Monday, February 28, 2005

US Coast & Geodetic Survey

The full text on the US Coast & Geodetic Survey marker disc I found yesterday on Shell Ridge reads:


and in the centre of the disc, an arrow pointing approximately west with markings stamped on either side. Above:


and below:

NO 1

I'm curious: what is this? In 1946 you may have had to write to the Director of the Coast & Geodetic Survey to find out. But in 2005 we have the Web to hand.

The US Coast & Geodetic Survey is now (and since 1970) the National Geodetic Survey, part of the National Ocean Service (NOS), which in turn is part of the National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The NOAA's fluff page for the NGS has a photo of a marker disc very much like the one I found.

The main NGS webpage is very dry; surveying's a serious business, you know. But it turns out that you can look up marker positions online by doing a datasheet search. Annoyingly, you can't link to datasheet search results; but to find mine, retrieve a DATASHEET by station name NUECES in CALIFORNIA.

But wait: I found a sneaky back route to get a datasheet link. If you search using the NOS's Data Explorer; set a topic of Geodetic Control Point; zoom the map down further and further until you find the green dot corresponding to your marker; and then click "Link To Data" and click on your green dot; and then show the Address Bar in the page it pops up... you end up with a datasheet URL something like... this.

It would seem that what I found was Reference Mark 1 for the Nueces survey station; in addition to the mark I found, there should be discs for the station itself (7.2 metres west of Reference Mark 1; hence the westward arrow on Mark 1) and for Reference Mark 2 (7.5 metres west of the station) plus an additional Azimuth Mark disc set into a concrete post 0.5 miles northwest.

The 1946 directions to the station predate by a long way the establishment of Walnut Creek Open Space in 1974, and refer to roads and landmarks which no longer exist. Ygnacio Avenue is now Ygnacio Valley Road; the Mt. Diablo Road is Walnut Avenue. Las Lomas Way does still exist and does lead down to the Open Space, although it's not a trailhead.

The station was last "recovered" — the markers located and verified OK — in 1955 by both EBMUD and the Coast & Geodetic Survey. You can enter recovery information online; if I ever find all 4 markers for the station I might give it a go...

It would seem that there are (or at least were) six markers in downtown Walnut Creek:

HT0104 (X 178): Mount Diablo & Granger, reported not found 1997
HT0105 (WGB EBMUD): Mount Diablo & California, reported good 1958
HT0106 (WGBI EBMUD): Mount Diablo & Locust, reported not found 1997
HT0107 142.29 C OF WC): North Broadway & Walker, reported not found 1987
HT0108 (134.19 C OF WC): North Broadway & Cypress, reported good 1958
HT0109 (2 C OF WC): Lincoln Avenue & Live Oak Way, reported good 1997

I'll keep my eyes open and see if I can spot any of them.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Shell Ridge Open Space

A solo hike today; Melinda's at her parents to watch the Oscars ceremony. Personally, I'd rather watch paint dry, so I'm out alone today.

Shell Ridge Open Space is part of the Walnut Creek Open Space, some 2700 acres of land bought by the City of Walnut Creek in 1974 to preserve the landscape. Shell Ridge abuts Diablo Foothills Regional Park; when we hiked there in December, we were looking out over Shell Ridge towards Walnut Creek.

There's a number of trailheads dotted around the edges of the space; but one in particular, Howe Homestead Park, is five minutes' walk from the apartment. It's a tiny little park, named after James Howe, an early Associated Press journalist who lived there. It's also home to Walnut Creek's community gardens, which are pretty much mini-allotments; the Howe Homestead webpage suggests a 3-year waiting list for one.

Jim Howe called his home "Gopher Gulch": the ground is riddled with ground squirrel holes. I'm no longer quite sure what the difference is between a gopher and a ground squirrel; I suspect "gopher" gets used colloquially for any large burrowing rodent.

The Kovar trail leads up out of Howe Homestead into Shell Ridge proper. It's a muddy and dull slog for a while, running along the back of housing developments; but it soon enough climbs up onto Joaquin Ridge, with increasing views over the city below and the surrounding hills.

Trail marking in the Open Space varies; major trails are well-marked, but the foot trails are often missing markers. You often need the Open Space map to find your way. But even then, there are a few surprises. The map doesn't show access or fire roads. And there are often more trails on the ground than on the map; usage has blazed new trails.

I decide to take a long loop along Shell Ridge itself, the highest ridge in the park. It's some 500 feet to climb, but it looks worth it. I can see an enthusiast flying a radio-controlled glider from the top of the ridge.

From the Kovar Trail, I turn north on the Fossil Hill Trail and join the Briones-Mt. Diablo trail heading north, past Indian Valley School and the Marshall Drive trailhead. The trail continues out of the park, but I turn east. There are more trails here than the map shows; I take what I believe to be the Ridge Top Trail. It isn't; it heads straight up the steep side of Shell Ridge directly to the EBMUD water tank, rather than skirting below it and dog-legging back up as the Ridge Top trail should. But it does the trick; I'm up, and the views are glorious. Shame about the rain that's just started and which is being blown straight into my face by the winds coming up the ridge. But I've been lucky with weather so far, and I can put up with mild rain.

Ridge Top Trail continues along the ridge, and after about half a mile a side trail leads right towards the summit. It's worth the effort to stand at the highest point. I find an odd metal disc set into a rocky outcrop, marked "US COAST & GEODETIC SURVEY": more on this later. On the ground, it appears that the side trail continues from the summit down the side of the ridge; don't be tempted, it rapidly turns into a very steep and rocky scramble. Better to backtrack to the Ridge Top Trail which takes an easier descent around the back of the ridge. And it's a relief to be behind the ridge, sheltered from the wind.

You could shorten the hike here by taking the Ginder Gap Loop Trail back down to the Briones-Mt. Diablo trail, but I decided to go for distance today and continued another 1.5 miles on the Ridge Top Trail. This is the quietest part of the hike; I don't meet a single person on this stretch. The wildflowers are starting to bloom; in a few weeks the hillsides should be spectacular. I don't recognise many, but manage to identify bright orange California poppies (furled today against the wind and rain) and little purple lupines.

I returned on the Briones-Mt. Diablo trail before dropping down onto Indian Creek Trail. The creek's surprisingly empty, given the rain we've had lately; and it's very quiet. Ground squirrels dart out of the way as I approach, and an owl hoots overhead.

I'm feeling foolhardy, so I rather than taking the Kovar Trail home from the end of Indian Creek, I drop down on Fossil Hill road to the Sutherland Drive trailhead and take the Summit Ridge Trail. A bit of a mistake; it's a tough climb up the rim of the old quarry, and it feels a bit precarious now the wind and rain have started up again. There's plenty of evidence of why the space is named "Shell Ridge": the stone here is full of chalky shell fragments.

I make it to the top and start dropping down back to the Kovar trail. The rain's really coming down now, and the trail is getting increasingly slippery. I make it almost all the way down; but a few hundred yards from the trailhead I lose my balance, slip, and fall flat on my arse in the mud.

It keeps raining hard as I exit the park and trudge home along the roadside; by the time I make it home I feel like, and must look like, a drowned muddy rat.

In total, I think I walked around 7.5 miles; and it certainly feels like it. Time to do the laundry; and take a hot bath.

Categories: Hiking

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Half Moon Bay State Beach

Dhaval and I drive to Half Moon Bay and walk a few miles on the beach; we reach a huge flock of seagulls standing on the beach. We walk towards them and the flock parts around us; as we walk through, the flock reforms behind us. It's vaguely intimidating.

We paddle a bit. The water is cold; too cold to bear for more than one wave. There are a few foolhardy surfers in the water, wearing wetsuits; we wonder whether their exposed hands get cold or not?

It's a lovely beach, but it costs $6 to park. Both times I've visited, I've felt that I haven't really got enough value out of it. I might try bahiker's loop walk next time.

Categories: Hiking

Sawyer Camp Trail

A walk in the South Bay today. I'm meeting Dhaval, an ex-colleague visiting Mountain View on business, for lunch; just time to fit in this San Mateo walk with Walk California's San Francisco group beforehand.

It's my first time driving over the Bay Bridge and through San Francisco, and I'm a little apprehensive; but the traffic is light, the driving reasonably easy, and the bridge is fun. If you're going to cross the Bay Bridge, westward is the way to go; you're on the top deck and have the views. Eastward you're on the bottom deck and most of your view is of ironwork.

The bridge toll is $3, westward only — you can drive eastward for free. This seems to be true of all the bridges over the bay, so if you're doing a round trip you can't escape the tolls by choosing your bridges carefully.

The Sawyer Camp Trail webpage and map are, to put it politely, a bit scrappy; they make me realise just how good EBRPD's web presence is. There are printed maps at the trailhead, but they're still not great, lacking a lot of detail.

But you don't really need a map for Sawyer Camp Trail anyway; it's a straight, paved trail along the edge of Lower Crystal Springs Reservoir. We meet at the south trailhead, which is packed with people; the parking lot is tiny and full, with cars parked at the side of the road for a hundred yards and more.

We walk three miles out and three miles back, taking us to the end of the reservoir; the trail continues for another three miles or so beyond where we turned. It's pleasant enough: the trail looks out over the reservoir most of the time, and the land on the other side of the reservoir is protected and undisturbed watershed land. But it's too busy: the start of the trail is crowded with walkers, and there are often cyclists and joggers whipping past. The crowds thins out a little after a few miles, but it's never really quiet.

At our turning point, there are four or five deer cropping by the side of the trail. They're unfazed by the walkers and amble slowly off down a side trail.

The Walk SFC group are friendly and cosmopolitan; they mostly live in the city, and are surprised that I've trekked in from the suburbs to walk with them. And they're a more diverse group than the largely California-born East Bay group I hiked with last weekend: at least half of them are immigrants like me.

We end slightly late, at 12:15; I have to rush to meet Dhaval, but I'm left feeling that 6 flat miles isn't really enough any more. I'm getting fitter; I need more challenge.

Categories: Hiking

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Google, yet again

New Googley goodness x2:

Google Toolbar 3 beta, which adds a spell checker for web forms. Very very useful.

It's also sparked some controversy with its AutoLink button, which when you press it adds links to any unlinked addresses, ISBNs, etc. Some authors feel this oversteps the intent of the original web page (see for example Robert Scoble, Rogers Cadenhead; BBC news story).

A lot of the discussion on this has lost perspective in favour of blasting "evil Google" for "invisibly rewriting web pages". Yes, Google Toolbar does rewrite pages; but only if and when the user presses the "AutoLink" button. And the links it adds are identified as Google links by a cursor change and a tooltip.

The other side of the argument — and the side I favour — is put by Roger Benningfield: "my house, my rules". In my house, I can modify your content for my own use however I want; Google Toolbar's rewriting is simply a tool I can wield to do so, much as I can wield a highlighter pen to the SF Chronicle.

[Update: Dave Winer fumes at Google Toolbar; Yoz Grahame skewers him.]

Google Movies.

The search feels like a subset of the existing Google News functionality, limited to movie reviews; as such, it's only as good as the reviews feeding it. I suspect the search examples they give are carefully chosen. "Tom Hanks talking to a basketball" does indeed bring up Cast Away (and Mick LaSalle's glorious Chronicle review: "Hanks spends 45 minutes talking to a volleyball. It's a spirited relationship."). But "Woody Allen wakes up in the future" gets nowhere near Sleeper. And who would consider Bram Stoker's Dracula "best horror"?

The most useful thing is the movie listings search: movie: 94596 gets listings for all the theaters near us. Much easier than trawling around each theater's website; and less annoying than Fandango's listings.

Google is aggressively going after local information eyeballs, and it's doing it well; notice how the theater listings tie into Google Maps? I think Google is going to eat Yellow Pages' lunch within 5 years; a point will come at which it's worth more to a small business to have a website for Google to index than to pay for a Yellow Pages listing.

But how soon I forget: almost all of the new stuff is US-only. Give it time, it'll come: it's impressive how many languages, and local domains, Google is localised for.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Bad Chinese food

Bad Chinese food seems to be the rule rather than the exception in the East Bay: don't eat Chinese without a review or a recommendation to guide you.

We've been burnt twice on what my mother-in-law memorably referred to as "Brown Goo": bland food in generic cornstarch-thickened brown sauce. Avoid: Ha's, Danville; China Paradise, Blackhawk.

We do now have a short list of recommendations to try, though.

Indian food however remains a mystery: unlike Silicon Valley, there isn't a big Indian population in the East Bay so there aren't many restaurants to choose from. Mexican restaurants are most common (especially out towards Concord, which has a high Hispanic population); and there's a fair number of Thai and Vietnamese restaurants around also.

Back to Tilden

Another hike in Tilden, this time with a group: my first hike with Bay Area Casual Hikers. They're a local group who seem to hike a lot around the Walnut Creek area; laid-back and friendly.

Today's hike was a straight 8 mile out-and-back along the paved Nimitz Way; starting at 10am and hoping to avoid the threatened rainstorms forming off the coast. And it worked: not only did the rain hold off, but it was clear enough to get some good views over San Francisco.

(I'm still at the stage where a view of the Golden Gate Bridge is a novelty; and there are plenty of great views around, including one downhill stretch of Highway 24, just after the Caldecott Tunnel, which has near-panoramic views over Oakland, Emeryville and Berkeley, and across the Bay to the city. Not the sort of view you used to get from the M4...)

Anyway, it was a lot of fun to walk and chat; I'm hoping to get out with them again next time they hike.

Categories: Hiking

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Nature notes

The hummingbirds went through a lull: a long hot weekend with few visits to our feeder, which left us wondering if we'd done something wrong. Did we scare them off? Did the nectar go bad?

But on Tuesday it rained and rained and rained. No hummingbirds. Where do they go in the rain? Hunker down and wait it out is my guess. And on Wednesday they were ravenous: visits to the feeder about every 10 minutes, all day.

It's tailed off a little since then, but we're still seeing a lot of visits. Annoyingly though they favour the feeding port facing away from the window, so we often hear them approach but see little of them feeding; Melinda plans to bung up that port to force them more into view.

And I think we have a new species visiting: darker, with a brilliant iridescent red throat, and different habits to the Anna's Hummingbird: it perches to feed, while the Anna's prefer to hover; and it's silent, while the Anna's are vocal. My best guess is that it's a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

The pine tree opposite has been in bloom this week, and when the wind occasionally catches it (not often, as it's sheltered by other trees) great clouds of pollen puff from it like smoke. I've never seen anything like it.

Parking lots here are often full of blackbirds. Not the inoffensive blackbirds of Britain: these are mobs of Brewers' Blackbirds, which seem more similar to European starlings. One page describes the song as "a harsh wheezy que-ee or ksh-eee, like the creaking of a rusty hinge". But it's stranger than that: when there's lots of them calling over concrete, their song sounds almost artificial; as if its being broadcast over a cheap Tannoy.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Cor blimey, guv'nor

BBC News: One of the Queen's best party tricks is putting on a cockney accent, according to Princess Michael of Kent.


It must be a laugh a minute round Lizzie's on a Friday night.

Oh, and this steams me beyond belief:

"The English take the breeding of their horses and dogs more seriously than they do their children," she said. "God forbid that the wrong drop of blood should get into their Labrador, but their children marry however they wish."

Us English mongrels say: fuck off, you overbred Nazi idiot.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Mission: Burrito

Into San Francisco today, to see I Curmudgeon at the SF Independent Film Festival. Excellent and funny film, investigating negativity by having the director interview fellow curmudgeons.

But afterwards: into the Mission district in search of burritos. Mission is odd: Mission Street itself is run down, heavily Hispanic, and often edgy (and there are certainly blocks you wouldn't want to walk on after dark). But move a block or two West and there are pockets of white trendster/yuppie enclaves: coffeeshops and loft-living furniture stores.

La Taqueria (Mission & 24th): another one Melinda remembers from family excursions, but also a long-term favourite of reviewers. Excellent carne asada burrito. I had mine plain, so it was mostly meat and salsa: very very good, definitely best burrito yet. And we were still hungry afterwards, so down a block to one recommended by ChowHound:

El Farolita (Mission & 23rd): more of a hole-in-the-wall dive than La Taqueria, but cheaper with it. Another carne asada burrito, which was good, but not as good; maybe we should have tried the al pastor as this post recommends?

To walk it off, we walked up Mission onto Market and along to Embarcadero BART: quite a trek, but does joining BART 5 stops up save much on the fare back to Walnut Creek? Not really: 24th & Mission to Walnut Creek is $4.10; walking 3-and-a-bit miles saves you precisely 10¢.

(Future reference: County Connection Route 104 in Walnut Creek is free to ride, and runs between BART and Broadway Plaza: saves a bit of a walk getting home. Doesn't run evenings, though.)

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Iron Horse Regional Trail

The Iron Horse trail runs from Dublin up to Concord, along the way passing through San Ramon, Danville, Alamo and Walnut Creek, where it runs past our apartment complex.

It was originally the route of the Southern Pacific Railroad, now long since gone; although traces remain in Walnut Creek, where the train depot is now a steak restaurant; and in Danville, where the moved depot is now the Museum of the San Ramon Valley. (It's also the route of a petroleum pipeline — not unusual alongside railroads, as train routes are continuous, flat, and otherwise unused — which caused a nasty explosion in Walnut Creek last year.)

Its origin as a railway makes for a flat, easy-to-walk trail, largely flanked by trees and homes. Sometimes a bit too flat and a bit too dull: views are often limited.

We walked from Danville to Alamo and back; about 3 miles each way. Park in the Museum/Andronicos lot in Danville (4 hours parking weekdays/Saturday; unlimited Sunday).

Ice-cream at Rite Aid makes a good reward at Alamo. Not only does Rite Aid (a drug store) have its own ice cream brand ("Thrifty", a legacy of its acquisition of the Thrifty chain in 1996), but: (a) it's good, (b) it's cheap, and (c) some Rite Aids, including the Alamo one, have an ice cream counter. Very odd; it's like popping into Boots for corn plasters and a vanilla cone.

(For future reference: pistachio, caramel pecan, choc chip, mint choc chip, and chocolate malted crunch are good. Coconut and pineapple sounds wierd but is good. Black cherry is disappointing: not cherry-ey enough. Cups cost the same as cones, but seem to get a more generous scoop.)

We walked back into Danville just as dusk was falling: lots of frog croaks to be heard. But we almost left it too late: the trail isn't lit and isn't much fun in the dark.

Categories: Hiking


Melinda found a greyhound adoption event outside Macy's today: lots of very cute greyhounds to pet. And as it turns out, the group (Golden State Greyhound Adoption) is based in Walnut Creek.

Greyhound racing is banned in California; the dogs we saw came in from tracks in Colorado.

(No, we're not considering adopting; most apartments, including ours, don't allow dogs. But it was nice to get some doggy action again.)

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Tilden Regional Park

A glorious day for a hike: sunny, clear, but cool. The clear skies in particular suggest something with a view.

Tilden is a big regional park in the hills above Berkeley. Lots of recreation: an old carousel, model steam trains, lake swimming (which might be fun in summer, hmm), botanic gardens; but today, it's hiking.

We drove in by the scenic route, from highway 24 up Fish Ranch Road and Grizzly Peak Boulevard to enter the park on Shasta. A bit further than we needed to drive (the quicker way is to come up from Orinda on Wildcat Canyon Road) but worth it for some fun driving and spectacular "let's pull over and look" views over the Bay.

The easy walk is an out-and-back on Nimitz Way: park at Inspiration Point, and walk out along a (relatively flat) paved trail. Good views, but it's a little dull and its very busy: lots of strollers, cyclists, joggers, and rollerbladers.

We took bahiker's route, which is a good one: it starts at Inspiration Point, but drops down from Nimitz Way immediately, and you're very soon alone with nature. bahiker says "moderate side of easy"; Melinda disagrees. The "moderate side" part is a stiff pull up from the valley back up to the ridge to rejoin Nimitz Way near Wildcat Peak: this part's a bit of a slog, but it's worth it for panoramic views from the peak (right around to Martinez's oil plants to the North-West). Wind down with an easy paved 2 miles on Nimitz Way.

Almost lost the trail twice though. Once at the start: Curran Trail starts immediately inside the Nimitz Gate, before the toilets; if you go 100 feet you've gone too far. It's muddy and doesn't look like much, but it dries out and widens soon enough. And again down in the valley, turning off Wildcat Creek Trail: bahiker has you look for "Wildcat Peak Trail", whereas the park maps simply name it as "Peak Trail". And because it's in the Nature Study Area, it's labelled with a symbol rather than by name. Anyway, when you come to a wooden plank bridge over a small creek to the left, labelled with a hill symbol: that's the one, take it, and follow that symbol all the way up.

Most of the forest in Tilden is eucalyptus, and it feels like walking in a prehistoric forest: tall spindly trees thrusting up towards the light, strips of bark peeling off their trunks, and heaps of shed dead bark under each. And since seeing an Anna's hummingbird staking out his territory in Huckleberry, we now hear hummingbird song everywhere: they're common and very territorial. But nature spot of the day went to Melinda: a group of turtles hauled out onto a log and basking in the sun on Jewel Lake.

Categories: Hiking

Catching up

I was going to comment on how broadband speeds differ here: back in England we were on BT's 512kbsp ADSL service and loving it. Out here, ASDL is typically 2Mbps; and our cable internet connection is 3Mbps (and isn't their fastest speed; the menu runs right up to 5Mbps).

But it'd seem the UK's catching up: BT to upgrade broadband to 2Mbps.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

More Google coolness

It's getting blogged all over already, but: Google Maps is pretty cool.

Less cluttered, faster, and easier to navigate than Mapquest and Yahoo! Maps; and clearer, too. The maps are easy to read; the roads are well-labelled; it has the whole Google good-enough-to-lick thing.

(Map of home in Mapquest; Yahoo! Maps; Google Maps. Interesting: Google correctly identified which of the 6 Walnut Creeks I was searching for (besides CA, there are towns named Walnut Creek in GA, MS, NC, OH, and SC), presumably because we're the only one containing a Walker Avenue.)

(Update: an analysis on the underlying tech.)

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve

A short hike (less than 2 miles) in a small regional preserve in the Berkeley hills; a beautiful sunny day, although it still got a bit chilly in the forested bits of the hike.

The driving directions on EBRPD's web page are a bit ropy; for future reference, the real directions from 24 westbound are: take the Fish Ranch Road exit, turn right onto Fish Ranch Road, go 0.8 miles, turn left on Grizzly Peak Boulevard, go about 2 miles, turn left on Skyline Boulevard, go about 0.5 miles past Sibley Preserve, turn left into Huckleberry.

We took the self-guided nature path; a loop with 17 markers of particular botanical interest. EBRPD has the trail map online, which shows the trails and the numbered markers; there's also a separate leaflet for the nature path which gives more information on each stop, which doesn't seem to be available online but which you can pick up at the trailhead. It's worth having both, as the trail map has illustrations of some of the plants that the nature path leaflet describes.

A lot of the trail is through forests of California Bay. The leaves can be used like normal culinary bayleaf, but they're very much more pungent: the leaflet says 4 to 5 times stronger. I picked some, but don't know if I'll have the nerve to use them.

In newer growth, brittleleaf and pallid manzanitas; the brittleleaf manzanita is my old friend, the red-barked fake plastic tree. Growth and overgrowth is a recurring theme on the nature path: manzanita is overgrown by chinquapin is overgrown by huckleberry is shaded out by bay, with fire acting to renew the cycle.

It's too early in the year for much to be in flower, although pink-flowering currant is in season ("highly aromatic sticky leaves") and the brittleleaf manzanitas are just starting to flower (small white clustered flowers; not very impressive).

For a short walk it takes a good while: allow 2 hours.

And spectacular views on the drive in, from Grizzly Peak and from Skyline; for the best views on the way back, take Skyline and then Old Tunnel Road down into Berkeley. Panoramic views over the bay for the passengers; switchback mountain roads for the driver.

Categories: Hiking

Fitness #2

Today the exercise bike told me "your level of fitness is low for a man of your age". Well thanks: tell me something I don't know, why don't you?

(A "well done for completing the hellish third level of the fitness test" would have been nice; but no, the machines are more functional than motivational.)

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Good burrito, bad burrito

Good burrito: La Burrita, Berkeley. A tiny cheap dive, but busy and good: Melinda used to go there as a Berkeley student. Daily Californian (the Berkeley student rag) Best of Berkeley winner umpteen times running; here's their 2001 review. I had an excellent carne asada burrito: watch out for the green salsa though, it's a lot hotter than it looks.

Bad burrito: El Faro, Concord. Right next to Costco, so it'd be handy if it were good: unfortunately not. As the review says, "been around for a long time", but that largely seems to translate into "run down and seedy". Melinda used to come here with her parents occasionally, but the verdict was: not the way it used to be. Burritos were dull, and the chicken burrito in particular slightly slimy: ugh.

Oh, and while we're on mediocre burritos: frozen heat-in-the-oven burritos, even from Trader Joe's, are not worth the money: they always end up too dry. Better to buy tortillas and fixings and build them yourself. Frozen tamales, however, turn out reasonably well.

10 for $10

I mean to talk about US supermarkets sometime: they're not entirely the houses of wonder I'd been expecting. More later.

But this post, asking why you'd want to buy 10 half-gallons of milk for $10, reminds me of something I've observed:

Supermarkets here do often have Buy X for $Y promotions (see for example this week's local Albertsons flier); and they often are for large amounts of stuff. But here's the thing: they're all just flimflam. Check the small print on the shelf tag, and you always find a unit price of $Y/X: if milk's 10 for £10, you can buy 1 for $1.

This seems different to the UK, where on similar offers you do need to buy the full quantity to get the discount. It makes me wonder (as I have before on other differences) if there's some legal requirement here: maybe you must be able to buy one unit at the offer price?


Tried the apartment's fitness centre today.

10 minutes on the Stairmaster: <wheeze>. People do this for fun?

("Fitness Center" maybe sounds a bit more grand than it really is: "room with some gym equipment and a TV in" would be more accurate. But the equipment is modern and decent: besides the torture device Stairmaster, also a running machine, a bike, weights, and some other stuff I haven't fathomed yet. And it's free.)

Friday, February 04, 2005

If you hang it, they might come

When we moved in, I noticed a couple of hummingbirds flitting around the oak tree opposite our balcony. They move in a very distinctive (and to someone who didn't grow up with them around, a very un-birdlike) way; hovering and darting.

Hummingbird feeders are common, although there's 2 lessons to learn. Firstly, none of them are exactly attractive. I'm sure the birds like 'em well enough, but as far as human appeal goes there are two basic phenotypes: fru-fru or utilitarian. And secondly, it's not worth trying to buy them on-line; they're cheaper, but they're just bulky enough that shipping far outstrips any savings you make. If you're watching the dollars, you're stuck with what you can find in local shops.

Here's ours: slightly utilitarian, slightly fru-fru. Red, as most of them are: apparently hummingbirds find red terribly attractive. Yellow bee guards, as most of them are: apparently this is wrong, as bees are actually attracted to yellow. The manufacturers always want you to use their special hummingbird nectar mix, but it's a con: a basic sugar syrup is fine. And they always show feeders with red-dyed nectar: again unnecessary and generally adding colour seems frowned upon.

It went up on Monday night; first sighting of a feeding hummingbird Tuesday lunchtime; and we've had occasional visits since then. Hard to identify, as they move fast and it's difficult to identify colours when the bird's in silhouette, but I think mostly Anna's Hummingbirds: the most common species in California, and resident year-round. We should start seeing other species through spring as the migrations pass through.