Nov 262007

sea lions wreck sea lion
Photos of Scuba diving Islas Coronado, Baja

I had a great time scuba diving at the Lobster Shack on Islas Coronado on Saturday. The Coronado Islands are a group of four islands in the municipality of Tijuana. An hour boat ride from San Diego, they are a popular dive spot. There is usually a bit of heart break regarding gill nets and over harvesting of certain species, but the islands are resilient, and still attract birds, fish, and sea mammals. It was chilly, but the visibility was over 40 feet, and there was a ton of California Sea Lions that wanted to play. We were the first off the boat, and immediately swarmed by about 30 playful sea lions. Some just bit and wrestled with each other near us, others came to play in our bubbles, or blow bubbles in our face while zooming by. One was curious enough to try chewing on Mani’s hood and mask. We explored the wreck, the rocks, and algae, always accompanied by at least two sea lions. It was a fantastic dive.

Nov 262007

The Guardian has good news on the fascinating Untergunther group in Paris:

Four members of an underground “cultural guerrilla” movement known as the Untergunther, whose purpose is to restore France’s cultural heritage, were cleared on Friday of breaking into the 18th-century monument…

For a year from September 2005, under the nose of the Panthéon’s unsuspecting security officials, a group of intrepid “illegal restorers” set up a secret workshop and lounge in a cavity under the building’s famous dome. Under the supervision of group member Jean-Baptiste Viot, a professional clockmaker, they pieced apart and repaired the antique clock that had been left to rust in the building since the 1960s. Only when their clandestine revamp of the elaborate timepiece had been completed did they reveal themselves.

Since the 1990s they have restored crypts, staged readings and plays in monuments at night, and organised rock concerts in quarries. The network was unknown to the authorities until 2004, when the police discovered an underground cinema, complete with bar and restaurant, under the Seine. They have tried to track them down ever since.

But the UX, the name of Untergunther’s parent organisation, is a finely tuned organisation. It has around 150 members and is divided into separate groups, which specialise in different activities ranging from getting into buildings after dark to setting up cultural events. Untergunther is the restoration cell of the network.

Nov 202007

– The string of events the past few weeks in Baja seems to have attracted a lot of country wide attention.

– News bits like this don’t seem to help the situation: Kidnapped Spanish tourist found blindfolded beside Tijuana road

– You just can’t make up news this bizarre:

A mysterious helicopter crash during Baja California’s storied Baja 1000 off-road race set off a strange chain of events that left four people dead and two missing after a nighttime raid on a local morgue, officials said Thursday.

…Among the last-minute entries were two men who registered a black pick-up truck called Azteca Warrior, according to media reports and Ensenada city spokesman Daniel Vargas. One of the men, registered as Pablo Gonzalez, was tracking the race team’s progress in a helicopter (60 miles west of the city of Ensenada ) when it crashed into high-tension wires, killing Gonzalez and another passenger and injuring two pilots.

Two people who said they were relatives of Gonzalez showed up at the morgue Wednesday and tried to claim the body, but were not allowed to take it, authorities said. A few minutes later, the gunmen struck. …The convoy of 14 vehicles pulled up in front of the city morgue on Calle Guadalupe. The attackers stormed the building, snatched a corpse, loaded it into a vehicle and sped off through the hills toward Tecate, where two police officers had set up a roadblock. “They tried to stop them. The gunmen answered with bullets,” said Edgar Lopez, a spokesman for the Baja California state police. …Federal authorities are investigating whether the body is that of drug cartel figure Francisco Merardo Leon Hinojosa, nicknamed El Abulon — The Abalone.

– LA Times has an interesting article about the housing boom by norteamericanos in Baja Sur: Taking Baja South

They arrive by land, air and sea, with visions of the good life dancing in their heads. At first, their numbers are so small as to be barely noticeable. But within a few years they may end up taking over your street, your colonia, practically your entire town. They bring their curious native customs with them—skinny Frappuccinos, “personal watercraft,” wireless Internet access—and replant them in foreign soil. Relentlessly, they remake the landscape in their own image, transforming derelict colonial-era manses into stunning million-dollar homes, and majestic swaths of lonely seaside acreage into $300-per-round golf courses. And though many of them make a diligent effort to learn the local tongue, befriend the natives and blend into their adopted country, others stubbornly resist assimilation: hanging out in their gated compounds with other English-speaking exiles, eschewing the local coffee shops and taco shacks in favor of Starbucks and Burger King, plowing their SUVs like woozy battleships through the narrow streets of picturesque 17th century towns.

Nov 192007

Wired has a great story about $1000 genetic tests:

Reading your genomic profile — learning your predispositions for various diseases, odd traits, and a talent or two — is something like going to a phantasmagorical family reunion. First you’re introduced to the grandfather who died 23 years before you were born, then you move along for a chat with your parents, who are uncharacteristically willing to talk about their health — Dad’s prostate, Mom’s digestive tract. Next, you have the odd experience of getting acquainted with future versions of yourself, 10, 20, and 30 years down the road. Finally, you face the prospect of telling your children — in my case, my 8-month-old son — that he, like me, may face an increased genetic risk for glaucoma.

The experience is simultaneously unsettling, illuminating, and empowering. And now it’s something anyone can have for about $1,000. This winter marks the birth of a new industry: Companies will take a sample of your DNA, scan it, and tell you about your genetic future, as well as your ancestral past. A much-anticipated Silicon Valley startup called 23andMe offers a thorough tour of your genealogy, tracing your DNA back through the eons. Sign up members of your family and you can track generations of inheritance for traits like athletic endurance or bitter-taste blindness. The company will also tell you which diseases and conditions are associated with your genes — from colorectal cancer to lactose intolerance — giving you the ability to take preventive action.

It is a very interesting read. I’m not really concerned about learning something I didn’t want to know – given the choice, I’d always want to know ahead of time. In fact, I would even be tempted to try out the service, if there weren’t little alarm bells ringing in my head:

…external parties will not be given any of your information without your consent, except as required to comply with legal requirements under applicable laws. Even when we are required to provide information, unless prohibited by law, we will attempt to notify you before providing your information to external parties.

While they won’t be handing out my data, who is to say what legal changes will happen in the next 10-20 years? What other ways would my data be open to mining? Would I be setting myself up for some future liability by gaining information about potential health risks? These questions make me think I would only do it if someone was providing an anonymous test, with no social aspect to their site.

Nov 162007

I somehow ended up talking about the hedonic treadmill with a friend last night. Shortly after that I ended up reading Pursuing Happiness from Heifer’s World Ark:

Could it be that our biggest social problems today—failing public schools, skyrocketing health costs, widening wealth inequalities, collapsing infrastructure—are related to the fact that, in the midst of plenty, so many Americans still feel they don’t have enough? Could this explain, at least partially, why, as a nation, we have disinvested from so many public goods that don’t yield short-term returns? Happy, trusting, optimistic people almost always want others to prosper, too, and they think about the future. It is only when we get stuck in a mindset of scarcity that we cling to what we have and wall ourselves off from others, especially the have-nots.

Now one of the top linked stories online is this Newsweek article, Why Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness:

If money doesn’t buy happiness, what does? Grandma was right when she told you to value health and friends, not money and stuff. Or as Diener and Seligman put it, once your basic needs are met “differences in well-being are less frequently due to income, and are more frequently due to factors such as social relationships and enjoyment at work.” Other researchers add fulfillment, a sense that life has meaning, belonging to civic and other groups, and living in a democracy that respects individual rights and the rule of law. If a nation wants to increase its population’s sense of well-being, says Veenhoven, it should make “less investment in economic growth and more in policies that promote good governance, liberties, democracy, trust and public safety.”

Happiness is a good thing to dwell on every once and a while.

Nov 162007

I have to admit, I was skeptical the first time I read SurferMags story, “I’ll Never Go to Baja Again” aka Carjacked in Baja. Three surfers losing everything in Baja to a group of professional and heavily armed carjacker-thieves sounded like the truth was a bit stretched. Bribes are not unheard of, but this was a whole different ball game.

Unfortunately it seems it was all too real. The UT reports:

“Southern California surfers have reason to be especially wary about venturing to Baja California after a spate of armed robberies by paramilitary-style criminals. About a half-dozen robberies and carjackings that targeted U.S. surfers en route to camping spots along the 780-mile Baja California peninsula have occurred since June… the perpetrators fooled tourists into pulling off the road by using flashing lights similar to those mounted on police cars. These thieves forced their victims to kneel and put firearms to their heads.”

Losing your car or your wallet is one thing, but there was also one report of sexual assault during the robbery. All of the victims did not report the crime in Mexico, as they were fearful of the local police force. The general distrust of Baja cops is certainly not helped by the continuing reports of corruption. Just this week I had a coworker tell me about her brush with the TJ police over the weekend. The extortion left her shaken, and unwilling to go to Baja again (she usually goes several times a month). Baja needs to crack down on this fast, or their tourist industry will die.

The UT gives some info on reporting an assault:

– While in Mexico, flag down a police officer or dial 066 on a local phone.

– People visiting Baja California can receive help by calling the office of the region’s secretary of tourism. The hotline is 078.

– Once back in the United States, people still can report crimes that occurred in Mexico by contacting the U.S. Consulate’s office in Tijuana, which channels complaints to the appropriate Mexican agency and assists U.S. citizens with follow-up investigations. E-mail

– The San Diego Police Department, which takes courtesy reports and forwards them to the consulate’s office. Call (619) 531-2000.

Nov 122007

bat ray harbor seal kelp forest opeleys
Photos of Diving and snorkeling near Two Harbors, Santa Catalina Island, California

Continued from Two Harbors, Catalina Island

We arrived at Two Harbors in the morning, and got in the water as quickly as possible. As part of the package for our trip to Two Harbors, there were a number of kayaks available for free use. Anna and I took the opportunity to use them to get to snorkeling spots in the marine sanctuary near the UC research station. The area has a great kelp bed, and a lot of sea life. We had a lot of fun snorkeling around the kelp and spotting fish and rays. Great visibility in the morning, probably around 50 feet.

Some of the most fun snorkeling was when the harbor seals came out to play. In the shallow water of the kelp forest there were three that would come to visit. Two were a bit skittish, and would only nibble and sniff when they didn’t think you were watching them. But the most curious one eventually started to be more and more bold, hugging my legs, and examining Anna’s hands. It was a lot of fun to see them blow bubbles and corkscrew around you. It wasn’t quite as bold in deeper water, but if you swam about 10 feet away when it was hunting on the bottom, it would follow you and your tasty fins to the surface, before swimming away. I’m assuming they are wary on the surface in deeper water because of the local shark population.

That evening I did a night dive with some people from the dive group. The kick out was amazing, the bioluminescence was so intense you didn’t need a light to see other divers under water. Everyone glowed teal and green. The group was too big for wandering around the kelp, and some of the divers didn’t seem to be that comfortable with the kelp, especially in the dark. Splitting up and moving into the less dense waters eventually happened, and we managed to see some life out on the sand then – shovelnose, rays, halibut, and some horn sharks.

The next day’s dives started at Ship Rock. This was a great site with huge numbers of fish. It is also a great mixed environment, rocks and kelp forest from 0-60 feet, then mixed plants, corals, and fans from 60-100 feet, with a sandy bottom. The kelp was amazing to dive through, some of them in the 50-60 foot range. We saw a seal hunting, but he didn’t stop to play. Lots of sea cucumbers, but I couldn’t find any eels. Great dive, and the visibility was fantastic, 40-60 feet.

The next dive was near the shore and a boy scout camp, deserted for the fall. It has a great kelp forest just off the shore with lots of fans and corals. The visibility on this dive was a bit churned up from divers, but still a lot of sea life to spot. Shallow depth made for a nice, long dive. Sunday morning we got in one last snorkel session with the seals before packing up for the 2 PM ferry. I hope to come out here again soon, the diving and snorkeling was amazing.

Nov 092007

Two harbors bison on catalina Two Harbors, Catalina
Photos of Two Harbors, Santa Catalina Island, California

Anna and I took a three day weekend to head out to Two Harbors on Santa Catalina Island. I have been meaning to get out there for a long time, but when a cheap trip came up by way of a local dive group, it was too good to pass up. I’m glad we went, it was well worth it.

Two Harbors is a quiet place, at least this time of year. The village is really just a collection of houses, a camp ground, a historic hotel, general store, bar, and a dive shop. We stayed in cabins that are used for staff housing in the summer, so I’d guess it can be packed in peak season. For a fall weekend, it seemed like the perfect size and temperament for us.

We had a great time kayaking, hiking, snorkeling, and (just me) diving (more on snorkeling & diving in a future post). One of Anna’s goals was to see a buffalo, sorry, bison on the island. Leftovers from a movie in the 20’s the herd is now over 200 strong, and a major tourist draw. They are also a burden on the slow growing native grasses and shrubs of the island, and the subject of a lot of controversy.

We assumed we would need to do some serious hiking to find the bison herd in the hills. However, after kayaking we wandered into the center of town to see a bison standing on one of the only patches of grass, in center of town. He was munching on lush green grass, and getting hosed off by the sprinklers. The lakes are dry, and the herd has been having a tough time finding water. So when someone left the gate open, this guy decided to visit town.

A few people were standing too close to him, and the bison was staring them down. One of the dive shop workers told them about a guy that got too close to a herd the day before, and now has a new hole in his ass. They backed up, and the bison went back to munching.

He was there for a good half hour, we came back to town just as he was stepping off the grass patch, and making his way through town to the road. Stray cats and people slunk back into the nearest doorway as he slowly walked between the palm trees across the sand without incident.

More to come on scuba & snorkeling in a future post. Update, post is here: Diving and snorkeling near Two Harbors, Catalina Island