Friday, December 31, 2004

Las Trampas Regional Wilderness

A week of rain so far, and another week forecast ahead — "unusual for California", I'm told — but it let up today and we took advantage of it.

Las Trampas is a big preserve west of the San Ramon Valley: quiet and isolated, 5 miles up Bollinger Canyon Road from the nearest signs of civilisation. I'm not sure that quite justifies the title "wilderness": it's no wilder than most of Mount Diablo, and feels less remote than most of Donner Canyon. And today was a popular day to hike it: New Years Eve, and the first dry day for a week.

The main attraction is Rocky Ridge, which runs from north-west to south-east with panoramic views north and south along the San Ramon Valley and west into the Bay: you can just about see San Francisco.

For once, we decided to ignore, whose route seems to shy away from the ridge, taking the lower Cuesta Trail rather than the Upper Trail running along the ridge. Their route also runs clockwise, ending by coming down the steep Ridge Road: this seems the wrong way around to me. Instead, we took the route suggested by California Hiking: up the Rocky Ridge Trail, along the ridge on the Upper Trail, and return descending the Elderberry Trail.

Tip: don't even bother looking for the Rocky Ridge Trail. It exists, but it's muddy and it runs parallel to the Rocky Ridge Road, which is a wide, paved fire road: much more comfortable to simply walk the road up to Upper Trail. It's a steep climb: 800 feet in 1.5 miles. At the top, the Ridge Road disappears through a locked gate into EBMUD watershed land. The Ridge Trail continues through a gate into the watershed, but you need a hiking permit to follow it: $10/year from EBMUD.

Upper Trail runs out along the ridge and to the views, which are spectacular. The clouds today are heavy, always threatening rain, but high enough that the peak of Mt. Diablo is visible. But it's cold and windy up here today: we stop for a sandwich and cool down so fast that we decide to defer the rest of lunch to the trailhead.

The book suggests am out-and-back detour on the Sycamore Trail to the Wind Caves ("hollowed openings in the sandstone outcrops") but that's a drop of 200 feet to regain so we leave it for another day. In any case, once you've started out down that trail it'd be hard to resist making it a round trip by dropping further to Devil's Hole — for the name alone — and returning to the ridge on the Devil's Hole Trail.

Return on the Elderberry Trail, which is where the mud starts; the route up to the ridge is paved, the ridge itself is stony and dry, but the descent drops through mixed grass and woodlands and rapidly gets muddy: it's a long 2 miles back to the trailhead. It's not sucking clay mud, like the Essex mud of childhood walks that'd pull the wellies right off your feet; but it's heavy and sticky enough that your boots get progressively heavier as you plough through it.

Very little wildlife out today; a couple of red-tailed hawks soaring over the ridge, but that was it. Las Trampas is mountain lion territory, although the chances of actually encountering one are pretty low; trailheads have posted instructions on what to do if you do. Be noisy; be big; don't rush it or run; and the one that gets me: "if attacked, fight back". Well, like: duh.

Categories: Hiking

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Christmas lights

Yes, it's true: Americans do go nuts over decorating for Christmas. Not all of them, but a large proportion of houses have some sort of outdoors decoration. Most decorate the house and/or garden with lights; some have illuminated or inflatable figures outside. As always with Christmas here, themes tend to be secular rather than spiritual: lots of deer, Santa Clauses, a smattering of Grinches, but not many Nativities.

And there are clusters of houses which go all-out, either in competion or as a community activity. The lights in Vista San Ramon are the most impressive locally; very busy before Christmas, particularly on December 18th when they light the streets with luminaries, but we went on the Tuesday after Christmas and had the streets pretty much to ourselves.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Diablo Foothills Regional Park

A Boxing Day (not that Boxing Day really exists here) hike in the foothills of Mt. Diablo. No point in going higher today, as the cloud cover was low over the hills. Below the clouds, it's a crisp windy day; mostly grey skies, but with an occational burst of brillant blue to remind me that this isn't England any more.

The hike begins and ends at a trailhead in the middle of a very posh residential area: huge, multi-million-dollar McMansions set in the hills. The trails often pass above them, which means you get to spy into their back yards.

We went with the suggested hike again, and again it was a good 'un; although it actually spends a lot of time outside the park boundary, taking the Alamo Trail along and below the South edge of the park, and heading into Mount Diablo State Park.

We stopped to eat our picnic at China Wall, a rock formation which the pictures don't really do justice to; it's a ridge of rock running hundreds of yards along the hillside, and what the photos don't show is that behind it are further ridges of strata: a whole chunk of mountainside turned on its side and eroding out.

And it's full of ground squirrels: Beechey ground squirrels, so common throughout most of California that they usually seem to simply be called California ground squirrels. We came across more of them on Stonegate Trail.

The park leaflet mentions bobcat and coyote; no sign of either, but there were some distinctly catty footprints on some of the trails.

We took the suggested extension to see more of Castle Rock, a big orange rock formation on the flank of Mt. Diablo: but what bahiker doesn't tell you is that, although it's an extra 2.25 miles, it's not a flat 2.25 miles. It heads down a ravine, which was nice, as in the cover of the ravine the trees are still green and fresh; out on the hills, the oaks are leafless and blasted-looking. But the route back up was a stiff climb up a steep dirt track.

The section of the hike within Diablo Foothills is easier — the hills are more rolling — but also less interesting with less to see; although there's a good view of downtown Walnut Creek from the junction of Stonegate and Foothills trails.

A good day out, and taking a picnic made it; Christmas day leftovers taste much better outdoors with a mountain view.

Categories: Hiking

Tuesday, December 21, 2004


On the face of it, just another affluent suburb of Oakland — but a number of reasons to visit:

Mountain View Cemetery: their web page mentions "panoramic views", and it's not wrong. It runs up and over the side of the foothill, and you can drive right in and up to the top for fantastic views over the Bay to San Francisco. It's probably best on a clear day, but even on a hazy day like today we could see to the Golden Gate Bridge and beyond.

Piedmont Grocery: a big, old-fashioned grocery store — lots of fun to walk around in. (No website of their own, but this post gives a feel of the atmosphere.)

Fentons Creamery: an Oakland institution, a traditional ice-cream parlour. The company's 109 years old, although they've only been at the current site on Piedmont Avenue since 1961 — Melinda remembers being taken here for ice-cream as a child. Outstanding ice-cream and sundaes. I had the Fentons Special, which was huge: when they say "slices of sherbet", they mean that it's built up 6 inches over the top of the glass, and a bit of a race against time to work it down before it melted all over the table. Sherbet seems to be an American thing: in Britain it'd usually refer to a fizzy powdery sweet. Here it's a sort of ice-cream, less milky and more fruity than normal, but not as icy as a sorbet, and usually citrus-sharp — my sundae had raspberry, orange, and pineapple sherbet.

Good as it was, the Special was a bit too much in one go: and by the time you've worked your way down into the glass, the contents have got a bit too melted. Melinda had the Black & Tan, her traditional order, which (from the little I tasted) was excellent — toasted almond ice cream.

Do not, as the woman sitting at the table next to us did, attempt a lunch followed by a sundae: she ordered the weekly special and ended up leaving two-thirds of it behind.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Bishop Ranch Regional Preserve

A short easy hike yesterday, on a wonderful clear day: long views with just a little haze in the distance.

It’s an unpromising start: a steep climb up a muddy fire road, with the sound of the freeway down in the valley. But the views are worth it: good views along the valley and across to Mount Diablo.

Dropping down from the ridge, the freeway noise fades and we’re walking amongst old oak trees; gnarled, and draped with nets of lace lichens. There are signs of woodpeckers: standing dead trees are riddled with holes; but no sightings of them today.

But we did stop and watch a pair of hawks circling just overhead at the edge of the wood, almost close enough to count the feathers.

At just over 2 miles, it’s a little too short a hike for me: Bishop Ranch is a tiny regional preserve and you could walk every trail in it in a few hours. But it’s a good option for a quick getaway.

Categories: Hiking

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Retail secrets

Via BoingBoing: Longs drugstore uses a price-tag code which gives their base cost on the item.

Nifty, but it makes you wonder: why is it important to them to have this information on the tag? Does it allow employees to check that discounts don't go too far below the base cost?


The Scott Peterson trial's all over bar the formalities of sentencing.

As an outsider, three things about this strike me as odd to varying degrees:

1) It's been a media-circus case second only to O.J. Simpson's trial ever since Laci Peterson first disappeared. It rings all the public-interest bells: attractive, white, pregnant wife disappears on Christmas Eve; shifty husband makes unconvincing TV appeals for information; body found at Easter; guess whodunit? But the media-friendly aspects aside, it's just another grubby domestic-violence murder. According to the FBI's Crime in the US statistics, in 2002 (the year Laci Peterson disappeared) there were 16,204 murders in the US; what happened to reporting on the rest?

2) If Peterson's sentenced to death as the jury has recommended (in the US system, the jury gets to recommend the sentence from the allowable options, and it's unusual for the judge to overrule the recommendation) reports suggest he'll be waiting on Death Row for up to 20 years. 20 years? That's pretty much a life sentence on its own; why not give up pretending that the system works?

3) And this bothers me most of all: not only are jury members here named, but they gave a press conference at which they talked about their feelings about the case and about their deliberations. Commentators on Larry King Live suggested that this was a good decision:

"It's very smart of a jury to do this. Because if they don't do this, they're going to be hounded at home. Everybody in the press corps knows who those jurors are, they know where they live, they know their addresses, phone numbers." (transcript)


Things are way different here to in the UK. In the British system your identity as a juror is protected; your name is not published, you're not interviewed, and you don't become a media figure — voluntarily or not — simply because you were randomly chosen to do your civic duty. And what happens behind the jury room doors is sacrosanct. The US system just seems wrong: discussing the deliberations seems to me to open up possibilities either for declaring a mistrial or at least an appeal tightly tailored to address the previous juror's comments.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Cool as

As noted on Joel on Software: Google Suggest, another beta from the Google Labs.

Think Google, with auto completion: sounds rather dry, but it's good fun — and strangely addictive — typing phrases to see what similar searches other users of Google tried and how successful they were.

[Update: Google Blog item by the engineer who created it, as a skunkworks project, in his Google-sponsored "20% time".]

Donner Canyon

"Although the featured hike is not long, I found it more difficult than expected."

They're not kidding: the trail goes up and down like a yoyo and it can be quite slippery when it's wet. (And you want to go when it's wet, as the waterfalls are better when there's plenty of rainwater running off the mountain.)

Bay Area Hiker thinks it's 4.2 miles but notes that the claimed mileage varies; the California Hiking book says 6.5 miles. It certainly felt more like 6 than 4 to me. Mind you, California Hiking also suggests 2.5 hours: we did it in closer to 4 hours, starting at 1:30pm and walking off the mountain at dusk at 5:20pm.

Fantastic views of the canyon and over Clayton; and it's nice walking alongside the creek and the falls as you're never far from the sound of water. The falls are unspectacular by Yosemite standards, but there aren't really that many waterfalls in Northern California so you take what you get.

I was struck by one species of tree, common in a couple of areas which looked like regrowth after fire: fairly scrubby, waxy green leaves, and very smooth shiny orange bark. I liked to think of them as Fake Plastic Trees, but I'll try and look 'em up at the library and find out what they really are.

[Update: they're manzanitas, a California native. The botanical description and photo doesn't really do justice to the young trees I saw, which had very vivid glossy bark. The photograph here isn't up to much either, but the description is pretty close to what I saw.]

Categories: Hiking

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

On banking

Banking here is odd, compared to what I was used to the UK.

American banks are big on personal service; branches are big and welcoming, staff are friendly, and there are rarely queues. A big difference from banking in the UK, where you're usually made to feel like an inconvenience if you visit a branch.

But: it's more common to pay simply to run a checking (current) account. Less so now, as banks are competing on free checking, but you have to be careful, as free checking doesn't necessarily imply everything is free. Some limit you to a certain number of checks per month, over which they charge you per check; some let you write checks for free but charge you for Internet bill payments; some charge you for withdrawals from any ATM other than their own; some charge a monthly fee if you don't keep a certain minimum, or average, balance over the month. It's really a case of deciding what's important to you and shopping around for the best fit.

And here's the strangest thing: banks here don't print their own checks. Instead, you get checks printed by a third party — our checks came from Deluxe, but there are others — and often, you pay for them yourself. (Our bank gave us the first box of checks free, and I think they should last us years; checks are increasingly irrelevant in the age of plastic.)

In the UK, you'd get the bank's fixed house style of cheques. Here, you can choose checks in whatever style you want. Basic; cartoonish; patriotic; religious; sporting; or just plain goofy. It all seems terribly frivolous to me; money's a serious business, not an opportunity for expressing your wacky personality or pushing your personal beliefs.

Banking here also seems slightly clunky; like it was only recently dragged out of the dark ages. If I want a bank draft in the UK, I go into my branch, sign a form, and they take the money from my account and give me the draft. If I want a cashier's check in the US, I go into my branch and write the bank a check from my account. How odd.

Monday, December 06, 2004


We went car shopping at the weekend. We didn't intend to buy the first car we saw, but it was in such good condition and (after some nifty negotiation from my father-in-law, who enjoys and is good at such things) such a good deal that it seemed a shame to pass it up.

We paid for it and picked it up this morning: a 2001 Focus ZX3 hatchback, automatic, lots of extras, in yellow. Bright yellow. At some point over the weekend it got called "the lemon" — out of earshot of the sellers, as "lemon" has meanings beyond colour in car sales — and the name seems to have stuck; the lemon it is.

So, we're independently mobile. And it feels good.

Manual transmission ("stick shift") is the exception here, rather than the norm as it is in the UK; and it's usually seen as a liability in used cars. Manuals are harder to sell, as fewer buyers want them; and, in lower-end cars at least, manual transmission has boy-racerish connotations that suggest that the car will have been driven hard. Hatchbacks are very rare here; most cars are of the saloon body style ("sedans") with a few estates ("station wagons") and even fewer hatchbacks. We wanted one, as we want a lot of load area but didn't want an SUV.

And yellow is an exceptionally rare colour, at least around here. The standing joke of the weekend was "it's easy to find in a parking lot", and it's true: only once today did we see another yellow car (a new Beetle) in anywhere we parked. I love the yellow; Melinda was ambivalent at first but says its growing on her.

I'd worried about insurance, as again we're starting again from scratch as far as driving and insurance history goes. Well, it was expensive, but not as nose-bleeding expensive as I'd feared. Most policies here seem to run for 6 months, not the year we're used to in the UK: this seems unnecessarily cruel, given how painful it is shopping around for insurance, and the cynic in me suggests that it gives 'em two opportunities a year to hike your premium. Time will tell.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Junk food roundup

Costco: a warehouse club — much like a wholesalers in the UK, except here anyone is free to join as long as they pay $40 per year. The in-laws are huge fans. We haven’t joined yet, but might when we move out into our own apartment. They are cheap, as long as you can store (or eat before they go off) industrial-sized quantities of stuff.

But from the junk-food perspective, two things are significant: firstly, they offer a lot of free samples in the store. And although they check cards on the way in through the main entrance, it’s easy enough to sneak in through one of the registers and graze.

And secondly, their food court is before the card check, so you can go in and eat without needing to be a member. Pizza is good — about $2 a slice with a soda, or $10 for a whole one — but the best deal is on dogs: a hot dog or Polish dog (same basic thing but a more Germanic sausage) and a soda for $1.50. I can definitely recommend the Polish dog over the hot dog.

In-N-Out Burger: a Californian institution since 1948. A basic burger joint — tiled walls, lighted menu — but with a difference. Five things on the menu: burger, cheeseburger, Double-Double (double beef/double cheese), fries, soda; everything cooked fresh after you order; and staff that are well-paid and happy. All excellent. And they’ll customise the order if you want: extra pickle?

(And there are more secret codes, apparently. I’ve seen a few Protein Style burgers — the lo-carb version, wrapped in lettuce leaves rather than a bun — although invariably partnered with an order of fries, which seems to rather miss the point. Atkins is pervasive here, but ripe for a backlash; can’t come soon enough, in my opinion, low-carbers always seem so sanctimonious.)

El Balazo taqueria: one effect of California’s high Hispanic/Mexican population is that Mexican food is cheap, pervasive, and generally good; competition weeds out the duds. El Balazo is a local chain of about 10 taquerias, with locations in Contra Costa County and in San Francisco; and they’re the best burrito I’ve had yet. I can highly recommend the Super Burrito with steak and black beans, although they have a huge menu and I plan to go back and try some other dishes.

We went to the San Ramon restaurant, which is huge and runs along cafeteria lines; take a tray, give your order, and move along the counter; watch it being assembled in front of you; pick it up at the end and pay. $10 buys you enough burrito to render you immobile for the rest of the day.

Also recommended: La Fiesta (Berkeley); La Salsa (chain). Yet to try: High-Tech Burrito; Baja Fresh (both chains with restaurants nearby).

Auntie Anne’s pretzels: and here pretzel means soft pretzel, rather than the hard snacks that President Bush likes to choke on. A soft pretzel is a large baked dough knot, still hot, and usually salted. Two chains dominate around here: Auntie Anne’s and Wetzel’s. Melinda has brand loyalty to Anne’s, so that’s what we’ve had most.

Various varieties at Anne’s: original (crusted with salt; very good); garlic (which is I think the basic pretzel without the salt and dusted with garlic powder; also very good); jalapeño (which has chillis baked into the dough, no salt, and is excellent: enough chilli bite to be interesting, not enough to be overpowering); and sour cream (again the basic pretzel dusted with a sour-cream flavoured powder; this one is not so good).

Wetzel’s has an odd thing called a Wetzel Dog: a hot dog wrapped in a spiral of pretzel dough and baked. Sounds revolting, but in a greasy this-has-got-to-be-bad-for-you way it’s very good.

It’s-It ice-cream: a San Francisco institution — you can see their factory driving South on 101 from SFO. The It’s-It bar dates back to 1928 and is something like this: vanilla ice cream, sandwiched between oatmeal cookies (think plain Hob-Nobs and you’re on the right lines) and then dipped in chocolate. Good, but rich; you certainly wouldn’t want to eat several on the trot.

Jose Cuervo premixed margarita: yum. I tried repeatedly to mix margaritas from scratch in the UK — how hard can it be, it’s only tequila and lime juice — and failed dismally each time. The premixed stuff comes in a 1.75l bottle and is great. They also sell a margarita mix you can add tequila to yourself; I’m trying that one next.

Lemonade: lemonade here is a revelation. In the UK, lemonade is clear, fizzy, and tastes of chemicals. Here, it’s pale greenish, still, and tastes of lemon. Or it’s pink, still, and tastes of lemon; I’m not sure why pink lemonade is pink, but I like it.

And you can buy lemonade (and fruit juice) concentrate frozen in tubes and mix them up at home. A simple pleasure, but still a novelty for me. (Avoid Safeway store brand; it’s worth paying 25c more for Minute Maid frozen pink lemonade.)

Friday, December 03, 2004


Our first forex trade completed; we have real money here now. We're still waiting for Visa/ATM cards on our bank account, but at least the cash is here.

And here's the deal with foreign exchange: you want to get as close to the interbank rate as possible. In rough order from worst to best, rates go as follows: tourist rate; high-street bank rates; foreign exchange dealer rate; interbank rate.

Tourist rates are poor but convenient if you want to take cash with you. High-street banks will happily do foreign wires or drafts, but the rate'll favour them rather than you (and they'll charge you a fee for the privilege also). You won't get interbank rate unless you're a financial institution. But using a dedicated forex dealer narrows gets you close: they make their money on the gap, but they work on volume and they're competitive with each other which keeps the gap narrow.

The effective rate for using UK credit or debit cards abroad depends on how much loading is applied over and above the interbank rate; if I remember rightly, Visa/Mastercard apply 1% and most issuers apply a further 2–3%. This puts them somewhere around the high-street bank rate — still much cheaper than paying tourist rates for changing money or travellers cheques. Some credit-card issuers issuers give better deals: for example Nationwide don't apply any extra loading over the Visa/Mastercard cut. This makes a Nationwide credit card a good bet for spending overseas.

But if you want a big lump of cash in local currency, forex is the way to go. A basic forex trade is a 3-step operation: you make the deal, which commits you to buying X dollars for Y pounds at an exchange rate of Z. You wire the forex dealer your pounds from your UK bank account. And they wire dollars to your US bank account. There's a certain leap of faith here: you're sending your money to the dealer and expecting to get it back, so you need to trust them. Getting recommendations helps. We'd seen a number of dealers mentioned in newspaper articles and recommended on Motley Fool discussion boards, and picked two: XEtrade, an online broker; and HIFX, a traditional broker based in Windsor. You can also ask for a reference from the brokers' bankers, although we didn't bother with this.

For the first trade, we went with XEtrade: it's more convenient placing trades on the web, and their rates were 1/10c cheaper. And I'm impressed. I placed the trade on Tuesday morning and BACS transferred the money from our UK account; they received it, and wired dollars to our US account, on Thursday; and the money arrived here on Friday. That's as fast as most transfers between accounts in the UK! Bravo.

(But of course the rates went better yet on Wednesday; oh well. It's hard calling the top, and I was happy with the rate we got. I might try a limit order next time, which lets you set a minimum rate to strike the deal at; but this time, we wanted cash now.)


I passed my driving test, although it was a close-run thing: 14 errors, and to pass you have to make no more than 15.

And what cost me most of the marks? My British steering technique: feeding the wheel through the hands rather than turning over the top of the wheel. That's correct for the British test, which considers crossing your arms at any time while steering a loss of full control (and risks an arm in the face if the airbag deploys mid-manoeuvre). But it's wrong on a Californian test: they consider the over-the-wheel technique to be more smoothly controlled.

I suspect it would have been less noticable in a car with power steering; the car I took the test in has manual steering and is a bear to wrestle around corners.

But it's over; it's done; I can drive legally and alone.