Monday, June 30, 2008

Satellite Pictures of the California Wildfires

The current wildfire season in California started early and is worse than usual. The other day I was in Santa Cruz, and the air quality was pretty bad - I could smell the wildfire even when swimming in the ocean; and I would have thought being so close to saltwater should make it a non-issue. I wondered whether I could have known this before; yeah, the NWS weather report is pretty good and it included "patchy smoke" warnings etc. - however, nothing beats an almost real-time satellite picture from NASA. You can clearly see the major wildfires and where the smoke is going. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the smoke from Big Sur ends up over Monterey Bay.

I grabbed this picture showing the conditions as of 6/29 (yesterday!) from the Aeronet Fresno subsets page. Image courtesy of MODIS Rapid Response Project at NASA/GSFC.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

On angry surfers

I thought that surfers should be the most relaxed people around. Paddling out into the ocean, resting on a surf board while the smaller waves gently lift you up as they are moving through, looking out into the water to spot a surfable wave rolling in; all that should help develop patience. As you're looking out into the deep blue ocean, you get to see floating plants, various birds, sea lions, sail boats, and perhaps the Big Sur mountains on the horizon. Eventually, a decent wave will come along, and though it requires some skill, you might end up riding the wave toward the shore. Moving together with a force of nature in this way is a great reward for waiting in the best place, identifying the wave that's right for you, and for starting to paddle hard just in the right moment. So much for the rosy picture, and by the way, it's all true.

Except that many surfers are actually quite angry.

One of the first troublesome things I noticed is that waves tend to break around particular points, so there are ideal locations for catching them. You'll find many surfers sitting there; usually more than you'd want to ride together with on a wave. When the wave comes, many will start paddling at the same time. Folks who are good at this can catch a wave a bit earlier, and therefore as you, the beginner, gets very happy that you've just caught a wave, someone comes from the left side and knocks you off your board. At one point I found myself between three other surf boards (four total), all going almost parallel towards the shore with the left most slamming into the other three. And since the other surfers in this collision were females, I could hear them scream stuff like "Stupid bitch, get lost". It wasn't really clear to me who was at fault here. Hmm.

The other day - and this is all happening on Cowell's Beach in Santa Cruz, by the way, supposedly the friendliest place to learn surfing - two male adults got into an argument. I don't know how it started; but most likely they failed to share a wave nicely. I saw the Afro-American guy calling the other guy "white trash", and the white guy saying "I have the technique and ride every wave", and both were loudly arguing back and forth looking into each other's eyes while sitting upright on their boards only a few feet apart. To be sure, not teenagers - I'd guess these guys were 50+ years old. There was a small crowd around, yelling stuff like "Go away, you're not welcome here". I was too far away to get the details, and might have misunderstood part of what happened or who meant to say what; but you get the idea: angry surfers.

I will leave out the story from yesterday, when another surfer collided with me as I was catching a wave. I actually saw him when he was still around 50 ft away, but he was moving surprisingly fast - basically an experienced surfer. He was extremely angry after this incident.

And I won't mention that I heard myself cursing occasionally after missing a wave. Overall though, I think I'm pretty relaxed though.

OK, so if you are actually are an experienced surfer, you will perhaps get angry about my portrayal of some of these situations; because I was implying that the surfer who caught the wave first and is moving from the left should avoid a collision with the novice. This is in sharp contrast to the Surf Etiquette, which (in short) say that whoever catches a wave first has the right of way. The interesting thing about these rules is that they maximize the surfing pleasure for whoever is able to catch waves early and ride them at the optimal points - basically, experienced surfers. They say little about avoiding collisions, and will pretty much always blame the novice for them. Perhaps it's necessary because waves do not provide enough space to pass someone who is slower, so with different rules everyone would only ride the short end of the waves, cutting in front of others. Also, it's not productive to question these rules, and in my opinion surfers must accept them to avoid chaos; but still, to drive home the point how the surf etiquette come across to a snowboarder: It's the equivalent of a skiing slope where any novices need to stand by and wait for the fastest skiers to get their run.

You might say that the experiences I cited are isolated and that by and large, surfers are laid-back, relaxed people. Great to hear, and yes, that's certainly true. I hadn't even mentioned, however, that surfers are routinely vandalizing cameras pointed at their favorite surf spots, that surf-spot turf wars are common and nothing new, and that recently, surfers in Malibu went after Paparazzi on a public beach, throwing them into the water and destroying their equipment.

So, while I enjoy riding waves and all the rest of it, I am honestly wondering why there are so many angry surfers. Perhaps a psychologist should make a study about this to find out how such a relaxing sport might make people angry.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Hot Buttered Rum! played at Google

Friday afternoon, Hot Buttered Rum entertained us at Google. It's a band from the SF bay area, and they use a violin, base, guitar, banjo, and mandolin to produce a pretty nice blue grassy sound - hey, I like it. I bought two of their CDs, and today I discovered that they published a recent live concert at - another two CDs worth of great free music in high quality, basically. has it in different formats, but if you have Flash installed, the embedded player below might be the most convenient. Enjoy!

Update: Grabbed the picture from the concert they gave at Google from their webpage at

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Powder Cloud, Reloaded

So turns out I had misspelled the title of this humble blog; it should be "powder cloud", but it was "powder clowd". Hey, whatever - just about everywhere reaches the spell checker but not into the title tag it seems. So, I'll need to (ah, once again) move my content over here, into the real "cloud", and away from the "clowd".

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Looking Back at an Awesome Season

It's June, and I haven't been snowboarding for a few weeks now. I soooo miss it - this season has been the one for me - from a dude who'd usually pick blue, I went to sailing the diamonds. Ha!

Here's why I got into this: I like mountain landscapes, and in the winter, getting a great view of them pretty much requires skiing / snowboarding / etc. So, this lame cellphone picture is from Heavenly, which I went to because it delivers the best views of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding mountains. The blue sky, the fresh white snow covering the pine forest, and the deep, clear lake. Now imagine how much fresh air you can get there - probably more in an hour than in Mountain View all day.

Just for now, I'll summarize the season a bit, by listing the places I visited, with rough estimated stats and a tagline or two for each.

Heavenly, California, 15-20 days: This place has the prettiest views of Lake Tahoe, a steep slope called the "Widow Maker", and "Nevada Woods", which is the best forest for powder skiing I can think of. And it's big.
Kirkwood, California, 5-10 days: Prettiest rocks and great snow. "Thunder Saddle" rocks, as do "The Nostrils" or whatever they're called.
Wasserkuppe, Germany: Hey, it's much better than sitting inside reading a book! A roundtrip (including the T-bar) takes 5 minutes, without unstrapping - and it's close to home, too.
Spitzingsee/Rosskopf, Germany: Am I scared of the Tellerlift? No more. But I am scared of skiers walking over my board. Uncivilized Germans!
Alpine, California: I felt like an ice scraper here - do they ever get real snow?
Vail, Colorado: Exploring the far end of this place with a buddy felt like hiking strapped to my snowboard. And China bowl is positively divine.
A-Basin, Colorado: Breathtaking altitude, literally, especially, in the afternoon, after a flight, from, like, SJC, without getting, - gasp - , much, sleep, the night, before...
Keystone, Colorado: Getting to the best spots here takes effort: Lift ride + snowcat + hiking. Well worth it though!
Breckenridge, Colorado: This is the highest alitude I've snowboarded at - just short of 13k feet, with the "Imperial Superchair". Once discovered this chair, I stayed there all day - it's unreal. My favorite slope is the "Lake Chutes", which requires a little hike from the top of the lift. Actually this might be my favorite slope ever.
Mammoth, California: Best feature: they closed last in California. The people I met in the gondola there had serious LA attitude - gotta say - not my wavelength. Still, once out and about on the slopes with some fresh snow - ah, not so bad after all!

These were the locations. The other part is that I met a lot of nice people while hanging out on these mountains. From a short chat on the lift to sharing a ride or a room or a meal, it's a relaxed way to make friends.

OK, let's be optimistic and consider this post a sneak preview - I have pictures from many of these places and could probably write novels about my travels on individual mountains. I hope I'll get around to some more depth and detail this summer, reminiscing about all the beautiful snowflakes that made my winter. Melted away, but not to be forgotten.