated muscles working to bring the forelegs forward and then to use them as levers against the earth for forward motion. You’ve got the hips and gluteal muscles doing the same thing in the posterior part of the horse with its rear legs. But there’s something else going on between those two ends. The horse’s trunk is extending, when the legs are at their furthest extension either front or back (which characterizes a gallop) and contracting when all four legs are tucked beneath the horse and off the ground.

It’s a good way to increase power to the legs. There’s just one problem with it. Another bodily function depends on extension and contraction of the trunk: breathing. Unless the rhythms of breathing and running are meshed, at least one of those functions is going to be performed at less than peak efficiency.

For sprints, that doesn’t matter, and horses cover a mile just fine at a gallop, and they can breathe hard later and catch up. It’s a great strategy for escaping predators. But if you need to run for very long distances at a somewhat more moderate pace, doesn’t it make sense to decouple the breathing motion from the locomotion?

I run using my gluteals and hips and legs, and I breathe by expanding and contracting thoracic muscles and ribs, and the two actions are related but not chained together. I can give breaths and paces strict one-to-one parity if I wish, and I do some nights when the jaguar eyes me a bit more intently than usual, but that’s not necessary or even usually advisable. I can run through the usual measured, distracting breathing routine I followed today. I can match my respiration rate to the music in my head.

Or I can let my autonomic nervous system take over and disengage breathing from pace entirely, using a complex and mysterious algorithm based on blood CO2 levels, engaging in a millions-of-years-old family tradition and a signal human talent, a trick we share with the oldest dinosaurs.

Which also frees my mind for the detached contemplation of jaguars. As long as you run toward the jaguars instead of from them, the advantage is yours.



I keep telling myself I’m not gonna participate in memes anymore, because I always wind up passing them along and then they come back to me from eight different directions.

But when Bora asks me to do something, I find it really hard to turn him down. He’s just like that. You know?

So here goes.

An interesting animal I had

I was working in a nursery in Rockville, Maryland, and we’d just gotten a shipment of houseplants from a wholesale nursery in Florida a couple days before, which is the only way I can figure that a Cuban tree frog found its way onto the stepladder in my garden supplies department. I caught her, put her in a coffee cup with lid, then punched out and went over to the pet store across the way and got a five-gallon aquarium for her. I had to: she’d never have lasted the winter in Maryland, and the nursery was surrounded by acres of asphalt and high-speed traffic. Julia (pronounced in the Spanish mode) was with me for five years, in six different houses, the move between two of which she rode out between Matthew’s feet in the passenger foot well of a tiny U-Haul, from Washington DC to Berkeley, which took a week.

An interesting animal I ate

I married into a Cantonese-American family, so there are plenty of options here. Think I’ll go with jellyfish, from the not-often-eaten-by-North-Americans phylum Cnidaria. Jellyfish happen to be one of my favorite foods anyway.

An interesting animal in the Museum

In 1990, in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum — a wonderful place, a museum-zoo hybrid — I watched tourists walk from one interpretive display to another, busily ignoring the HUGE chuckwalla on the rock wall near where I was sitting. It was not on the tour and had no signs, so it wasn’t really there. We sat together for a while.

An interesting thing I did with or to an animal

Watched a desert sunset with an Audubon’s cottontail at Cima Dome.

An interesting animal in its natural habitat

Defining “natural habitat” as including 1) Pleistocene ranges of the animals in question and 2) reintroductions, then this: I was sitting on a chaise longue drinking a cup of coffee with Bill Broyles, who was occupying a chaise longue immediately adjacent. We were on the balcony of Bill’s room at the El Tovar, South Rim Grand Canyon, and were — along with Bill’s spouse Joan Scott, a sweet and formidable woman, and their friend Cindy — getting ready to hike down into the Canyon for a few days. Bill and I were chatting amiably, and then I don’t remember which one of us said “hey, look.”

And then a California condor soared slowly over us, twenty feet up, not moving a muscle, not moving a tip or quill of feather. I sipped my coffee.

Now it’s time to pass this along. Bora tagged nine people to start this meme off, so let’s accept that as canonical for the nonce. I tap

PZ (because more people need to know about his kitty Snowball)
Rana (because she’ll roll her eyes and groan fetchingly)
The Theriomorph (because it’s not like she has anything else to do these days)
The Immortal Soul of the Late Dr. Violet Socks
Tigtog (because I bet she’ll have some marsupials.)

And you, dear reader, are tapped to answer any or all of these (not really phrased as) questions in comments.

Why YouTube exists

For glimpses of Iris and Emmylou.


And for things you find when looking in vain for videos of Kate Wolf. Northern California folkies may be pleased to note the homegirl playing guitar behind Nanci’s right shoulder. Brought tears to my eyes.