Stay home

Considering that in LA there is a big variety of stores (we have eighteen) that will deliver a huge range of groceries in under two hours to your home for a very minimal fee I am completely mystified as to why nearly everyone I know is still going shopping themselves. Grocery stores are probably the highest risk place you can go for Covid infection this side of a hospital. There is no need whatsoever to go to one. There is no need to go to a pharmacy where people with hay fever and colds go to buy over the counter medications and cough and sneeze. You don’t need to get stuck in a line for take out. You have options. Fyl and I haven’t been in a store or a restaurant or a business of any kind almost since the shutdown. Yet our fridge, freezer, cupboards, bar and medicine cabinet are stuffed with everything you put in fridges, freezers, cupboards, bars and medicine cabinets. We have restaurant leftovers up the wazoo. We have all the stuff that other people are going to grocery stores, pharmacies, liquor barns, and restaurants for. And those people are several hundred times more likely to get infected than are we up here atop our hill in isolation.

Because every single time an even asymptotic infected person exhales, even just a simple silent breath, viruses tumble out and float about in the air for several seconds. If you breathe in air where they breathed out air just seconds before you have a very strong chance of inhaling a Covid virus, even just a single tiny one, that they just shed. Because the six foot radius we’re supposed to be keeping is a dynamic radius, so that everywhere an infected person just moved from leaves a danger zone. It’s not the infected person himself that is dangerous as much as it is the air in which he just exhaled. That is where the virus exists in the largest numbers, in the exhaled air we leave around us, so there will be a trail of air following the infected person that will be full of living viruses for at least several seconds.

Next time you’re in your favorite grocery store, whether it’s a big giant chain store or a smaller, hipper one, look at all the people and imagine the infected air an infected fellow shopper would leave in their wake. Who knows how many Covid viruses are expelled with that person’s every exhalation. And who know who among your fellow shoppers is asymptomatically infected and shedding viruses like there’s no tomorrow, which there might not be for the poor high risk bastard who breathes in one. Because you only need to inhale one of those exhaled viruses. If it fixes itself to a cell in your lungs with its spikey little protuberances, it will puncture the cell wall and begin feeding off your cell’s innards like some ultra microscopic lamprey to get the nutrients it needs to generate copies of itself. It reproduces like the viruses that inhabit an infected computer. The principal is virtually identical and if you’re not protected by the right antibodies, it will do to your internal organs what a computer virus does to your hard drive. All that from the one single virus you breathed in at MegaMart or Hipster Haven, even though you were six feet away from everyone else in the store.

Of course this doesn’t only apply to shoppers at your favorite grocery store. It could be the completely healthy looking couple in front of you on the sidewalk. It could be one of the people in line in front of you at the Thai take-out. It could be one of your very best friends in front of you, smiling.

Stay home.

Piscine nihilism

So a couple days ago I was harvesting white hair algae from the fish tank. Amazing and annoying stuff, it begins to clump on a leaf or stalk with bunches of fine grey filaments and you have to either remove the leaf or yank a clump of the hairy stuff from a stalk until you’ve got a little pile of algae that looks more like the floor of a Leisure World barber shop than anything algal and slimy. It smells faintly of kelp, also an algae, but a mega algae. In comparison these white hair algae are maybe an inch or two long. Yet apparently these white hair algae are actually a community of algae species, each filament a towering algal skyscraper, like a tiny stromatolite waving in the current.

But I digress.

Removing the algae stirred up the Gordian knot of plants floating in the center of the tank, a mass of interconnected triffids rising from thin stalks anchored in the gravel to take over their known universe. Suddenly, almost like magic, a tiny little fish appeared. An infant platy. Uh oh. It should have had two or three or even four dozen siblings. There should be a whole herd of tiny fishlings. But this little guy seemed utterly alone. For the week prior all the other fish had been giving unusual attention to the eddies and recesses in that mass of plants. Now I know why. They’d been stalking baby prey. A piscicidal massacre. Even the orange platys, both mom and dad, had pitched into the feast, eating more than their share, devouring their own DNA and shitting it out again, any chance of their own evolution stopped cold. Now that’s a Darwin Award. Literally eating their own. Sick little fucks, fish.

Quirks of fate

It seems that 70,000 years ago the global population of homo sapiens was reduced to less than 26,000. Apparently they teased out that bit of info through some genetic analysis. As humans were by then in Africa and across much of Eurasia, that means we were very sparse on the ground. All seven billion of us spring from remarkably small numbers of people. Indeed, it’s been suggested that as few as seventy individuals came across the Bering Strait land bridge to eventually people the entire western hemisphere. We’ve had more than seventy people in our pad at parties. I never thought of them as a genome before. Well, I did once and got my face slapped. But I digress.

A million or so years ago our antecessor species Homo erectus seems in the genetic analyses (if I knew how they do this I’d tell you) to have been reduced to less than a thousand individuals….and remained like that on the razor’s edge of extinction for maybe a hundred thousand years. Everything we are was dependent on a population the size of a very small town or a medium sized high school or the fans of failing rock band in a big, mostly empty concert hall. Somewhere in that tiny population was some of us, genetically. Whatever genetic factors helped members of that population survive a particularly brutal hundred thousand years of Darwinian natural selection (as other related human species went extinct) lies deep in our own genome. And when 70,000 years ago something happened globally that reduced Homo sapiens to less than 25,000 individuals, we survived while the last of Homo erectus died out, unable to survive what it had once survived for a hundred thousand years. No one ever said natural selection was fair. It’s anything but. The fossil record is full of species of humans and proto-humans no longer here. Fleshed out by talented artists, they gaze at us with all the pathos of a Rembrandt. You can sense their intelligence and emotions. Then you look at the skulls again, bare and ancient and hopelessly extinct. There but for quirks of fate, is us.

There are a hundred trillion bacteria in your body as you read this, and a bunch of these guys in those bacteria.

The surface it is standing on would be, I assume, the interior of the exterior of a bacterium, being that bacteriophage viruses invade and then replicate within bacteria, taking proteins from the bacteria to create copies of itself. Sounds creepy, though the influenza virus does the exact same thing, using our cells instead of a single cell bacterium. From a virus’s unthinking and barely even alive POV, a cell is a cell. What matters is the proteins in the cell, without which there can be no baby viruses.

They did not have a flu shot in 1918

The 1918 influenza epidemic infected half a billion people out of global population of 1.8 billion. Somewhere from fifty to one hundred million of those people died. Nearly everyone killed by the flu was under 65, with most being between 20 and 40, in whom the body’s immune system’s reaction was so severe that lung tissue was reduced to a thick mass and the victims drowned in their own phlegm. A perfectly healthy young person could fall sick in the morning and be dead that night, as a strong  immune system made the disease all the more deadly.

There was no flu shot in 1918, which means people in 1918 were just as vulnerable as people who didn’t get the shot this year. Fortunately the flu this year is vastly less deadly, and will probably only kill a few tens of thousands world wide. It’s a roll of the dice every year, but at some point  a flu virus will evolve that drops people like flies. Could be next year, could be in a hundred years. If you get the shot you lessen the odds of dying a rather quick and ghastly death. It’s up to you.

So it turns out octopuses will never rule the earth.

Wow, here’s one of those science articles in The Atlantic–“Octopuses Do Something Really Strange To Their Genes” by the excellent science writer Ed Yong–that demand a full reading because every paragraph is a cephalopodic mind freak. Turns out that cephalopods have an extraordinary ability to edit their own nervous system genes in a massive way. The astonishing nervous systems and intelligence of the octopus has been created by editing the RNA, as if humans could go in and edit our own DNA to make us smarter, say. Which we can’t. Hence Trump.

The downside of this is that in order to this, cephalopods have to maintain the integrity of their RNA…and I mean maintain it over hundreds of millions of years. So their nervous systems have evolved to incredible degrees–human brains are much more intelligent than any cephalopod, obviously, but the other parts of our nervous system are infinitely less so–we can’t disappear into our surroundings, say, or communicate via rapidly changing colors in what is probably language, or control eight limbs that operate autonomously from one another. But if you carefully edit your RNA to dispose of any unwanted mutations you are essentially putting a brake on natural selection, that is, you are not letting evolution make the changes that alter the genome and create new species out of older species. Humans are the result of series of changes in genomes from apes twenty of thirty million years ago that went into overdrive about four million years ago. The Australopithecenes four million years ago were basically bipedal chimpanzees. Two million years later was Homo erectus , every inch a human. We showed up 200,000 years ago, though none of us today are exactly the same as we were then. We have not stopped evolving (our brains are larger, for one thing, and structured a bit differently). And we are still apes, just dramatically transformed by an extraordinary number of mutations. Our genome has changed fundamentally over and over, and you can even see that process at work around you. In me, for instance. I’m way taller than most people, everything bigger. I’m full of mutations. I could have eventually led to a sub species of really huge, really dumb homo sapiens–homo sapien brickus–and ruined everything. Luckily I had no kids.

But this can’t happen among cephalopods. Well, among coleoid cephalopods, the smart ones, that is octopus, squid and cuttlefish. Nautilus never made that adaptation–this may have been nearly half a billion years ago–and so never developed the ability to edit their own RNA. And while an ocean existence makes for far less evolutionary change over vast expanses of time than a land existence (the ocean changes very little, and is much safer) so that the nautilus today looks remarkably similar to the nautilus in 400 million year old fossil beds–natural selection at some point extended its lifespan to twenty years. That is a very good age for a mollusc (cephalopods are molluscs.). That was about how long our own early ancestors, australopithecines like Lucy, lived. Nautiluses have unedited naturally occurring mutations in their genes, and while Nautilus lives are so stable and unchanging there is little chance for any of those mutations to succeed as new species, it has lengthened their life span because living longer is apparently useful (or not unuseful, anyway). And that was a very fundamental change in the nautilus genome. Three hundred million years ago they probably lived no longer than an octopus, two years. The genome was fundamentally altered. Probably very slowly, over tens if not hundreds of million of years, but it was altered, and now a pet nautilus would live longer than your cat.

Your pet hamster would outlive your pet octopus, though. Would outlive virtually every coleoid cephalopod (that is, all the cephalopods but the nautilus). For at least 350 and perhaps as much as 480 million years the octopus has carefully maintained the vast number of edits in its RNA, because their extraordinary nervous system is based upon the integrity of that design, just as the computer you are reading this on can only function if the memory maintains the integrity of its design–go in their and randomly mutate the thing, moving chips around, deleting some, adding others, and you’ll be looking at a blank blue screen. The cephalopod nervous system, perhaps as extraordinary a work of nature as our own, is a delicate construct, built by billions of generations of cephalopods carefully maintaining the original RNA structure and making myriad new carefully selected edits. It’s like they’ve been speaking the same language for half a billion years with the same basic grammar, so that one could pick up a book written hundreds of millions of years ago and be able to read it still. It would be less changed than English now has changed from English a thousand years ago. There is a continuum in octopus RNA across deep time. Nothing has fundamentally changed, Roman Latin didn’t turn into Chinese. The same basic design has remained for half a billion years, just fine tuned to an amazing degree. Which means you can never have a giant six legged octopus attacking ships and tearing the Golden Gate bridge apart. You would need to have a genome that can change dramatically with unedited RNA allowing for mutation. Nor could ever have them leaving the water and becoming land animals. Or shedding limbs and walking about. Or flying starships and colonizing other planets. You can’t even change the octopus genome to let them live longer than two years.

So you have extremely intelligent invertebrates–smarter than probably 99% of vertebrates–trapped in bodies that, like some ancient, primitive molluscs of the Cambrian Era, live a couple years, lay a zillion eggs, fertilize them, and die. You can fine tune your nervous system till you are an eight legged Einstein but you can’t alter that ancient method of self-destructive reproduction. So you have invertebrate geniuses trapped in bodies designed for no brains at all. Octopuses will never rule the earth. They’ll live an astonishing two years–some only six months–and die. Squids live a year. Even giant squid live less than five years. (Their vertebrate arch enemy, the sperm whale, lives to be seventy.)  And so “Octopuses Do Something Really Strange To Their Genes” was one of the most exciting articles I ever read, and one of the saddest.

However…recently a deep sea Graneledone boreopacifica was observed guarding its brood for an astonishing fifty three months (the longest brood time ever witnessed in the animal kingdom)…which is over twice as long as the typical longer lived octopus lifespan (some live as little as six months). A female octopus spends about one fourth of her life brooding and then dies (of starvation) and if that ratio holds, the Graneledone boreopacifica could live as long as twenty years….or about the length of a nautilus life span. Somebody let some mutations slip through, apparently. Perhaps there’s no reason an octopus can’t live as long as a nautilus. An incredibly smart nautilus at that. Of course, that depends on whether those mutations don’t unravel that beautifully maintained matrix of RNA edits that goes back half a billion years upon which the extraordinary sophistication of the coleoid nervous system is dependent. But a problem solving, tool using octopus could do quite a bit in a twenty year life span. Maybe in a hundred million years we’ll know. Well, we won’t. We’re terrestrial animals, and mammals, and primates, and humanoid. Ours is a tough neighborhood. All the various human species have had a million years or two and then gone extinct. It’s a rough world out here on land.

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/04/octopuses-do-something-really-strange-to-their-genes/522024/

DNA testing

So apparently if you get one of those DNA tests, they send you a chart that shows you all the percentages of what ethnicities you are. Then you get to pick out the one that is coolest and be that, as if only that little slice of your genetic heritage made you what you are. But sadly, your Cherokee great great great grandmother didn’t leave you the least bit Cherokee other than a smidgen of Cherokee genes, or your Zulu great great grandfather or the one Irish great grandmother left you neither Zulu nor Irish. Think about it like math–an eighth (your great grandparent) or a sixteenth (your great grandparent) or a 32nd (your great great great grandparent) is just a tiny little bit of you, and the other seven eighths and fifteen sixteenths and 31/32nds long ago washed out most of that inheritance. You are what you are, which is whatever most of you is, all mixed up together, blended, and poured anew into what became you after hopefully a terrific simultaneous orgasm. Your Cherokee great great great grandmother would never even recognize you as one of her own, nor would you take in anyone who said he has 1/32nd of your own genetic background. After all, there are probably hundreds just like him out there, all equally related to that same woman who was born maybe two centuries ago. Which kind of takes the shine off of those DNA tests. It’s just DNA. But it doesn’t mean you have any actually viable connection to any of your distant ancestors other than sharing some of the same genes. And many (if not most or all) of those genes would have mutated during some of those successful couplings between you and your great great great grandmother anyway, so they aren’t even all the same genes. Go back far enough, in fact, and provided you do not come from a carefully maintained line of strict inbreeding (sisters marrying brothers) there will likely not be a single genetic behavioral trait–that is, something that makes your personality distinctly you–remaining that you share directly from your very distant ancestor. The genes behind those traits have all been replaced during successful couplings since then. The raw material of genetics are there, and have always been there, since life began, but the actual genes last only so long. None of us share any of the exact same genes from critters millions of years ago that we have descended from (the synapsids, or mammal like reptiles, for instance), and none of us are passing on specific genetic traits from even several hundred years ago. Maybe your great great great grandfather from Ireland was a writer. And maybe you’re a writer. Did you inherit writing from him? Nope. Lots of people are writers. It just so happens that two people out of the 32 people in the line from your great great great grandparent to you happen to be writers. And two out of thirty-two is almost surely nothing more than coincidence. You might look like him…but then you might look like people you are not directly descended from. After all, that great great great grandfather is only one out of 32 grandparents having sex 16 specific times that gives you the DNA that, all mixed together and randomly mutated, is you. You are much more likely a writer because you had a good English teacher than because one of those 32 great great great grandparents also wrote. Culture trumps genetics in most human endeavors.

Stick with reincarnation. That gets around the whole genetics thing, saves you money on DNA testing, and maybe you slept with Shirley MacLaine in Ancient Egypt. She was a queen. You a slave boy with gumption. Torrid passions two hundred generations ago in the shadows of the pyramids. I mean why not? Though that might make you 1/1280 of yourself in a past life.

Mammal-Like Reptiles

None of my Synapsid ancestors were writers.

 

Can your car be hacked?

(2010)

Here’s something you probably never thought you’d have to worry about, (courtesy the Norton Cybercrime News which pops up on the screen here monthly and magically and a tad creepily even). Can Your Car Be Hacked? it asks, in a big bold font. Oh yeah baby:

Vehicle disablement — After a disgruntled former employee took over a Web-based vehicle-immobilization system at an Austin, Texas, car sales center, more than 100 drivers found their vehicles had been disabled or their horns were honking out of control.

Tire pressure system hacking — Researchers from the University of South Carolina and Rutgers University were able to hack into tire pressure monitoring systems. Using readily available equipment and free software, the researchers triggered warning lights and remotely tracked a vehicle through its unique monitoring system.

Disabling brakes — Researchers at the University of Washington and University of San Diego created a program that would hack into onboard computers to disable brakes and stop the engine. The researchers connected to onboard computers through ports for the cars’ diagnostic system.

Wow. More fear, icy fingered, merciless, terrifying, annoying. It just keeps piling on. Must be the recession. There are fears everywhere, some big, some little, some a disgruntled employee making my horn blare in the middle of the night or a tire pressure monitor going nuts or my brakes failing on Baxter St., plummeting me down onto the Glendale Freeway at the speed of light.

Ya know, I get the OnStar Diagnostic Report which pops up monthly and magically and a tad Star Treky which tells me what condition my car is in, including the aforesaid brakes and tire pressure (and maybe even the horn, hell I don’t know.)  I can also press a button on my rear view mirror in the middle of nowhere a thousand miles from home and some dude in OnStar World Headquarters can tell me why this or that light came on and if I am doomed or merely inconvenienced or even not to worry at all. That’s very Star Trek too. OnStar also lets me call people and yell at them over traffic noise, it helps get the schedules of two-car ferries that cross the Mississippi from the middle of nowhere Illinois to the middle of even more nowhere Missouri, and there’s a button to press when you are dying and a guy will tell you not to die.  It’s pretty cool. Cars are full of Star Trekness anymore. Or maybe Forbidden Planet, and the dudes at OnStar are the Krel, knowing and doing all for $18.95 a month, except without the Walter Pigeon voice (or Ann Francis legs.). But it never occurred to me that they could take control of my car. The whole monster of the id thing, but it’s Manny, Moe and Jack’s id. Who knows what their evil plan is. I don’t want an air freshener in my car. Especially the pina colada one. I found one hanging from my rear view after a car wash. I get in and there it is dangling, reeking to high heaven of the worst pina colada ever. There are probably bars in Ensenada that smell just like that. I did the Repo Man thing and chucked it out the window before peeling out of there. But it was too late. That cheap tropical smell took weeks to fade away. It was a piece of shit car though. I used to fill the trunk with a beaten up drum kit and play loud abrasive music in the unseemliest dives ever. Those were the days. I smell pina colada and I think of my youth. Back then no one hacked into your car except to swipe the battery. No one was stealing AM radios anymore.

And here I am, decades later, and it’s Good Friday morning and I’m wondering if some evil twerp will make my horn blare between noon and three. Or sunder my brakes on a steep street. Or just mess with my car somehow.  And I’m telling myself not to worry about it. It’ll never happen. Bad things never do to good people. Which is a lie of course and doesn’t help me at all. This didn’t happen in my parents’ 1967 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser, I tell you. We controlled our own destiny then. We were masters of our own flat tire.

4/2/2010

Cats–a forgotten draft

(an early draft of Cats, 2012)

Mockingbirds are strafing one of the neighborhood cats. A whole little mockingbird community, who spend all night and days shrieking at each other (at 3 a.m. it was a battle of car alarms) have banded together to dive on the hapless cat, who is frantically looking for cover. The birds are all fired up, having just driven off a pair of nest robbing ravens. So much violence.

I find it hard to feel sorry for Fluffy. Fluffy (not his real name) is a friendly cat, yes. Cute even, on occasion. None of the people around here have any issues with him. But mockingbirds have damn good reasons for taunting him. Cats love stalking and pouncing on birds. People deny that their cat does — kitty would never kill a bird — but pet cats let outdoors have wiped out a lot of urban bird populations. They can’t help it. It’s what they do, cats. They’re hunters. And so are coyotes, and all those pet cats people let outdoors provide a steady diet for coyotes. I suspect we wouldn’t even have populations of urban coyotes if it weren’t for all the house cats people let outdoors. The more cats people have, the more cats there are outside, the more coyotes can survive living among people. You could probably graph the rise in the popularity of cats as pets with the increase in the urban coyote population. You could, but you’d have a hard time getting laid afterward.

We used to have a local population of feral cats. Some big mean toms. They’d fight all night, those eerie, annoying cries of their’s waking everybody up just in time for the burst of intense violence that followed. Sometimes you’d hear cat bodies being thrown against the side of the house with some serious force. Amazing how much energy a cat can expend in a fight. Not for very long. Cats are anatomically sprinters, not long distance runners, like dogs. All their energy has to be in astonishing bursts, since the oxygen in a cat’s blood is quickly depleted. Hence their contests are more build up than action, and size almost always wins. So the biggest, meanest cats ruled our neighborhood. Nearly all of them were feral. The pet cats would skitter home beat up and bleeding. It was getting to be a problem. Cats making a helluva racket all night. People yelling at the cats. No one getting much sleep.

Then a pack of coyotes moved into the neighborhood. End of problem. The endless war cries of cats were replaced by the occasional high pitched yelps of excited coyotes. You’d hear them running down the street on the hunt. It’s weird, a quiet neighborhood and the yelping of wild canines. Like all this civilization wasn’t even here. Like it has been stripped away for a moment and you could hear what it was once like. It’s so spooky it’s thrilling.

The coyotes ate all the stray cats. And they ate a lot of pet cats, foolishly let out by their owners. They ate a lot of little dogs, too, right in their back yards. Sad little flyers appeared on telephone poles. Rewards were offered. There’s one right outside now. I can see it from my window. The little dog is just darling. The reward is one thousand dollars. There’s a lot of money in Silver Lake.

I like cats. And I dig coyotes. And birds. Ours are indoor cats only, so off the menu, and birds are off theirs. They watch the birds from the window. My wife feeds birds. Sparrows, finches, a couple kinds of doves. Every once in a while a scrub jay drops in and scares off all the other birds. Not as often as before, though. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a lesser goldfinch, a hooded oriole, or a towhee. A long time. There were more bird species in Silver Lake when we moved here in the 80’s. Especially here near the river. The explosion in the pet cat population coincided with the disappearance of several species. Birds like the towhee which spend a lot of their time on the ground were just too easy for cats. There are far more cats now than there were twenty years ago. Everyone has a cat or three. Crazy cat ladies don’t seem so crazy anymore, merely eccentric. People leave food out everyday to feed the strays to feed the coyotes. Funny how coyotes might increase the bird population. I used to think they might. Haven’t noticed it, though. [I do now, in 2016. Even the towhees are back.] For every cat eaten there must be two more cats being brought into people’s homes. People are just mad about cats.

There are several theories about just why. The weirdest one is that cats have passed on a parasite that has altered our behavior and makes us pay lavish attention to our pet cats. Parasites can do that, nature is full of examples. The theory got lots of attention, a big story in The Atlantic, and the scientist behind it was all over television. The science is a little sketchy, though. Let’s just leave it now and agree that people are nuts about cats. And cats are nuts about killing birds.

Cats are natural killing machines, remarkable animals, though we don’t really notice. The design hasn’t changed much since it’s inception around 30 million years ago. That cat, the proailurus,or dawn cat, looks remarkably like your cat.

Proailurus

It was even about the size of your cat. Amazing how little things have changed in thirty million years. The head seems a bit larger now, which might be to make room for a larger brain. The proailurus’ jaws seem extended a bit, too, more dog-like, and the evolutionary transition to a modern cat jaw probably accounts for the larger head of the modern cat. The one pictured above has decidedly more weasel like proportions…or less kitten like. The tail of today’s house cat is maybe two thirds as long. Perhaps because modern cats use their tails to communicate and a longer tail could not be held straight up as easily. A tail straight up implies fear, for instance, and held aloft with the top few inches at a 90 degree angle shows friendliness. That larger jaw of modern cats also helps with communication, I’d guess. Small sounds resonate more inside a larger mouth, vastly increasing the cats vocabulary. House cats have an extraordinary range of sounds they make to each other. Some they make to us. Some they make for each other. They’ll call to each other and you’ll try to get their attention and they completely ignore you. Some kind of intense cat to cat thing going on, and we’re not supposed to know, like when two people break into a language you don’t know with you standing right there. When they want to talk to you they’ll let you know.

Felines have been compared to sharks as being perfect predators. Perfect hunting machines. And like sharks, once the initial design was laid out there wasn’t much alteration needed afterward. Of course sharks go back over 400 million years, but evolution in the open ocean, where conditions change vary little over enormous stretches of time, can proceed much more slowly than on land. The environment on solid ground is much more volatile. Species are under constant pressure to change or go extinct. Think of how humans have altered in just a few million years. Indeed, look at how much size variation there is even with our own species (writes the six foot five inch man). Not cats, though. All the small cats, from the cute, vicious little sand cat to the largest of the small cats, the cougar (which purrs just like the domestic short hair in your lap) come from proailurus, and all look very similar. Today’s big cats–lions, tigers, panthers, leopards, cheetahs–all descend from pseudaelurus, which itself descended from proailurus.  Weird to think about, he says, a housecat staring at him as he types.

The action outside my window has abated, for now. The mockingbirds are back up on their branches, quiet, looking for threats. Fluffy is up on the neighbor’s porch, glowering. And as the sun sets a siren wails and the coyotes come to life.

Earthquake

(2014)

southern california faultzones

3-dimensional view of major Southern California faults. Vertical faults like the San Andreas are pencil thin lines, those at an angle to the surface are broad brush strokes. (Taken from the highly recommended site earthquakecountry.org.)

That Puente Hills fault that caused the quake out in Brea yesterday (in 2014) is the one that terrifies geologists. They used to think the Elysian Park fault was the killer–our house sits right atop that one–but it now appears to be dormant. But in the last ten thousand years the Puente Hills fault has snapped in a huge way four times, and each of those quakes was a 7 plus on the Richter scale. That would be ten times at least as powerful as the 1994 Northridge quake. Furthermore, the Northridge fault directed its energy away from downtown (with explains how places as far away as Fillmore were leveled) but the Puente Hills fault would direct its energy towards downtown. I suppose that is how people in downtown last night felt the shaking of a quake centered in Brea so strongly (and why we scarcely noticed while we were out in Tujunga). The Puente Hills fault stretches from roughly Brea to Beverly Hills, and it has three active areas–Brea, Whittier (remember the Whittier Narrows quake in 1987?) and here. And I mean right here…downtown Los Angeles is square in the middle of it, and the zone’s width goes from just below USC to about where I am in Silver Lake. In fact, being that I am typing this while literally astride the Elysian Park fault, our place is just outside the Puente Hills fault zone, not that we wouldn’t shake like hell anyway. We wouldn’t shake as bad as people on the nearby flatlands, their homes built as they are on layers of sediments, but we’ll be shook up something awful. I dread the thought of it. It won’t be boring, anyway. (There was another shaker on the Puente Hills Fault in January 2015 that got everyone’s attention just a few blocks from us but that we literally did not feel at all. Not even the cat noticed.)

The Puente Hills fault is a thrust fault. Everyone knows how the San Andreas fault (which cuts through the Antelope Valley down into the Coachella Valley fairly distant from us) is between two plates that slide past one another. Every once in a while the plates get stuck and then snap apart. The movement is horizontal. West of the fault goes north, east goes south. But a thrust fault is vertical movement, that is the fault zone is thrust upward. As the tectonic plates move, pressures build up in the rock beneath us. Stress fractures appear, which we call faults. Those pressures reach a point where something has to give and when they do, you get an earthquake along one of those stress fractures. Most of the times these quakes are imperceptible to anything but a seismograph machine. Sometimes they are strong enough to wake the cat. Sometimes they are strong enough to set off a flurry of chatter on Facebook. And sometimes they are bigger than that. In a really big quake along the Puente Hills fault zone, the ground will suddenly lurch up a meter or two, meaning that the part of town from USC up through downtown will be instantly elevated above the area south of it. Think of it this way: all the north south streets–Alameda, Hope, Flower, Figueroa, Hoover, Vermont, etc.–would suddenly be unusable, because at some point past Exposition Boulevard there would be a three or even six foot drop straight down. Not gradual, not sloping, but straight down. You will need a ladder to proceed down the sidewalk. That is what huge quakes on thrust faults do.

No one knows when this will happen. It will happen. There is no way it will not happen. But it could be before I finish this post, or it could be in a couple thousand years. Every city on the West Coast from Anchorage (trashed in 1964) to San Diego (my first earthquake memory) faces the prospect of a disastrous earthquake. That is the geologic reality of living on the Pacific Rim. It’s scary as hell if you think about it much, so I don’t think about it much. We try to be a little prepared, though. Just in case. Ya never know.

I wasn’t going to post this. Like maybe it’s too creepy. But maybe people should know. A lot of you do already. But it’s amazing how many residents of this area have no idea what might happen if we roll seismic snake eyes.

Now I need a drink.

And you will too, after seeing this Visualization of a Puente Hills Earthquake. It is in real time, and the color key represents the degree of shaking. Blue is the least violent, green more so, yellow even more and on into the red. You notice that the more intense shaking–the greener, yellower and even red colors, are in the flatlands between downtown and the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The sediments of the basin there are up to six miles deep, laid down mostly when the land was ocean bottom and compressed into the easily crumbled rock that you see in some roadcuts. But the meandering Los Angeles River has over thousands and thousands of years left deep, sandy soils that once made for terrific farmland and now are really prone to intense liquefaction when the ground shakes. There was intense damage in this area after the Northridge quake, probably all of which was caused by liquefaction. The ground under overpasses on the Santa Monica Freeway lost its solidity and the poor things just toppled. That’s an impressive sight, and immense concrete bridge in pieces on the ground. That was the destructive power of liquefaction. And that epicenter was much further away than this hypothetical Puente Hills quake would be. The damage from a 7 magnitude quake in the Downtown area would be exponentially greater. A lot more overpasses would topple. A lot of houses will be red tagged. What a mess.

Probably be some great yard sales, though.

1964-alaska-earthquake-anchorage-everett

Anchorage, 1964. You’ll be happy to know that no matter how nasty a quake the San Andreas has in store for Southern California, this sort of thing will not happen. The Anchorage quake was one vast tectonic plate (the Pacific) suddenly shoving itself beneath another (the North American plate). Subduction they call it, a slow process that every once in a while gets stuck. When subduction unsticks you get scenes like this. The North American plate side of 4th Street here wound up 38 feet above the Pacific plate side, making parking difficult. This cannot happen on the San Andreas, which is where the same two plates just slide past each other, one heading north, once south. Occasionally things get stuck and then, after some time, unstuck. It was the unstuck that leveled San Francisco in 1906. And it will be a similar unsticking that will someday level Palmdale and Palm Springs, shaking the rest of us something awful. However, there would be no displacement like that in Anchorage–the San Andreas unsticking would be a sudden horizontal movement, not vertical. If that makes you feel any better.