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It’s a Zoo Out Here

Yesterday afternoon I walked down to the mailbox to see if the held mail notice was still in it. Just as I slammed the mailbox door, an adult black bear rounded the corner of Stanwell and Langdale, and ambled down the middle of the sidewalk, straight at me. It was fat as bears go, granted that this is the time of year for bears to be fat. Fat or not, what impressed me was that it saw me and didn’t stop ambling. On it came. Forty feet. Thirty feet. Twenty-five feet. There the bear paused, still in the middle of the sidewalk. This was closer than I’d ever been to a black bear without lots of iron between us, and way closer than I’d prefer to be. My first thought was to look for cubs. Not the time of year for that, and nothing in view. My second thought proceeded from my training as a fiction writer: What does this character want? No clue. My third thought was to start backing up, slowly. I’m thin. The bear was fat. It was about 100 feet to my front door. I started doing the math.

After I backed up ten or fifteen feet, the bear ambled across our neighbors’ gravel landscaping and galomphed down into the gully between our houses, where there is a galvanized iron pipe under Stanwell carrying runoff from farther up the mountain. It’s gotten a lot of use this (wet) summer, and was still trickling a little. The bear hunkered down and started lapping water from the open end of the pipe.

I had gotten between a bear and what it wanted, which probably isn’t a good idea. At least the bear was courteous enough to wait for me to figure that out.

Today’s animal stories don’t end there, Uncle Lar. No indeedy. On Tuesday, a skunk got into Jimi Henton’s back yard. Jimi boards the Pack when we travel (we bought three of them from her, in fact, so they’re basically family) and the four of them much enjoy the luxury of having a back yard where they can run around in circles. Aero likes to bark at animals that he sees, generally out the kitchen nook window. Here was one of a sort he doesn’t see often, and he headed off at a gallop to protect his breeder and his pack from the interloper. Shortly afterward, Jimi smelled skunk in the house. She has a doggie door into the back yard and assumed the worst. But no, it was skunk by proxy. By the time she cornered Aero in her living room the whole house reeked.

Four baths and all sorts of exotic remedies later, he still smells a little. But here’s a tip for the skunklorn: Take off the dog’s collar. Much of the smell that remained was in the leather, which is now double-bagged in the big garage trash can.

Oh, and earlier today I saw nine deer right across the street, eating the grass. This is one reason we didn’t plant grass.

Tonight I will grill a good steak in honor of the animal kingdom. I will grill it from my main deck, which lacks stairs and is 23 feet above the ground. If I see any of my animal friends down in the gully, I will wave, hold up the steak, and say, Don’t push your luck.


We had a little snow last night, which hit the ground, melted on the pavement, and then refroze to black ice before the morning. So I was out there right after breakfast, throwing some pet-friendly melt compound on the front sidewalk. The housecleaners are coming this morning, and that stretch of concrete can’t be a skating rink when they arrive.

So there I am, tossing capfuls of white granules around, when who trots nonchalantly up to me but our anomalously friendly neighborhood fox. Mr. Fox (and yes, it could be a female. Forgive me for not trying to do the test) stood in front of me like a dog at an obedience trial, looking up at me, full eye contact. He was on the opposite side of the front walk, no more than four feet away.

Four feet. This was as close as I’ve ever come to a wild animal that large, and probably twenty feet closer than I’ve ever been to a fox. He held eye contact for a few seconds, then looked at the cap I held in my left hand. (The melt compound comes in a white plastic jug exactly like the large size of laundry detergent.) He looked at the cap, then looked at me, then looked at the cap. And then, egad, he picked up his right front paw.

Hey! I know that drill! This is what Carol and I call the QRU gesture. QBit is especially good at it. If I’m eating a banana he will look at the banana, then look at me, then look at the banana, then look at me, and repeat until I give him some. In many cases, he will pick up one paw for emphasis.

QRU, as many readers here will know, is the ham radio Q-code for “Do you have anything for me?” (when followed by a question mark) or “I have nothing for you” when stated without a question mark. In ham radio, this refers to message traffic. However, in this house, it generally refers to banana, rice cakes, or something like that. I’m a soft touch and generally give QBit what he wants, but there are some things that invariably give him the runs, so instead of handing him a piece of lox I’ll just say, “QRU!”

Understanding happened when I looked at what I held in my hand: A detergent bottle cap made of white plastic, perhaps a little bigger than an extra-large…egg.

Well. As I’ve mentioned here before, somebody on the next block is giving raw eggs to the local fox, not just occasionally but on a daily basis. And I can just see Mr. Fox standing on the cultprit’s back patio, looking longingly through the sliding glass doors until Mrs. Clueless exclaims, “Harry! The fox is back! The poor thing must be hungry!” And then Mrs. Clueless goes to the fridge, pulls out an egg, opens the patio door, and lays it on the patio. Mr. Fox scoops it up and heads off to wherever fox spend their time around here.

This has been going on for a couple of years. We now have a partly Belyaevized fox running around, scamming the neighbors for a living and getting a little too cozy with the rest of us. Interestingly, when I put the cap back on the melt compound bottle it no longer looked like an egg, so the fox lost interest in me, continuing on past the house down into the gully.

I’d prefer it not happen, but better the local fox begging at our feet than the skunks or the bears. And I think I need to keep a camera in my pocket even when I’m only going twenty feet from the front door.

The Fox vs. Skunk Conundrum

We got hit with a skunk cloud the other night, and as I cranked windows shut it struck me: We haven’t smelled skunk in several weeks. That’s remarkable, because when we first moved here we’d get intense skunk clouds at least once every night and often twice. (Here, a “skunk cloud” is a passing front of skunk smell, distinct from getting sprayed directly.) The cloud drifts with the breeze and half an hour later it’s gone unless the night is dead calm.

We considered these a fact of life, and they were with us for the first couple of years we lived here. In the fall of 2004 a skunk gave birth to a litter of four kits in the space between our house and our neighbor’s, and we have a video of the kits cavorting and wrestling with one another probably six feet from one of the lower level windows. After that skunk clouds gradually began to get scarcer, and at just about the same time, we spotted the first red fox we’d ever seen in the neighborhood. In fact, it was the first red fox I’d ever seen in the wild in the US, anywhere. (We did see one in Surrey, England, in 2000.) In 2007 a dead skunk appeared in the gully behind our house, stinking to high heaven but also heavily chewed on. I was unaware that anything but great horned owls prey on skunks, but something clearly did this one in, and by the smell of it, the last few minutes had been quite a battle.

Back in 2008, I first saw a fox running past the house with something white in its mouth. I thought it might have been something filched from a trash can overturned by a bear, and thought no more about it. However, after that we began seeing fox running around with small white objects in their mouths on a regular basis. It was not one fox, but at least two. (Their coloring is noticeably different, as you can tell once you see the same individuals two or three times.) I couldn’t get close enough to see what the white objects were until a month or so ago, when I spotted a fox digging furiously in the side of the hill next to our stone stairway. Right beside the hole was something I immediately recognized as an ordinary chicken egg.

We’ve seen fox carrying eggs twenty times or more now, to the point where it’s unusual to see a fox trot by the house without one. Somebody in the near vicinity is obviously feeding them, since there are no chicken coops in our squeakily tony neighborhood. I’ve been finding eggshells in the gully all summer. The fox are sleek and healthy, and not nearly as skittish as they used to be.

Feeding wild animals is never a good idea, and in most places it’s against the law. I want fox to be afraid of me, and if they can’t somehow find a sustainable place in the local ecosystem, feeding them doesn’t fix the problem. I’ve even got an idea who’s doing the feeding, by tracking the fox as we track meteors: I take note of which direction they’re running when they have eggs in their mouths, and the lines all point to somewhere down toward the end of the Langdale cul-del-sac.

I might pursue it…but we don’t need the skunks here. If the fox are driving out the skunks, overall it’s a plus, and pace Woody Allen, the fox need the eggs. (I don’t know how they repel skunks, and online research hasn’t turned up much.) On the other hand, if the neighbors in question stop feeding the fox, we’ll have starving and eventually diseased fox limping around, which is sad on the surface of it, and a possible hazard to people walking small dogs. (Guess who.)

This isn’t a storybook world. Animals compete, fight, and die–far too often in my gully. There are no good answers. But at least we can leave our windows open at night.


I got my light-brown Clarks Natureveldts back from Resole America today, and although I may have talked about this here before, it’s worth saying again: Shoes that fit well are worth keeping, and the soles will invariably wear out before the uppers. I’ve been wearing Natureveldts as my casual everyday shoes since 1987, and they fit my fairly wide feet a lot better than anything else I’ve tried. They also wear like iron, at least if they were made before Clarks moved production to China sometime in the early oughts. I still have two pairs that go back to 1994 or so, and have replaced the soles several times, each time through Resole America. Turnaround time is about ten days, and cost is $75. Quality of the rework is superb.

I have a pair of Chinese Natureveldts on which the leather on the uppers has begun wearing through after about four years. They’re basically disposable shoes now, though not cheap ones. The fit is still good, but as with so much else, quality is no longer a choice we’re offered.

We’re also not offered the choice of buying dry-roasted peanuts without MSG in them. Safeway has five different brands, all heavily laced with neurotoxins. Oh ye who can actually eat that crap without consequences (I cannot) answer me this: Does it really make the peanuts taste better?


It’s a little disconcerting to look out your office window and see a toothy 200-pound omnivore walking down the sidewalk in front of your house. I snatched my camera out of the dock and ran out the front door, which may sound nutty, but I felt a little nutty, and followed the booger down the street, taking video as I went. He didn’t hurry and didn’t even turn around to look at me, and whereas I pondered jumping up and down and yelling “Roogie! Roogie! Whoosh!” with a Thurber accent, that would have been a little too nutty. Mostly I was happy that garbage day was yesterday.

I looked and did not find an answer to this question: When a concept exists today that did not exist in ancient Rome, are there Latin fanatics somewhere who create a Latin-ish word for it? (The French are masters at this.)

Carol’s better, the Pack is home from Jimi’s, and although my back still hurts, the weather has gone from mostly pleasant to extremely pleasant. I still need a basing diagram for the 6993 Geiger-Muller tube, but if that’s as bad as it gets, I’d call today a serious winner.


Jeff&NanKress500Wide.jpgI’m preparing a writer’s autobiography for Gale Research, and they requested photos of me at various points in my career. One of the most interesting–and one I haven’t seen in a while–was taken by Peter Frisch back in 1983, when we lived in Rochester, NY. Nancy Kress and I had just finished “Borovsky’s Hollow Woman,” and I was in my Chester A. Arthur stage. I want to say it was in connection with a TV interview that she and I gave, but I’ve forgotten most of the details. It did occur to me that the facial hair/leather vest thing had a certain steampunkish air about it, but steampunk itself wouldn’t exist for another fifteen years or so, and once again I was too far ahead of the curve for it to do me any good.

ChesterAArthur.jpgPresident Arthur was an interesting guy in his own right, an unelected one-term, one-issue president hell-bent on reforming the civil service system, otherwise mostly famous for his linear facial hair and serving between James A. Garfield and Grover Cleveland. He appeared on what I believe is our nation’s only 21 cent stamp, issued because we had many more past presidents than postal rates back in 1938. I commemorated him by naming the President of Valinor (of my Drumlins saga) Chester A. Arthur Harczak mostly after him, but also after a well-known Chicago sausage factory. This fairly represents my opinion of most politics.

The other excitement in recent days is that we have a daytime bear here. Four times since Tuesday I’ve been driving through the neighborhood and seen him sitting nonchalantly in front of an overturned garbage can in broad daylight, feasting. Bears are generally nocturnal but this one didn’t read the manual, and he’s been raiding dog food bins in people’s garages and scaring the crap out of the unwary. I actually stayed in the garage yesterday tidying up, from 8 AM, when I put the cans out, until about 11 when the trash guys came by, to make sure he wouldn’t make a mess in our driveway as he’s made in so many others. Now, precisely what I was going to do if he decided to raid the can is unclear. Per my entry for September 8, 2010, I do have a hacksaw here, but not a pistol that a bear would understand. (And bears have been known to open freezers all by themselves.)

ForkAndStraightener.jpgNo bear action, alas (or whew) but I did get the garage about as tidy as it’s been since the day before we moved in back in 2004. Our rear wall full of brand-new Elfa shelving system absorbed a boggling amount of clutter, allowing me to get my tool shelves in order and compacted (I now have empty shelf space!) and actually schedule time to wipe down, oil, and maybe even use my lathe.

Given that we never saw the bear, yesterday’s highlights included finding my tube pin straightener and my father’s tuning fork (stamped “A”) neither of which I’d seen since the last century. I’m out of Diet Mountain Dew and my back hurts, but overall I still consider it a win.


hatchetman.jpgWell, as a fair number of people have told me, the logo Carol and I saw the other day was the “hatchet man” icon of Insane Clown Posse, a hip-hop duo from Detroit that I’ve never heard and probably won’t. Key to finding the figure online is knowing that what he’s holding isn’t a map or a piece of paper but a hatchet. (In fact, it looks a lot more like a meat cleaver.) There’s also a girl-version of the icon, with a ponytail, but what we saw on the gate of a pickup truck was almost precisely what I show above left.

We had a relatively small gathering last night, but that was all right, as there were few enough of us to all sit on the two couches and talk about everything from dogs to SF to classic aircraft of the Strategic Air Command. We spoke of that lunatic Lt. Col. Bud Holland, whose lifelong ambition appears to have been to roll a B-52. (Detailed discussion here.) He tried, he failed, and you can see a video of the results here. Eric Bowersox and Sabrina Hoyt brought some Mountain Dew Throwback, made with real sugar instead of corn leavins’, and the original product artwork on the cans. There were intermittent thunderstorms all afternoon, but we had enough time between microcells to grill a batch of smoked brats and Ranch Food Direct burgers. By sheer coincidence both Mike Reith and Peggy Sargent brought cream puffs, and it had been so long since I’d had one that I’d mostly forgotten what cream puffs were. That memory came back in a big hurry, heh.

Alas, the thunderstorms prevented me from getting any Field Day time in yesterday, and with less than an hour remaining in the contest and yet another thunderboomer passing overhead as I write, I doubt I’ll get any time in this year at all. I created what I had hoped to be a low-profile inverted vee, and in truth, when I told people I had antenna off the back deck, several people looked and just didn’t see it, when when I was pointing right at it. It’s designed to be portable, and is attached to the deck railing with bungee cords. I’ll try to get a couple of days’ contacts with it, then roll it up and put it back in the garage.

There was more bear action yesterday. Late afternoon, our doorbell rang, and it was our new neighbors from across the street. Heather and Glen had gone for a walk with their two small boys, aged two and four, and left their garage door open. When they returned, sho’nuff, a bear was in their garage ransacking their garbage can. Heather asked to bring her boys inside, but about then Glen came back and said he’d driven the bear off by throwing rocks at it, after which it vanished up the street and ran between two other houses. (Glen’s an Army officer. Spend some time in Iraq and bears lose a lot of their mystique.) I’m guessing it was the same bear I saw yesterday about lunchtime, eating dog food down in our gully near our back door. It seems a little too comfortable with people and a little too willing to be out and around during the day to stay here, and if it comes back too much we’re going to have to put a call in and see if it can be relocated.

Lots of leftovers from last night, and I’ll be grilling Ranch Food Direct burgers again this evening if the rain will just stop for half an hour. The West is getting soaked this year. Our local reservoirs are full, and western Nebraska’s massive Lake McConaughy is refilling (after a 9-year drought that the doomsayers warned would be permanent) at a rate of two feet per week. When we first saw it we marveled at the broad sand beaches, which were not in fact beaches at all but recently exposed lake bottom. It was about 30% full when we first saw it several years ago. It’s now over 80% full and the water level is rising fast. (Note the end of the curve on the graph, and then see this graph to get a sense for the insane amount of water flowing into it this year.) We hope to take a long weekend up there before the summer’s over.

This coming week should be fairly peaceful. I intend to do some fiction writing and perhaps even finish an experiment I have on the bench downstairs, concerning how well IN23A microwave diodes serve as AM BCB detectors. What I know of detector theory tells me that such detectors should be socko. We’ll find out–that’s what science is for.

Ursa Muncher


I got home from shopping for tonight’s nerd party an hour or so ago to find a phone message from Collette next door. She told me that there was a very large bear sitting in the trees behind our houses, eating a bag of dog food. I grabbed my V530 and snuck out the back door. Well, yup: There he was, about forty feet from our lower deck, with his nose stuck in a huge honking bag of Old Roy or something. Crunch, crunch, crunch.

Wow. We’ve seen bears here a time or three, though generally at dawn or dusk. Pete Albrecht and I were hanging out on our back deck a few years ago, talking astronomy about 11:30 PM, when we heard some crunching down in the gully. We looked over the deck railing, and there he was, looking up at us. He’d been harvesting the summer’s choke cherries, I’d guess. One leg of my improvised Field Day inverted vee terminates down there a few yards from the bear, and I was doing that only yesterday.

We went back and looked again when Carol got home a few minutes ago, but he was gone. So was the dog food bag–so I guess he got tired of being stared at, packed up his Old Roy, and went elsewhere.

Don’t know whose dog food it was, but in any event, better the dog food than the dogs.


newfawn.jpgIt’s fawn season again, and yesterday we saw a mother deer leading a fawn that was no bigger than Jackie, if perhaps a little taller. Figure that: A deer the size of a bichon. The poor thing can’t be more than a day or two old, and it’s wobbling unsteadily around the First Curve on Stanwell St., where teenagers roar by in their parents’ elephantine Escalades and probably wouldn’t even notice if they had small animals wedged in their grilles. (We’re mostly thankful that they don’t miss the curve and plow through my office window.) Last night about 8 or so, mom had gone off somewhere, and junior was simply lying on our neighbor’s mulch, about six feet from the pavement. It wasn’t as obvious as it could be, but there are much better hiding places in the area. I guess we can think of it as evolution in action.


Our nephew Brian was out for a few days last week, and we all went down to the Garden of the Gods for a vigorous walk around the rock formations. I took a photo of Brian and Carol and something very weird happened: A dazzle from one of Carol’s rings just happened to hit the camera the moment the shutter snapped. Green Lantern must have that problem a lot, but this is the first time I’ve seen it from Carol.

My low-key inverted-vee antenna should be up and running off the back deck by Field Day, and will be 32 feet on each leg. That will get me the 20 meter band and up, and given that I’m feeding it with a short run (~10′) of open wire line through an MFJ Versa Tuner 2, I may get 40 as well. I’ll certainly try.

I’m still testing EPub readers. This morning, at Jim Strickland’s noodging, I installed the Barnes & Noble Desktop Reader. Not a bad item, but as with all the readers I’ve tested so far, doesn’t quite get it right. The presentation on my test files has been pretty good so far, but this time the software does use the title tag, and thus puts up only half of the Beyschlag ebook’s title. Also, it puts my test books up in two-column format, and I still haven’t figured out how to control the column settings. Neither of my two test books with cover images show their covers as thumbnails in the library pane. To its credit, the reader renders PDF documents pretty well, though of course there’s no metadata and thus no display of title or author.

Most annoying is the User Guide button, which brings up a longwinded sales pitch but no user guide. I assume you have to sign up for a B&N account to get the user guide, and I will at some point, but probably not today. I do understand that the product is designed to work tightly with B&N’s online bookstore and won’t slam them too hard for that integration, but basic “here’s how to do it” information should be there long before the sales pitches begin.

Nobody’s perfect, but the winner so far is FBReader, even though it inexplicably displays my copyright notices in ancient Greek. We’ll get there. Just not as soon as I’d like.