Saturday, June 29, 2013

National Park Service, a National Joke Again

This kind of story is fodder for those who are, let us say, vigorous advocates for the Second Amendment:  "They want to tightly regulate our guns, but they can't even keep track of their own!"

Having been on the wrong side of an (in our case, 100% politically motivated and unscheduled) audit when I worked in state government, I feel a bit of sympathy for these guys, but still... This makes the errors and instances of not running a tight enough ship that we were cited for in our auditor's report look like nothing.

One thing I wonder about is how the auditors decided that the NPS had over 1,400 unaccounted weapons.  Do these weapons show up in some accounting inventory but not in the system that reports who has specific guns?  Even if it is simply a case of having multiple inventory systems that do not sync up, the mere appearance of laxity where weapons control is concerned is pretty serious and embarrassing.

The NPS was not held in the highest repute in my agency, and they seem to continue to live up (down?) to this opinion.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Leafy Balsamic Salad

I enjoyed eating my Tours Salad through the cold months, but now that it's summer, I've switched to a new one that I will call Leafy Balsamic Salad.  I was inspired to make this salad by a recipe in Prevention magazine for marinated chicken and salad.  I didn't care for the marinated chicken at all, but I liked the basic concept of the salad.  Here are the components.

Leafy Balsamic Salad

Spinach, mixed greens, and/or lettuce
Diced red onion
Grape tomatoes, halved OR a bell pepper, cut into 1" square pieces and roasted
1 T. olive oil
1 T. balsamic vinegar (or less -- I like a lot of bite)
Sea salt and pepper, to taste
1 t. (or so) Dijon mustard mixed with the oil & vinegar (optional)
Crushed garlic and/or garlic juice mixed with the oil & vinegar (optional)

Here is a very simple version I made from ingredients Robert picked up at the farmer's market this weekend.  The onions were like "green onions" only red and bigger.  The grape tomatoes are gorgeous (and yes, the different colors do taste slightly different).  I went super simple -- only using the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and salt & pepper on it.  It felt extravagant and tasted delicious.

Notice that I tend to make rather big salads -- go big or go home, I say.  If you are not eating a starch (and I never do), it makes sense to have a nice big-ass salad with your meat.  (Or in my case, usually following my meat.  I tend to eat in courses, even if there are only two of them.)  A salad is my favorite veg to eat with/after Wolf Salmon, but I've found this salad also goes nicely with pork chops and chicken, too.  (For some reason, I tend to eat different veg with red meat, though there is no reason the salad wouldn't be scrumptious.)

I make the salad with grape tomatoes by preference -- because the window of opportunity for nice fresh tomatoes is so short -- but I often run out of them before it's grocery shopping time again, and I was really pleased by how well a roasted (yellow) bell pepper worked in a pinch.  I would not hesitate to try other veg in place of or in addition to the tomatoes/bell peppers.  Anything that seems like it would be good with vinegar on it would probably be just great.

I've always been a bit hesitant about homemade salad dressings because they seem so complicated -- the recipes online seem to have a lot of ingredients.  But I've been astonished by how delicious this simple balsamic vinegar & olive oil is when I sprinkle a bit of sea salt and a good dose of pepper on it.  And it's not just good when using homegrown veg from the farmer's market; it tastes great made from bagged mixed greens and industrial grape tomatoes from Wal-Mart, too.

Right now I have only some very ordinary balsamic vinegar (what any foodie would mock as, well, mock balsamic vinegar), but this is a great time to pull out any nice vinegar you have.  (Though I think with other vinegars, you may want to stick more to the traditional 1:3 vinegar to oil ratio.)

Some recommendations I've seen for delicious salad vinegars:
La Cosecha Sherry Vinegar ($15/750 ml.)
Banyuls Wine Vinegar ($22/750 ml.)
Rubio Aged Balsamic Vinegar
Rubio Aged Balsamic Vinegar
Rubio Aged Balsamic Vinegar ($31/750 ml.)

One of the nice side effects of stopping eating seed oils is that I have stopped eating my standard ranch dressing on salads.  I prefer some variant of oil & vinegar so much more, and it's astonishing how much difference it makes to the finished product -- like, you can actually taste the greens when it's not soggy with that stuff.  I just never liked the bottled vinaigrettes I tried much, which makes sense given that most of them use inferior oils (boo! soybean, boo! canola) and are way, way too sweet.  (As you can see, I prefer not to use any kind of sweetener in my salad dressing at all, but even a pinch of sugar for those who like a bit of sweet is probably plenty.  And don't get me started on the horrid "lite" dressings that substitute even more high fructose corn syrup for the fat.)  Fortunately, I am easy to please with straight up and oil & vinegar with salt & pepper, which takes almost no time to put on the salad and doesn't make me feel like, Great, now I have to put these 16 ingredients together to make the dressing for my salad, fuck that, I'll just eat some chocolate instead.

I'm looking forward to enjoying the (short!) salad season here in the not-quite-so-frozen-right-now north.

How do you like your green salad?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Summer Vacation: Part 4

Robert and I stopped for the night in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho and then visited the Cougar Bay Preserve (back to our more straightforwardly bird-seeking ways) in the morning.  The most notable birds we saw were swallows, including the following species -- violet-green, barn, northern rough-winged, cliff, and tree.  We also saw a willow flycatcher.  It's always nice when we can identify an empidonax flycatcher because these are some of the most challenging birds to tell apart.  (They are most easily distinguished based on their songs.)

We arrived at the La Quinta hotel and were greeted by a calling California quail, always a welcome start to a hotel visit.  (This becomes the #2 favorite hotel bird after the lifer cactus wren that sang to us from atop our hotel in South Texas.)  Our parents showed up soon after, and we went to the little airport to pick up my sister.  (It was amusing that my dad saw her standing outside the terminal building and started yelling her name, and just about every person in a 10 foot area around her turned to see what the hell was going on, but she didn't.)  Although I had seen these guys at Christmas, it was still totally great to see them again, and I enjoyed the opportunity to hang out with my sister, who I really, really do not see enough. 

The next day was the wedding, and we spent the morning at a local park, walking around a bit and trying not to relive the gull attack scene from The Birds.  (It was a mixed flock of ring-billed and California gulls driven into a frenzy by some people with bread.)  We also saw what, if I recall correctly, was a life bird for my mom -- ash-throated flycatcher.  My sister and my dad were good sports about the whole thing, though I promise that next time we will do a winery tour or something that appeals more strongly to those who do not really understand why people get excited about things like the difference between Canada and cackling geese and whether they have seen a specific type of nondescript little bird before or not.

The wedding itself was pretty good.  It was outdoors, but it was a pleasant temperature and the ceremony did not go on too long.  I wish I could remember all the interesting music that they used, but the recessional was from Star Wars, and how cool is that?  The bride and groom, and all their friends, are pretty serious nerd gamer types (though thankfully, they are not SCA geeks who required or requested people to dress in garb; we wore normal wedding appropriate clothing, including the wedding party, though the father of the bride GROOM was rocking a purple tux, which for him actually counted as sedate compared to the blaze orange tux he has been known to wear on other occasions) and at the reception (which had a free bar, excellent! another merlot, please!), there were a bunch of games lying around for people to play.  My family did a bunch of Pictionary and we determined: (1) Robert really can't draw, (2) Jen is an awesome guesser/interpreter of mediocre drawings, and (3) my dad still draws good horses and all other four-legged animals as though they are somewhat distorted horses.  We were joined by my mom's sister for a round of Scrabble with partial teams (appropriately, Robert and Jen were teams by themselves).  My team won (my dad's major contribution being a knack for drawing good tiles, a skill that can be underappreciated in these settings).  At the end, we started playing Apples to Apples, which is my uncle's favorite game.  Oh, and continuing the geek theme (the bride is a computer person), their cake was decorated with mathematical equations, with hearts representing some of the variables -- very cute.

The next day was spent at my aunt and uncle's house.  Though the bride and groom, as well as one of the other cousins, departed early, we had fun hanging with my oldest cousin, who (like Tam's cousin) is a minister but you would never guess it in a million years.  One of my favorite moments was when my uncle got his game system running so he, my cousin, and Robert could play some bowling and golf.  Jen had been a developer on the (sorry, I know I will mangle this!) motion-recognition, etc., system that underlay the game, and because I was standing next to her in the "audience," I got the inside scoop on what was going on.  (My mom wasn't aware of this conversation, so when we were on the phone the other night, she referenced this project that Jen had been working on, that her company decided, probably stupidly, to sell to Microsoft or somebody, and my dad and I were like, "We know!  It was used in those games from the wedding!  We saw its awesomeness firsthand!").  (OK, that was more my take on the situation than my dad's; his commentary was more subdued.)  We played an absolute marathon game of Apples to Apples in which my sister and my ability to read each other's minds came in handy.  But my mom's decision to play the Marx Brothers card to me was was very appropriate; I'm not sure there is a positive category that I would not choose the Marx Brothers for. 

Next:  Another crowd-pleasing vacation destination

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Baby Bunnies


My mom sent me this story and two videos about a guy who rescued some baby bunnies. 

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Summer Vacation: Part 3

Our next stop at Yellowstone was the Biscuit Basin area.  (The "biscuit" looking formations that gave the area its name were destroyed in the 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake.)  I like the colorful areas, which are "thermophiles" -- microorganisms that thrive in these very hot habitats.

Shell Spring (and the area around it does look like a shell to me)

Mustard Spring

Next, we went to the Fountain Paint Pot area that had been strongly impacted by the 1959 earthquake.

Red Spouter came into being after the earthquake.  It is a muddy hot spring that boils vigorously.  Hot springs differ from geysers in that their underground channel systems (i.e., "plumbing") are not constricted so the water comes to the surface all the time, not just in bursts.

This is a mudpot (part of Fountain Paint Pots) -- "Acidic features with a limited water supply.  Hydrogen sulfide, which rises from deep within the earth, is used by some microorganisms as an energy source.  They help convert the smelly gas to sulfuric acid, which breaks down rock into clay.  Various gases escape through the wet clay mud and cause it to bubble and pop."

A close-up shot of the thermophiles.  This area had a sign stating "Bacteria mat." (Do not confuse with "Bath mat."  Very different beast.)

At the end of this area (each of these areas had trails taking you past the features), we decided to call it a day and headed back to the hotel.

The next day, we targeted the eastern side of the park, having done much of the western side on the first (full) day.  We visited the Mud Volcano area first.  This is where one of the major vents from which the lava of the volcano 640,000 years ago flowed, and scientists monitor the area closely for clues about future volcanic activity.

Churning, churning

To me, the highlight of this area was Dragon's Mouth Spring.  Mysterious and awesome.  The Crow Indians "saw the steam as snorts of an angry bull bison."  It's had a lot of names over the years; the current name was given by "an unknown European American."  

For something very different -- a more traditional sort of majestic outdoor scenery -- we went up to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River.  This canyon was likely created after the earthquake 640,000 years ago.  "The multi-hued rocks of the canyon result from the hydrothermally altered rhyolite and sediments."

The falls as seen from Inspiration Point
On our way out of the park, we saw Mammoth Hot Springs.  "These features are quite different from thermal areas elsewhere in the park....As hot water rises through limestone, large quantities of rock are dissolved by the hot water, and a white chalky mineral is deposited on the surface."

From here, we traveled toward Kennewick, WA for my cousin's wedding (where I did not take any photos).  In Montana, we noted a road sign for "Anaconda Opportunity."  Yes, we'll definitely be going that way.  (Apparently those are two communities you can reach by taking that exit, but put together, they have some strange implications.)  At a rest area, we saw the adorable Columbian ground-squirrel.  We were not the only visitors enchanted by these little creatures and their rearing-up-like-tiny-prairie-dog ways.  While sitting in the car, I saw several people do a double-take as they walked by them, and one guy looked like he was about to crawl down into the grass to get a closer look.  As you might imagine, these little rodents inspired great excitement in people's dogs, too.

Next:  My first openly atheist wedding and other family tidbits from eastern Washington.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Summer Vacation: Part 2

This was an unusual trip for us in that we visited some places that normal people would visit on vacation (and not, for example, random national wildlife refuges outside hunting season, wastewater treatment plants, and boats that don't even have fishing gear on them in the ocean).  Yellowstone National Park is the iconic American outdoor vacation destination (and yes, it even has its own Apples to Apples card), and there is nothing more iconic at Yellowstone than Old Faithful.  So let's not waste time:  We saw Old Faithful doing its thing, on a rather dreary, overcast/sometimes raining day, and I got some mediocre photos of it.  (As always, you can click on the photo to see a larger image; some of the shots are worth seeing this way.)

OK, now that we've established that, let's take a step back.

As we approached Yellowstone, the scenery started getting more interesting, which was welcome after all the flat, cow-dotted land we had passed on our seemingly interminable drive through South Dakota.  There were hills with visible rock strata -- yay!

Yellowstone itself a gigantic park -- almost 3,500 square miles.  The map below can orient you a bit to where we stayed in the park and the locations we visited.  Our hotel was in the southern area at Grant Village.  Note the distances between sites -- West Thumb to Old Faithful is 17 miles, for example. 

As we drove into the park (from the east entrance), we started seeing ducks right away -- red-breasted merganser, cinnamon teal, green-winged teal, bufflehead, and common merganser.

I didn't know this before, but Yellowstone is situated on an area with a deep history of volcanic activity -- 2 million years ago, 1.3 million years ago, and 640,000 years ago, huge volcanic eruptions occurred there.  The heart of the park resides in the caldera (basin) of this volcano, and the copious extant geothermal features in the form of geysers, hot springs, mudpots, and fumaroles are fueled by the magmatic heat; the magma is as close as 3 to 8 miles underground.  Nowhere in the world are there as many geysers as at Yellowstone.  (Source here and throughout: National Park Service.)

When we passed our first geothermal feature, Robert stopped the car so we could get closer.  In his excitement, he lead us through a muddy area that gunked up my traveling shoes (I was not wearing my hiking shoes in the car), which was irritating at the time, to a fumarole -- an opening in the earth's crust that emits steam and gases (but not water).  It was really weird and interesting to look at, and we were pretty enthused by it, but little did we realize at that time how many fumaroles we would see during our stay.  (Yellowstone apparently has about 4,000 fumaroles.)  Here's a fumarole that we saw later, labeled with a helpful sign reading "A Fumarole."

Before we even got to our hotel, we encountered crazy traffic congestion around the West Thumb intersection -- people's cars parked all along the road, people carrying gigantic cameras, multiple park rangers policing the area.  Robert wisely decided that something drawing this much attention was probably something worth seeing.  And he was right.  There was a grizzly bear hanging out not far from the roadside.  It was too far away for me to photograph but with our binocs, we got very good views of it.  Life Mammal!  And no real risk of death!

The first area we explored in the park after checking into our very small but acceptable hotel room was the West Thumb geyser basin along the edge of Yellowstone Lake.

Some random pools

It's a nightmare landscape

Black Pool

Thumb Paint Pots

On our way toward the Old Faithful area, we stopped at the Kepler Cascades on the Firehole River.

Around Old Faithful, there are a lot of geysers.  "In a geyser, constrictions in the plumbing [underground] prevent water from circulating freely to the surface where heat would escape.  The deepest water can exceed the surface boiling point of 199 degrees F.... Increased pressure exerted by the enormous weight of the overlying water prevents the deeper water from boiling.  Bubbling upward, steam expands as it nears the top of the water column.  At a critical point, the confined bubbles lift the water above and the geyser overflows.  This decreases pressure on the system, and violent boiling results.  Instantly, a huge volume of steam is produced that forces water out of the vent in a superheated mass.  Eruption begins."

(Note: I first typed that as "superheated ass."  Nobody's ass was superheated while we were there.  More than one person commented on the fact that I was wearing gloves with extreme envy.  It was chilly, but I only saw one other guy with gloves.  Everybody else was stuffing hands in pockets or pulling them into their jacket sleeves...those who had paid enough attention to the weather forecast to be wearing a jacket.)

The crowd around Old Faithful had about a dozen false starts as we saw the steam start venting from the hole prior to the eruption of the water.  But we were eventually rewarded with the full water explosion thing (as shown in the picture above).  Old Faithful gets its name from the fact that it consistently performed for the Washburn Expedition of 1879 every 88 minutes or so.  It still does.  The eruption lasts from 1.5 to 5 minutes and expels 3700 to 8400 gallons of water, reaching a height of 106 to 184 feet.

Castle Geyser erupts every 14 hours or so, lasting about 20 minutes, and we just got lucky that it was erupting when we showed up to the Old Faithful area.

Cliff Geyser in the Black Sand Basin erupts every few minutes.

I wish I could reproduce for you the various interesting sounds that these geysers make.  In the Black Sand Basin, I heard one that sounded like a washing machine, one that sounded like a teakettle, and one that sounded like a bubbling cauldron.

Tomorrow: Our journey through some of Yellowstone's spectacular geothermal features continues.

Apt Words

Robert and I have been playing Boggle for the last few days.  Last night, in consecutive games, he scored with DATA and I scored with SURVEY.  Seems about right.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Summer Vacation: Part 1

I know, my life right now kind of seems like one extended summer vacation, but I am referring to an actual vacation -- a road trip Robert I took to eastern Washington to attend my cousin's wedding.

Tam asked me about my trip: So how was it?  Did you see any life birds?

Do you people know me or what.  I am going to answer the second question first.

Robert and I saw four life birds, to wit:

Ring-necked pheasant: I saw about 6-7 of these as we drove across South Dakota, but Robert didn't see any until on our return trip through North Dakota.  (Whew.)

Photo from

Bobolink:  We both saw these driving through South Dakota.

Photo from

Barrow's goldeneye:  We saw these at Yellowstone National Park, on the lake next to the restaurant associated with our hotel.  Life bird before breakfast = awesome.

Photo from

Northern saw-whet owl:  We actually heard this one, but didn't see it (as is common with owls).  We were sitting outside our room at Glacier National Park on the last evening of our stay when we heard it.  Robert ID'd it with his bird song CD.  Owls are really hard for us to add to our list, so this was a pretty exciting one.  (Also a nice lazy way to get a life bird, just chillin' out lakeside.)

Photo from

But my favorite animal sighting of the trip happened on our way back, as we passed through Montana on a state highway that meandered through some small towns as "Main Street" for a  while.  In one of these towns, we stopped at a rest area (it seems weird that they decided to put the rest areas on this highway in towns, but whatever), and when I came out of the bathroom, Robert said, "Look over there," pointing to a mostly empty dirt lot across the street with some farm equipment on it.  So I looked, and I saw two jackrabbits!  One of the jackrabbits was standing next to a tractor or something with gigantic tires, but the rabbit (technically: the hare) still looked pretty big even in that context.  I have wanted to see a jackrabbit for a long time and was finally rewarded with seeing two.  So, it's seriously awesome to have gotten a Life Lagomorph on our trip!

Update: Robert identified the particular site on Google maps -- he reports: We were parked in the parking area off “railroad road” north of the park, and the hares were in the tank farm north of the road. 

Photo from TPWD

The first leg of our trip was getting to I-90 in far eastern South Dakota and then driving I-90 the entire width of South Dakota (not a narrow state).  Wow, there really is not much in South Dakota.  I had mistakenly thought, Oh, it's an interstate, surely there will be some restaurants along our route, but my roadside ring-necked pheasant sightings outnumbered the extant McDonalds by a factor of about 3-to-1.  There were stretches where I queried the GPS for the next available restaurant and it would reply something like 185 miles to a truck stop.  But in addition to the two life birds, we also saw a good number of other birds, including American golden-plover, Wilson's phalarope, wild turkey, and 5 Canada goslings (so. cute.), as well as pronghorns and mule deer.  I also finally figured out: Oh, the reason we never see ducks around our place is because ducks hang out up in these northern latitudes during the summer.  I have difficulty letting go of my association of ducks with winter.  We saw gadwall, wigeon, teal, mallard, and pintail on ponds and lakes in SD.

But the major sightings along I-90 are the billboards telling you that you are approximately 45,000 miles from Mount Rushmore, Wall Drug, Reptile Gardens, the Corn Palace, or 1800 Town.  (It was very fitting later, when I played Apples to Apples for the first time, at my aunt and uncle's house, that I got the Billboard card stating: "Only 1,254 miles to Wall Drug."  Note: that game is fun and low-stress for a large group.)  We even visited 1800 Town in the hopes that they would have an open restaurant, but it was only open for lunch.  However, outside the restaurant was this giant rock.

We did not see Wall Drug, Reptile Gardens, or the Corn Palace, but I saw so many billboards for them that I almost feel like I did.

Mount Rushmore was just like I expected it to be, only with more Chinese tourists.  Here's the money shot of Big Heads of Dead Presidents Looming Over Us All.

Notable wildlife sighting at Mount Rushmore: mountain goats on the rocks.

In Wyoming, we stopped to look at and photograph bison and longhorns.  I was pleased to get decent photographs even with my little camera.  (I know -- longhorns, what a novelty for people from Texas.)

Our next stop was Devil's Tower, which we had prepared for by watching Close Encounters of the Fourth Third Kind in the week before our trip.  We did not get the UFO light-and-sound show but we were there too early in the day for that; however, we did see and hear a thunderstorm approaching the area as we finished up walking the loop around the tower.

I never got a good photo of a prairie dog at Devil's Tower, but I am amused by how this "action shot" turned out.

On our drive from Devil's Tower to Yellowstone National Park, the state of Wyoming reminded us that we were in a barren wasteland by sending tumbleweeds across the interstate.  We also started seeing magpies, which made me think of Tam every time.  We doubled back at one point (no longer on the interstate) to look at some sandhill cranes in a field, and Alkali Lake offered up a redhead (duck), which I hadn't seen in a long time.

Next: Yellowstone National Park!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

What's Cuter Than a Bunny?

A whole bunch of bunnies!

Watch these adorable fuzzies bring the flop.  (I wish my hotel beds the past couple weeks had come with bunnies.)