Sunday, July 28, 2013

Wait, How Smart Are Animals?

I've written about animal intelligence and, specifically, the intelligenceof dogs. I've also made a point of how the pattern of underestimating the smarts of non-human creatures is endemic to the scientific community. When a person raves about the smarts of their dog, scientists often dismiss it as anthropomorphizing, assigning human characteristics to hard-wired behavior.
Well, those scientists may eventually move their animal IQ bar past even the high marks that ordinary pet owners ascribe to their pooches.
Off the coast of Scotland, a group of scientists have been recording the speech of a group of dolphins. They discovered that the dolphins all have names! 

I can spare you the details of how they figured it out, but they've clearly demonstrated that the dolphins address each other by name, and the dolphin being addressed responds when the others do not. Sound familiar? When Tom calls out to Dick but not to Harry, Dick pays attention while Harry keeps watching the game.
It doesn't take much thinking about this to realize that it's a big deal, even to those who have thought all along that animals are smarter than we've previously thought.
The study also states that Bottlenose dolphins appear to be unique as non-human mammals in this regard.
Unique? How do they know? In the past, it was assumed that only humans exhibit a wide range of abilities such as tool use and tool making. It was also believed that only humans have complex social structures and a wide range of emotions. These beliefs have since been debunked.
Dolphins, elephants, chimpanzees, bonobos and others are far smarter than people once thought. Once we understand other animals better, we may discover that they have names, too.

And dogs, while not in the same league in some ways, surpass all other animals in their ability to understand what humans want.

If you think animals are very smart, increasing evidence suggests that you are right.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

What Is Tahoe's Most Charming Town?

Around Lake Tahoe are several towns, all of which have many qualities worth attention, and all of which have many proud residents who simply “know” that their section of the lake is the best!
Tahoe's major towns (going clockwise) are Kings Beach and Crystal Bay, which are both at “noon” on the dial, Incline Village at one o'clock, Stateline and South Lake Tahoe, which stretch from five to six o'clock, and Tahoe City at ten o'clock. There are several other smaller communities that have names, such as Glenbrook at three o'clock, Cave Rock at three-thirty, Zephyr Cove and Round Hill at four o'clock, Tahoma and Homewood at nine o'clock, and Carnelian Bay at eleven o'clock, and Tahoe Vista near Kings Beach.
Of all these, Tahoe City stands out for its picturesque charm.

Of our six largest towns, only Tahoe City and Kings Beach are right on the lake. (Yes, South Lake Tahoe has a section directly on the water, but most of SLT is not on the shore.)
Unlike Kings Beach, Tahoe City sits up above the water a bit, giving it great views looking down on the lake and the boats in the marina as well as at the mountains stretching all the way past the South Shore.

Tahoe City has several great restaurants, such as Wolfdales and Christy Hill and Jake's. All three of them overlook the lake.
Wolfdales is famous for their fine food.

Christy Hill has a great food and a great deck.
Jake's is very popular and has indoor and outdoor dining.

 Tahoe City has a great “Commons Beach” shoreline and promenade on the water. Up on the boulevard are many cute shops.
The "Commons" Beach

Tahoe City is also where the Truckee River spills out of Lake Tahoe and heads down to Truckee and on to Reno.
The Truckee River Dam. The top 6 feet of Tahoe is used as
a reservoir for the cities of Truckee and Reno and other points downstream.

Another great feature of Tahoe City is that it is the epicenter of a fantastic stretch of bike trails that go from the West Shore to the North Shore and also miles down the Truckee River to Squaw Valley. Many of these trails are directly on Lake Tahoe or on the Truckee River. There are few trips more enjoyable than spending the day biking the area, and then stopping for lunch at one of Tahoe City's restaurants.
Many of the area's bike paths go right along the water.
Here is the link to the Tahoe City area bike map. Note, it is a large file and takes a bit to load, but it has a ton of information and is worth it.

Try the Paddleboard Pale Ale at Tahoe Mountain Brewing Co.

If you prefer to hike, there are of course many choices, as in all of Tahoe.
Tahoe City also offers Tahoe's only river rafting, with companies such as Truckee River Raft Co
Photo from Truckee River Raft Co.

and Truckee River Rafting. The gentle ride from Tahoe City down to Alpine Meadows is a great way to escape the heat of California's Central Valley and Western Nevada's valleys.

If there is a downside to Tahoe City, it is that it doesn't offer a great many hotel and motel lodgings, although there are lots of vacation rental homes. The surrounding area from Truckee to Squaw Valley and Northstar provide lodging opportunities. And don't forget that Reno is only a one-hour drive from Tahoe City.
Come on up the mountain and play!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Possible Reason That Tahoe Doesn't Have Rattlesnakes

A few weeks ago, I wondered if there were rattlesnakes in Tahoe. (See post here.) The answer appears to be either no or very few. (No one has reported to me a sighting in the basin.) It's an interesting question because there are rattlesnakes at equivalent elevations elsewhere in the Sierra.
Recently, wildlife expert and photographer Jim Stamates wrote me an addendum to the subject. Here's what he said.
Another thought; perhaps the snakes were killed by the early settlers to the basin. They cut down all the trees, killed all the deer for miner's food, commercially fished all the Lahontan Cutthroat trout, why not snakes? Their comeback would be harder than most, as you mentioned, trying to get over the summits.”

It makes sense and is the best explanation yet of why we don't have rattlesnakes. Back in the 19th century, our forebears did a pretty good job of trashing Tahoe as they cut nearly all the forests down to provide the supporting timbers for uncountable miles of mining tunnels beneath Virginia City.
Although several notable voices of wilderness preservation rose and became part of the fabric of discussion about Tahoe (think John Muir, the Sierra Club, The League To Save Lake Tahoe, etc.), Tahoe developers in the mid-20th century continued the trashing with an embarrassing gusto, filling in wetlands, dredging canals, and building roads and putting up buildings without regard to runoff and other impacts on the area.
Perhaps more than any other single person, John Muir is responsible for getting us all to think about preserving nature. Because of Muir, we began to realize that the best use of land is not always plowing it up or covering it with buildings and pavement. 
Some of the worst results of our impact on nature have been mitigated to some degree by changes in policy. One possible impact – eliminating rattlesnakes from the basin – hasn't been documented or mitigated to my knowledge. (Anyone out there for reintroducing rattlesnakes to our paradise???)
Unlike other efforts to bring Tahoe back to an ecosystem closer to that of 100 years ago with regard to fish and beaver and a range of other creatures, the poor rattlesnake doesn't seem to have a lot of supporters, patrons, and cheerleaders.
Sorry, all you herpetologists. For now at least, when I'm out hiking, I'll keep picking up interesting rocks and other objects without wondering what surprise may lie underneath.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

What The Heck Is Flash Fiction? Can You Really Tell A Complete Story In 100 Words?

One day, Will had us try what sounded to me like a very difficult exercise. He wanted us to write a story in 100 words. The goal was to have the same basic structure of a novel. Open with a character in serious trouble (the hook), create a rising plot curve that led to a climax, and have a short resolution (the denouement).
I fumbled many times, only to find out that by the time I had a bit of a beginning, I was already at 175 words. To begin a story and carry it through a climax and a resolution and do it all in 100 words seemed impossible.
This experience reinforced what all of us learn when we try writing in various forms and lengths. The shorter the piece of writing, the harder it is.
Enter Flash Fiction, the new moniker that describes Will's writing assignment from 30 years ago. Not only are such stories fun to read, they're becoming popular.
My friend Mark Bacon has been writing Flash Fiction mysteries from his lair in Reno.

His latest book is Cops, Crooks & Other Stories in 100 Words: 101 Tales. Not only are the stories 100 words long, which is very difficult to do, but they are really fun! You can get the entire collection on your Kindle for only 99 cents.

I asked Mark some questions about it.

Q. You write stories that are 100 words long. You call it Flash Fiction. It's a great term. Where'd it come from?

Bacon: The term was coined in 1992 with the publication of Flash Fiction, 72 Very Short Stories. In the book’s introduction, James Thomas, one of the editors, says the term was created to differentiate under 750-word stories from longer stories published in two previous anthologies he edited.

The editors took their word length from a 1925 Hemingway story called A Very Short Story. It’s a good one about a World War I soldier and a nurse caring for him. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. You can find various versions of it online. One I read was just longer than 600 words

Was Hemingway’s tale the first flash fiction? Certainly not. If I had to guess, I’d say the first flash fiction author was Aesop in the sixth century BCE. Modern translations of the oral fable The Ant and the Grasshopper have it pegged at about 150 words.

Q. You taught journalism at Cal Poly and at UNR, you wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle for years, and your stories have appeared in a bunch of major, cool rags like The Washington Post. You've also written several non-fiction books. How'd you get from all that to Flash Fiction?

Bacon: It was all based on a dare from a friend who was using 100-word stories as a practice exercise for a writing group he was leading. He said I should try it. I wrote a couple of stories and enjoyed them. It was a great challenge to have a complete story with a satisfying ending in just 100-words. After the first few stories, I was hooked. I kept writing until I had more than enough for two short books.

Q. Is Flash Fiction changing the way you think?

Bacon: No, but reading on the Internet is, and not necessarily for the better. I believe our attention spans and our short-term memories are shrinking. For example, how long do you look at a website before you become impatient when you don’t see exactly what you’re seeking? Four to five seconds sound about right?

On the other hand, I think flash fiction is perfectly suited for impatient readers. My stories will get you to an ending--one I hope you didn’t see coming--in less than a minute.

Q. Do you get impatient when someone is talking and it takes them a bit to get to their point?

Bacon: Sometimes. I find that more the case in writing. My journalistic training taught me to put the most important information up front. Of course with mystery flash fiction, I save some of the good stuff 'til last.

Q. So, what is the accepted length for flash fiction? Is it 100 words, Hemingway’s 600 words, or something else?

Bacon: Good question but almost impossible to answer. Online flash fiction journals abound and there is a smattering of print anthologies as well, but editors have their own ideas of what constitutes flash fiction. Published flash fiction generally ranges from about 25 words to 1,500 words. The 100-word limit seems to be the most common.

Some writers even do 140-character stories to fit in a tweet. I’ve read some good ones and some not so good. I tried to cut down one of my stories to fit Twitter, but it took three or four tweets to really tell it completely.

Here's an example of Mark's Flash Fiction


Honor Among Thieves

The darkened home looked empty. Pete tried the front door. Locked. Around back, he jimmied open a patio door with a credit card.
Immediately, he saw a man holding a pillowcase full of something.
“Shit. You startled me,” the man said. “First time I ever seen two guys break into the same house. I came in the window. But hey, I believe in professional courtesy. I’ve got jewelry and laptops. Rest is yours.”
Pete opened a drawer, reached inside.
“Hold it,” Pete said, pointing a revolver.
“What about professional courtesy?”
“I forgot my keys,” Pete said. “I live here.”