Thank you, Jackie Robinson

When I hear the name Jackie Robinson, I am sometimes reminded of Ty Cobb, as was Branch Rickey:

“This is the most competitive man I’ve known since Ty Cobb.”
— Branch Rickey (to Red Barber)

There’s a difference, of course. No black man could have got away with Cobb’s behavior (nor could most other white men), but Robinson and Cobb had this much in common: they were both warriors.

Jackie Comes Home, May 15, 1952

No major leaguer has ever come close to Cobb’s record of 50-54 steals of home. Robinson, in his short ten-year career, was the modern player to come closest, with 19-20 (we cannot be exact because it’s not an official stat).

The Cheetah-like Cobb

Robinson may not have been the first modern player to play the game of baseball the good old-fashioned way; the way it was played before Babe Ruth. It may be that Robinson’s teammate Pistol Pete Reiser was the first. Branch Rickey might have had something to do with the baseball renaissance as well. Perhaps a renaissance was to be inevitable once non-whites were admitted into the major leagues.

In any case, it must have been a pleasure to see the old game back, after nearly two decades without Cobb.

Sisters of the Sierra

One special characteristic of the Sierra Nevada is that it’s a rare example of a high mountain range in a Mediterranean climate, which means that it is dry and sunny half the year and moist and mild during the other half of the year. This combination makes for a very combustible cycle of fuel production and fuel dehydration.

I’ve been looking for sister ranges of the Sierra Nevada; that is, other igneous ranges. What this means is that I’m looking for well-forested mountain ranges in Mediterranean climes. This generally means high mountain ranges, because altitude generally means two things: (1) orographic precipitation for production and (2) orographic lightning for combustion.

You’d think that the Andes where they cross the Zona Central of Chile would be an ideal example, but the Andes are rather sparsely forested in the northern half of the Zona Central, perhaps because the Andes are too lofty to the north for extensive forestation. South of here, in the Maule district (VII) and even more in the Biobio North district (VIII), there is more forest, but there is also more precipitation. Rain is in fact so common that it’s hard to call the climate Mediterranean. There is really no time of year that is truly dry in the southern half of the Zona Central; not, at least, as dry as most of California is in Summer.

There aren’t very many other choices, as far as I am aware. There are many lower Mediterranean ranges, and several high ranges near to Mediterranean climes, but not many high ranges are in Mediterranean climates.

The only others I know of are in Iran: the Alborz, Zagros, and Sabalan mountains. None of these is heavily forested, but in the case of Iran we can be quite confident that they were once more forested than they are today.

At present, though, I can think of no mountain range in the world that shares with the Sierra Nevada this Mediterranean annual cycle of production and combustion at a comparable scale.

From Annihilation to Immortality

I admit to having been baffled by Nietzsche’s references to the doctrine of “eternal return” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. What did he mean when he asked how believing in such a doctrine would impact our lives? What difference would it make, I wondered, if I occurred once or a million times? From the perspective of eternity, is an identical repeat any kind of return at all? It seems no different to me than living once in eternity.

Ironically, I like that old Stoic doctrine of eternal return and conflagration. I guess I just like the idea that God just torches everything every once in awhile and starts afresh. But I do get the feeling that this doctrine worried many Stoics with respect to its impact on notions of personal immortality. How? I suppose many of them feared that their souls would burn up with everything else, and that couldn’t be much fun. One Stoic proposed that souls are spared. I suppose that many didn’t mind the spiritual burns so long as they got to come back.

Who am I to say, but I think they might have been missing the point.

The whole thing seems to have started with Heraclitus, who was big on fire as a primal substance, and also liked to stress the periodicity of things. But he may have meant fire as a fundamental political substance, or perhaps a fundamental moral substance. We cannot be certain that he was the material philosopher that some of his Ionian contemporaries were.

I like to think of the Logos of Heraclitus as a metaphor for political, spiritual, moral, and physical reality. I think it applies quite nicely.

One of the great strengths, I think, of Heraclitus is that he used the fire of opposition to deny all duration and individuality, to the point that all is so ephemeral that all individuality melts into a singular, universal Unity. This is similar to the principle of emanation in Neoplatonism, but it hinges upon an oppositional, harmonic dynamism not present in Neoplatonism.

Heraclitus criticizes the poet who said, ‘would that strife might perish from among gods and men’ [Homer Iliad 18.107]’ for there would not be harmony without high and low notes, nor living things without female and male, which are opposites. —Aristotle

People do not understand how that which is at variance with itself agrees with itself. There is a harmony in the bending back, as in the cases of the bow and the lyre. — Heraclitus

The critical difference between Heraclitus and Plotinus is that Heraclitus took unity a step further. He saw all things in harmonious opposition, such that their most essential characteristics could not be extracted or isolated from anything else. A neoplatonist might see himself as a unique emanation of God, whereas Heraclitus seems to have seen existence as without such a center. We are not mere emanations, but equally central aspects of reality. Taking this thought the distance, “we” are ultimately one and the same.

Listening not to me but to the Logos, it is wise to acknowledge that all things are one. — Heraclitus

That is a form of immortality that I can hang my hat on. Of course I still fear death and value my needs over the needs of others, yet I find in Heraclitus an unsurpassed philosophy for counteracting the pangs of self and change.

In this sense, conflagration can have a unifying, immortalizing influence on thought, but it really seems that the Stoics were altogether too dogmatic about it, and lost what seems to have been the spirit of Heraclitus to that dogmatism.

But then again, who are we to correct the Stoics on Heraclitus? They must have been much more familiar with him than we are. Is it possible that they were not as dogmatic as they seem from two millennia away? Perhaps Heraclitus was more dogmatic than he seems to me. Hard to know. Still, it is enough that those words of his that have survived the ages have inspired these kinds of reflections in others, and given us one of the great philosophical terms of antiquity: Logos.

Watching Whales in the Sink

Much of my childhood was spent in the towns of Hanford and Tulare, in a region once called the Tulare Basin, not far from the dry bed of Tulare Lake. This name “Tulare Basin” might have had more meaning before Tulare Lake was drained for wheat and cotton, but it’s still got that “basin” feel to it, or perhaps “sink” is a better word, with the way the heavier air settles down into it. It’s more than just the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley.

At about the time I became a teenager, I bicycled from Hanford to the brink of the Sierra Nevada, and watched the ghostly hills emerge one-by-one out of the Valley haze. I remember the sense of wonder in coming so close to something other than table-flat. I remember the soft, round foothills jutting suddenly out of the Valley floor like whales breaking the surface of a sea of orange groves.

Whales in the sink

Whales east of Cutler, California

There’s a remarkable story behind those whales that I had not heard about until quite recently.

I was taught in college that the earth’s crust is thicker under continents, and thickest under mountain ranges. Think of it as a characteristic of any floating object: the more that you see floating over the surface, the more there is under the surface; only there’s much more under the surface, as with an iceberg.

It turns out that this is not the case with the southern Sierra Nevada. This mountain range is more like a catamaran than a conventional boat. Under the highest portion of the Sierra, the crust is thinner than 30 km, and the crust doesn’t exceed 35 km in thickness under most of the crest of the High Sierra, as well as the Great Western Divide. All this is thinner than the crust is under Fresno.

The Sierra Nevada is hence thought to have lost its root. Layers under the range are thought to have separated, or “delaminated”. If this occurs to an iceberg, one would expect the iceberg to settle down into the water a bit, but that all depends on the relative density of the ice and the water. What happens when a mountain range looses its root? What happens if chunks of crust are dropped into the upper mantle? Some geologists appear to believe that delamination under the Sierra may have created a deep convection cell that led to even more uplift, and possibly an ancient supervolcano. What’s more, that convection cell appears to still be around, and very much alive.

Root loss, mantle drip, and the Moho hole.

Root loss, mantle drip, and the Moho hole.

Let’s take a conceptual hike. Start at Long Valley Caldera, where one of the world’s great volcanic events occurred 760,000 years ago. Walk across the Mammoth divide, past Devils Postpile National Monument, and down the San Joaquin River to Fresno. For much of your hike across the western slope of the Sierra, you will be waling over another anomaly: there is no clear boundary between the crust and mantle beneath your feet: you’re crossing the “Moho Hole”. You’re also walking over a gigantic “high-velocity drip” convection cell. In some areas, the convection cell presses up on the crust; in other places, pieces of the crust are dripping down into the mantle.

So what does all this have to do with whales?

Look at those whales east of Visalia, then look at the foothills along other parts of the western Sierra Nevada. The latter emerge gently from the plain, but the former shoot right out of the Valley floor like sinking ships, and that’s just it: they must be sinking, and there’s more than thirsty farms at work here. As they sink, sediments from Sierra streams settle in around them, burying the the foothills themselves. What we see, then, are not foothills but mountains.

The Tulare Basin is more than just a stagnant basin that happens to be adjacent to the Sierra Nevada: it is part of the Sierra, and not just because it sits on the low end of a great granitic incline. Likewise, the southern Sierra Nevada is much more than just a giant slab of granite. When realizations like these dawn upon us, so too are we reminded that science is more than an accumulation of knowledge: it’s a thing of beauty.

Don’t take my word for it, of course. No doubt I’ve read some of the science wrong. Read it for yourself and let me know what you think:

George Zandt, University of Arizona, 2003:
The Southern Sierra Nevada Drip and the Mantle Wind Direction Beneath the Southwestern United States

George Zandt, Hersh Gilbert, Thomas J. Owens, Mihai Ducea, Jason Saleeby & Craig H. Jones, in Nature 432, 2004:
Active foundering of a continental arc root beneath the southern Sierra Nevada in California

Jason Saleeby and Zorka Foster, CalTech, 2004:
Topographic response to mantle lithosphere removal in the southern Sierra Nevada …

Elisabeth Nadin and Jason B. Saleeby, CalTech, 2005:
Recent Motion on the Kern Canyon Fault, Southern Sierra Nevada, California … (link broken)

Embrace Your Inner Fish

I just finished the book Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin. Though I bought the book with a specific interest in learning just how much bony fish there is within us, I want to say at the outset that it has been an enjoyable read in general as a book about the joy of science. I hear so much about the battles between scientists and those who fear science that it’s nice to hear a scientist simply write about what he loves. I know: there are lots of such books out there to be sure; still, this one strikes a chord that I first remember hearing in Carl Sagan.

I remember my father saying “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” a number of times during my youth. This lyrical slogan-like phrase indicates that our formation in the womb reflects our formation as a species. It wasn’t until several years ago that I finally looked the phrase up, and found it to be quite outmoded. I still like the sound of it, but it does miss an important point: it’s not so much that we evolved from, say, fish, but rather that we remain as fish to this day.

Get the best in evolutionary fin art at

Ray Troll contemplates Darwin's passion

The fact that we have undergone a multitude of changes does not change the fact that we are modified fish. Many aspects of our anatomy and physiology bear this out. It’s not like all our fish parts were replaced by amphibian parts when we left the water, but rather our fish parts were generally transformed or even reassigned.

Why fish? It’s not that we aren’t amphibians and reptiles as well, but the fish holds a special place for two reasons:

  • Fish represent the aquatic origins of life.
  • The famous fishiness, albeit temporary, of the human embryo.

It’s not just that we can look at bony fish and note our resemblance to their basic skeletal layout. They do have a spine, head, and limbs. They do have our basic camera-type eye. They do have nostrils. They also have three ear canals that give them a sense of acceleration in three dimensions. Still, it’s much more than that. Remarkably enough, we have retained our gills, in a morphological sense at least. The gills of the embryo are gills that guide the formation of our head and neck.

It’s tempting to think of our inner fish as something we’ve left behind, but who’s to say there’s no going back? Look at our cousins the whales. They stand as proof that the water is not so irrevocably lost to us.

Another less-fishy reflection from the book that resonates with me is the notion that life is self-building. We tend to see creatures as buildings that are built by some builder, but when we look deeply into the formation of creatures, we are struck by how they actively build themselves out of a mere blueprint. And what of the blueprint? That too is continually recreated and redesigned by the living.

Release the Day

A book I’ve been reading, “Your Inner Fish”, just reminded me that Carl Sagan once said, and I don’t know if he was the first, that looking out at the stars is like looking into the past.

It has occurred to me on a number of occasions that there is no qualitative difference between looking at the stars and looking at anything else. The only difference is quantitative. Everything that we see, or even experience, is in the past. Come to think of it, even our “current” sensations are of past events.

What, alas, do we experience other than the past?

I guess I must be showing my age.

What is California?

California Districts

An enumeration of the elements of California might proceed as follows:

  1. The San Andreas Fault
  2. The California Current
  3. The Sierra Nevada
  4. The Central Valley
  5. Redwood Forests

The San Andreas Fault

The Pacific and North American Plates, two of the world’s largest, collide from the Gulf of California to Shelter Cove, just south of Cape Mendocino, California. This collision, roughly delineated by the San Andreas Fault, is what put the place we call California on the map.

The California Current

California is probably best known for its climate, a phenomenon which owes no small sum to the fact that California is a collision between continental and oceanic plates, with two particular circumstances:

  1. The collision has a north-south orientation, with cool ocean currents flowing from the north.
  2. The collision occurs across a broad spectrum of tropical, subtropical, and temperate latitudes, from 23 to 40 degrees north.

All this adds up to a mild, sunny climate. Add to that an occasional quake to keep everybody on their toes, and you have the California of the Padres.

The Sierra Nevada

Another California was born in 1848, not of sunshine and mild weather, but of greed. That rebirth was initiated and sustained by four gifts of the Sierra Nevada:

  1. gold
  2. water
  3. soil
  4. beauty and recreation

The massive Sierra Nevada traps large volumes of atmospheric moisture, leaving the lands to the east dry. It being a large mountain block, much of that moisture is stored as snow and ice, meaning that the moisture is released when it is needed most, during the warm, dry springs and summers. As that moisture is released, it carries with it the sediments that become the soils of the great Central Valley.

As lady luck would have it, a smattering of that sediment is gold. It was the glitter of gold in Sierra streams that set the tone for the future of California and America, just as that glitter brought the world to California before her greatest riches were discovered. Beyond the extravagance of gold and the practical benefit of water and soil, we must not forget the beauty and recreational value of Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, the High Sierra, and the Giant Sequoia (more on that to come).

The Central Valley

Without Sierra Nevada sediments, much of the Central Valley might be known today as the Central Sea, like the Sea of Cortes (the Gulf of California) to the south, but the Sierra Nevada does not entirely account for the Central land form of California, be it land or sea, and there are other mountains that feed the Central Valley. The Sacramento River is proof of that. The Sacramento River is fed by the southern end of the Cascade Range on east, and the Trinity Mountains and other ranges on the west.

Redwood Forests

“From the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters, this land was made for you and me.” — Woodie Guthrie

Another natural resource that plays a central role in the California myth is the California redwood tree, which lives along the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada and the Pacific Coast, from Big Sur the far southern Oregon.

Where is California?

Having taken all these elements of California into account, a natural eastern boundary of California can be seen to proceed along the following features:

  1. The east coast of Baja California.
  2. The Colorado River.
  3. The crest of the Chocolate Mountains (just east of the San Andreas Fault).
  4. The crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains.
  5. The crest of the San Bernardino Mountains.
  6. The crest of the San Gabriel Mountains.
  7. The crest of the Tehachapi Mountains.
  8. The eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada.
  9. The eastern edge of the Cascade Range. The boundary continues northward here to include the watershed of the Sacramento Valley.
  10. The crest of the Siskiyou Mountains.
  11. The northern boundary of the Smith River watershed. This is the approximate northern boundary of the region called “the Redwood Empire”.

Fire Temple

This posting is a continuation of the Citadel of Glory discussion.

Having now read much of A. J. Carnoy’s Paradise of the East — Paradise of the West, which I received due to the graciousness of Dr. Josef Chytry at the University of California, I can now speak a little more confidently about Carnoy’s Kár-i-farn conjecture.

One interesting point that Carnoy makes is that the place name “Califerne” in the Song of Roland may have been a hybridization of the construct Kár-i-farn and the theocratic title Caliph. What Carnoy does not discuss is the possibility that the word Kár as spoken by an Arab may have sounded much like “Kál” to an early Frenchman, whose deep ‘r’ and ‘l’ sounds were perhaps quite unlike the sharp, shallow ‘r’ and ‘l’ of an Arab or a Persian. Carnoy’s Kár-i-farn could have very easily been modified by the French without any hybridization whatsoever.

Unfortunately, Carnoy does not appear to claim that he had ever read of the construct Kár-i-farn; rather, he appears to argue that the construct was probably used because it appears to be an obvious construction:

Il serait naturel que les légendes concernant les feux divins, les paradis sur les montagnes, les oiseaux merveilleux qui les gardaient ou les transportaient se soient localisées sur la montagne de Kár ou de Kár-í-farn (“Kár du farnah”) comme on a dû l’appeler.

Here’s my rough translation:

It would be natural that the legends concerning divine fires, the paradises on the mountains, and the marvellous birds which kept them or transported them were located on the mountain of Kár or Kár-i-farn (”Kár of the farnah”) as one had to call it.

Carnoy does not appear to provide any evidence that anyone ever actually used the construct, so we must continue to wait for it to appear. Let’s not hold our breath.

That said, I happen to believe that the construct Kár-i-farn is even more likely than Carnoy contends. In my town, there is something called a fire temple. To be precise, it is called a “Dar-e-Mehr” (or Dar-i-Mihr), from the Farsi for “House of Fire” or “House of Light” (I say “Farsi” rather than “Persian” because the term has obvious Arabic influence). I find it quite noteworthy that Dar-i-Mihr can easily be translated to Kár-i-farn. Mihr and farn(ah), do, after all, carry quite compatible meanings. The actual fire in the district of Kár was even called Farnbag, roughly meaning “Light of God”. As for Dar and Kár, the former is an Arabic word for “house”, and the latter appears to be a Persian root that derives from the Sumerian word for “fort”, and appears to have evolved into a more general meaning akin to “edifice”.

Carnoy appears to think that the construct Kár-i-farn would derive from the name of the district Kár, but it seems to me that the inverse would be more likely: could Kár-i-farn have once been used as a term for “fire temple”?

… And regardless of etymology, wouldn’t Karefarnah be an appropriate name for the Golden State? “Land of Sun Worshippers?” “Temple of Fire”?

Citadel of Glory

The name “California” appears to go back far beyond Montalvo’s Las Sergas de Esplandian. This should not surprise us, for Montalvo’s novel implied that the name was well-known when it was published ca. 1510. The word apparently occurred in the 11th Century epic poem the Song of Roland, at a point in the poem where a Christian army had just been defeated by a Muslim army. In the poem, California was spelled “Califerne”, but that spelling may reflect poetic license, as it occurs at the end of a rhyming stanza. The following citation is provided to illustrate the rhyme:

Morz est mis nies, ki tant me fist cunquere
Encuntre mei revelerunt li Seisne,
E Hungre e Bugre e tante gent averse,
Romain, Puillain et tuit icil de Palerne
E cil d’Affrike e cil de Califerne.

Lynn Townsend White Jr., a California historian, made the following observation about the legendary country of Califerne:

To them [the Spanish conquistadores] California was a land of Orient with fantastic attributes which have been somewhat clarified by a learned authority on Iranian mythology, A. J. Carnoy. Califerne, he asserts, is the Persian Kar-i-farn, “Mountain of Paradise.” On this mountain dwelt enormous birds, half eagle and half lion, in the West generally called griffins.

I have not read Carnoy, nor have I ever heard of Kar-i-farn in any other connection, so I must remain skeptical, but I can put its constituent words together. For me, Kar-i-farn does not translate to “mountain of paradise,” but rather something like “citadel of glory”. Perhaps that’s close enough.

To be more specific …

The word “kar” means something akin to “edifice” in Persian. The same word in Sumerian and Assyrian meant “fortification” or perhaps “citadel”. One may wonder how “kar” could morph to “kal”, and one would be justified, but consider that the Arabic word for fortress or citadel is “qal`ah”.

The word “farn” or “farnah” is an old form of the Persian word “farr” or “farrah”, which means “glory”, as in the glory of God, or the divine splendor of the sun.

It is no surprise to hear griffins spoken of in connection with ancient Persia. The guardians of the Persian Empire were great statues of griffins called “Homa”, sometimes referred to as the “Guardians of the Light”. It would make sense for these “Guardians of Light” to inhabit a “Citadel of Glory”, but I have not yet been able to corroborate Carnoy’s account.

Was California named after a heavenly paradise out of an ancient Persian myth? Is the California condor thus related to the Homa of ancient Persia through legend and myth? The jury is still out, and may remain out for some time.

California As Collision

Along the northeastern shore of the Great Ocean, a long, thin strip of land stretches 1500 miles, in about as straight a line as Nature will allow Herself to draw. The strip is born of the grinding of the great oceanic plate against the continental plate.

From Cabo San Lucas to Cape Mendocino, California is characterized by a system of strike-slip faults between the Pacific and North American plates, but California is more than a mere side-swipe; it is a collision, and this intercontinental collision involves—like so many others—one continent wedging under the other. In this head-on component of the collision vector is born the Sierra Nevada.

The uplift of the Sierra Nevada has not been gentle. It was associated with one of the most powerful earthquakes in California history, the Great Lone Pine Earthquake. It has also been associated with one of the most fantastic volcanic events known to science: the Long Valley supervolcano.