Sunday, April 6, 2014

Farmington, NM Library Remembers the Past, Plans for the Future

The ancient residents of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, tracked the seasons from rock observatories. Current residents of the nearest large town can track the seasons across the stone floor of the library.

When I visited the Farmington, New Mexico library in mid November, the low noon sun touched the edge of the winter solstice marker engraved into the floor.

If I had visited on December 21st I would have found the phrase “Winter Solstice 12:00” framed in light and the solstice celebration in full swing.

On June 21st the noon sun shines from overhead through a window atop the east door of the library to illuminate the summer solstice marker.
The Farmington Library sought community input while planning their new building, which opened in 2003. The cultures and landscapes of northwest New Mexico are reflected in the Native American and high desert motifs of the building.

The main entrance echoes the east-facing doors of hogans on the Navajo Reservation west of town. The central atrium, where the sun traces the time and space between the solstices, is the heart and focus of the building. The library’s collections and services encircle the atrium and follow the cycle of life in a clockwise circuit.

Life’s journey starts in the Juvenile Collection on the south, moves to the Teen Zone in the west, and continues through the adult nonfiction and fiction sections. Multimedia resources and magazines wait on the east side, next to the entrance.

The library’s round design reflects nature in its paucity of straight lines. Chrome bookshelves fan out within the pie slices of the adult sections, between the atrium and the glass wall on the north. The round windows in the interior and exterior walls remind me of portholes.

I checked email and downloaded digital photos and GPS coordinates in the Southwest Collection, protected by legions of kachina dolls dancing in glass display cases.

Beyond the rows of kachina dolls, a modern protector watches over the library’s materials. The Farmington Library was the first in the country where patrons check out all their own books and media. Their system uses radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, instead of the bar codes used at most libraries and in supermarket self-checkout lanes. The RFID readers in the atrium don’t have to “see” a visible bar code or demagnetize security “tattle tapes.” Borrowed materials just have to be close enough that the machine can scan their RFID tag with radio waves.

Pet owners use RFID tags when they get their cats and dogs “chipped.” If a pet gets lost, their name and owner’s contact infor- mation can be read with a hand held scanner.

I first heard of RFID tags in salmon. Thousands of young fish in the Pacific Northwest are tagged and tracked as they swim down the Columbia River on their way to the Pacific Ocean and again when they return to inland streams as adults to spawn and die.

I can't help picturing schools of shimmering books leaving the sea of library shelves and heading out into the world through the library’s east entrance. I imagine the books expanding the minds of fifth graders, retired police officers, aspiring carpenters, and middle school teachers before returning to the stacks. Happily, the books, unlike salmon, make many round trips in their lifetimes.

When books return to the library, they are either walked in the front entrance or driven behind the READ sculpture to the automatic return in back. After patrons slide their returns through the slot, the RFID system checks in the materials and provides a receipt and a coupon for $5 off library fines.

This video shows the system in action. The last part, where materials are automatically sorted into bins, reminds me of the automatic gates that open and shut to sort tagged salmon for researchers to study.

The self check out--and in--system frees the library staff to help patrons and answer visitors’ questions. This has transformed the Circulation Desk of my childhood into the Service Desk in the Farmington Library’s atrium. A whiteboard next to the desk tells everyone they count: the board lists the number of people who visited the library and the number of book they checked out (themselves) the previous day. (A helpful commenter, below, pointed out that the numbers in the photo were from a Sunday, when the library is only open for four hours. On other days, 1050 to 1400 people visit the library.)

The library’s circulation system also freed up a security guard to do a short demo for me. He showed me the postage stamp-sized RFID tags inside each book. Then he showed me what happens when someone forgets to scan a book before they leave the library. We got prompt attention from the librarians at the Service Desk.

The late afternoon sun had slipped below the southwest windows and the patch of light on the floor had disappeared by the time I left the library. I drove west into the sunset to Shiprock, NM before I turned north toward Boise.

The sun has made ten trips back and forth across the floor of the new library building. Last fall, before the winter celebration, the Farmington Library again asked the community to help plan their future. Area residents shared their ideas and hopes for the library in a time of shrinking budgets and growing populations.

The ancient residents of New Mexico faced their own challenges of dwindling resources. Farmington's modern library is meeting its challenges while grounded in the area’s ancient traditions.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Late Winter Rains and Army Cutworms

Boise’s Winter of Ice Fog ended with snow in early February. The ridge of high pressure that smothered us under a season-long inversion finally disbanded. After the snow, a procession of rainstorms washed in from the Pacific.

Rain clouds spawned smiles and the Treasure Valley was suffused with the perfume of damp, spring soil. Ranchers, farmers, wildland fire officers, and water managers cheered the promise of grasses, irrigation water, low forest fire danger, and ample snow pack.

Dusty Dog was knee-deep in cheatgrass on the Boise Green Belt, where an artist had exhausted every shade of green in her paint box.

But the rains were too late to save the cheatgrass in the driest areas along the Snake River, south of town.

A prodigious fall storm had germinated a flush of the winter annual grass, along with its annual mustard cousins. But the plants' good luck didn't last.

Large numbers of miller moths had preceded the rains. The eggs they laid hatched into army cutworms a month or so later. The larvae got down to business eating the green plants.

The dry winter that followed was ideal for the cutworms, which develop fungal diseases in damp weather. But the cheatgrass and mustards struggled in the dry weather. The annual plants died in many areas, from the combination of drought and army cutworms. Perennial grasses, mostly short Sandberg bluegrass, survive on the hills above the cheatgrass dieoffs.

Hungry army cutworms roam the bare areas looking for food...

...or hide under cowpies, out of the wind...

...but within reach of hungry centipedes.

Where there are shrubs, the larvae have become arboreal and climbed sagebrush...

...and fourwinged saltbush, looking for food.

Army cutworms that climb the hills munch on Sandberg bluegrass, which seems able to outgrow the larvae's feeding.

When they run out of plants to eat, the cutworms dine on their fallen relatives.


Related post: A Plague with an Upside?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Dangerous Epidemic Sweeps the Treasure Valley

This public health menace increases heart disease and stroke and threatens driver and pedestrian safety.

The scourge touched me as I walked past the front bumper of an urban cowgirl’s pickup truck in downtown Nampa. The truck’s horn blasted a 100-decibel HONK! I jumped as fight-or-flight chemicals fine tuned by thousands of generations of my nimble ancestors kicked in. Cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine gushed into my bloodstream. My heart pounded, my breathing increased, and my muscles tensed. The driver had waited until she was across the street, safely away from the blast zone, before she hit the lock button on her key fob. She was at the end of the next block, still chatting with her family, when my heart rate and breathing slowed to near normal.

My successfully evolved body prepares me to run or protect myself when I’m drifting off to sleep and a neighbor HONKS outside my bedroom window. And again when he forgets where or not he locked the car after he cracks a beer--HONK. And when he checks again as he’s going to bed--HONK. Each time, more stress chemicals clog my bloodstream, raise my blood pressure, and suppress my immune system.

At 2:25 a.m. another neighbor can’t hear the car HONK with the noise of the bar still ringing in her ears. She HONKS several times. Then it’s just 3½ hours until two robust HONK-HONKS accompany the auto start on a third neighbor’s red Dodge Ram truck with after-market muffler.

I fall sleep between the HONKINGS while my risk of heart disease and stroke increase. Loud noises are deadly dangerous and sudden loud noises are even more so.

Car and truck horns are close to the pitch of a human scream for help. The same internal safety system that protects me from noisy, dangerous predators insists I pay attention to the screams of others of my species--whatever is killing them might get me, too! Each HONK alerts me to danger.

Turning left into four lanes of heavy traffic on Fairview, I check two lanes left, two lanes right, look for drivers using the center turn lane as their private driving lane, watch for bicycles and joggers on the sidewalk to the left, to the right, check for cars turning from the street across the intersection, double check for cars to the left, right, bicyclists, joggers, then finally pull ou--HONK! Where?? Who’s going to hit me? Who am I going to hit? I CAN’T SEE WHAT’S WRONG!! Someone locked their car in the parking lot across the street.

"HONK" no longer means “Watch out! You’re in danger!” It means “I’m going inside now.” While being assaulted with deadly sudden noise, we’re being retrained to ignore HONKING while driving and walking. What if we need to warn someone that their life is in danger? What if someone needs to warn us that our life is in danger?

Percy Nilsson drilled holes in the tires of an ice cream truck in Sweden because he wanted to start a conversation on HONKING. The truck’s 100 HONKS per hour drove him to drill.

Just yesterday, I heard HONK, HONK, HONK--blasts from three separate drivers--as I walked the length of the Post Office building on 13th Street in Boise. The trip takes about 1½ minutes, which means an hourly HONK rate of 120: 20% more than the rate that punctured tires in Sweden.

Let’s start a conversation on HONKING in Boise before we have an epidemic of flat tires.

Let’s stop damaging the health of our neighbors and endangering the lives of other drivers and pedestrians. Let’s reprogram our car locking systems to healthy, safe silence. In a pinch, we can resort to the ancient technology on the inside of car doors and the even older one appended to the end of our arm.

Treasure Valley residents, please stop HONKING your neighbors into an early grave. Your neighbors will wave thanks using that same handy appendage.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Dusty Dog Likes Snow

After a winter of region-wide dry, warm, sunny high pressure (that trapped Boise in an icy, gloomy, cold inversion) we had snow last week. My friend Mollie’s dog, Dusty, couldn’t resist dragging his nose in the powdery fun stuff as he galloped around on our walk. He looked like an over-eager hot chocolate drinker with whipped cream on his nose.
When I stopped to take some photos in the off leash area, Dusty came back to get me.
Then he told me to keep up, so he wouldn't have to come look for me again.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Writer Overcomes Roadblocks to Bike to the Lowest Places on Earth

Jim Malusa is only able to reach escape speeds with a Patagonian breeze at his back or on the last curve down to the Gulf of Aqaba. He presents an irresistible target as he pedals to the lowest points on six continents. His book, Into Thick Air, is equally hard to pass up.

People seem to lie in wait for Jim. An Afar man who teaches English in Djibouti, an Australian family that lives in a “dust bowl shack with whip snakes in the outhouse and a pedal radio for communications,” and a Russian wedding party filling the only cafĂ© in town, all ambush him and force their hospitality, food, water pipes, and drinks on him. The drinks often contain alcohol, which both delays him and slows his progress when he finally wobbles away. Jim faces many obstacles in his travels--missing his young family, battling headwinds, and struggling up hills--but only fails at one: resisting the temptation to stop and talk. And eat. And drink.
A Jordanian family welcomes the American bicyclist passing their house. They show him every photograph they own, feed him goat soup, dress him in local clothing, entertain him with card games, and give him breakfast after he spends the night. By then, they knew each other’s stories, because, “[g]uest and host knew that they would only have this day, so they had to tell everything about themselves that day.” Jim must have used each of his nine Arabic phrases more than once during the visit.

Other characters that catch the author’s eye and impede his progress include a “four-pound rat-dog with a fogged-over eye;” a Coptic priest who is a Mr. Natural look alike; a hyena, the “slouching prince of poor posture and worse dental hygiene,” that he imagines he hears from his sleeping bag at Wadi Rum; and a Russian musician who “follows the international dress code of accordion players and appears to be from a neighboring planet.”
If you’re looking for a book on bicycle maintenance, this isn’t the book for you. On the other hand, there are useful tips: a good weld on the frame of your bike can hold from Moscow to the Caspian Sea (verified by Jim), and installing a second inner tube, and a second hole in the rim for the valve stem, will let you repair a flat without tools: just pump up the second tube (unverified).

If you want to know the best times to visit the most famous museums in the world, this isn’t the book for you. If you’re looking for a guide book to five star--no, four star-- no…OK, if you require any stars, or hot water, in your hotels, this isn’t the book for you.

If you’re looking for a fact-dense history of the areas Jim pedals through, this isn’t the book for you. On the other hand, he does provide intriguing factoids that could bolster street cred in the right circles: Henry David Thoreau endorsed celibacy, Moscow was twice burned by invaders in the 16th century, and the Las Vegas, NV Yellow Pages devoted 92 of those pages to Entertainment, Adult the day he visited.

This is biologist Jim Malusa’s first book. Several of the journeys originally appeared on Discovery Channel Online. In his quotidian life, he hasn’t strayed far from home. Jim still lives in Tucson, where he grew up and studied writing with Ed Abbey. His story telling skills are no secret in his home town: he is one of Barbara Kingsolver’s favorite writers.

My only warning is to think twice about reading Into Thick Air if those close to you already question your grip on reality. Your chuckles, guffaws, and belly laughs will confirm their suspicions.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

2013 Sugar Beet Harvest Was a Challenging One

Metal dinosaurs come to life each fall across southern Idaho. Joints flex and belts whir to life at rural crossroads from Blackfoot to Nampa. Convoys of trucks unload sugar beets into the clanking creatures through the short fall days and into headlight-filled nights.

The beet dragons arrange the roots into tidy piles that demonstrate betaine physics in their angle of repose.

Trucks shoulder past each other on the narrow roads between the “beet dumps” and the fleets of harvesters in the fields.

Each harvester is attended by a bevy of trucks waiting their turn for a high horsepower, high volume pas de deux across the corduroy soil. As one truck is filled and peels off, another smoothly cuts in to take its place.
When the beet fields are empty and the dumps are full, larger trucks carry the beets, which look like sturdy, white garden beets, to processing plants. The plants extract from the lumpily pyramid-shaped roots the granulated white sugar we use in cooking. Livestock eat the high fiber beet pulp that is left.

In 2013, Idaho sugar beet growers produced record high yields, but were hit by a double whammy of low sugar content in the beets and low prices for the crop. I wrote about the challenges of this year’s harvest in a recent issue of the Intermountain Farm & Ranch section of the Idaho Falls Post Register. Growers hope that new higher-sugar beet varieties and careful management will boost sugar contents, and profits, next season.