Russell's Blog

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Red Fred, 1990-2008

Posted by Russell on May 30, 2008 at 7:09 p.m.

In 1990, my family moved to Ohio. If you've ever talked to me about it, you know that I don't have many happy memories to relate about the experience. However, in Ohio, I gained a great friend.

Soon after we moved, my parents left for some sort of vacation. I don't remember where they went. My mother was taking classes at Wright State, and one of her classmates and her husband stayed at our house to keep my little sister (and me, I suppose) out of trouble. They brought their cat with them, who was not quite fully grown.

This was a very unusual cat. He was still a kitten, but he had none of the usual kitten hyperactivity. He was always utterly calm. He showed a keen interest in everything. He would peer down the sink drain intently, explore behind and underneath every piece of furniture, and sniff every plant in the garden. If you were eating something, he would wait patiently until he was allowed to examine it. Usually he didn't want to eat any, he just wanted to have a look and a sniff. He explored avidly, but carefully, methodically, and patiently. He had none of the aloofness or disdain that cats often show. His interest was genuine, but he just wasn't excitable.

He never made a sound. Not for any reason.

He was affectionate, but not attention-seeking. If you picked him up, he would purr, but he never bothered you for attention. When he wanted food, he would sit at his bowl and wait, patiently, and sometimes for hours.

My mother's friends felt bad keeping him in a small apartment, and they were going to move after they graduated. When my parents returned, they let us keep their cat. He was a beautiful orange tabby, and so they had named him Tigger. However, his personality had turned out so utterly un-Tiggerlike that we felt compelled to give him a new name. So, I named him Red Fred.

Fred grew into a massive, powerful cat. By the time he was five, he was a solid rectangular block of cat muscle, weighing perhaps eighteen pounds. He could easily have been the alpha cat, but he was uninterested. He left the alpha cat position to PVP (that name is another story), who was scrawny by comparison. Fred continued to patrol the neighborhood, evidently spending most of his time observing things. He would sit at the bottom of the driveway and watch people walking along the sidewalk for hours, or on fences staring into people's kitchens.

Whatever he did, there was a solemnness about it. He made you want to be quiet around him, so as not to disturb his observation and reflection.

When he hunted, he never bothered with birds or mice, and instead caught full-grown rabbits. As far as we know, he did not eat them. He would carefully carry them into the kitchen by the scruff of their necks, like kittens. He would then release them, and watch the resulting mayhem with interest. Some of the rabbits he caught were heavier than our other cats, and there was always a lot crashing about and shouting as we tried to expel them from the house.

He was also utterly trusting. One evening, he came to the door with a huge gash in his side, opening his flesh from his belly to his spine. He let my mother pick him up with just a small flinch. If you've ever had to work with an injured animal (or an injured person), you know how unusual that kind of self-control is. When she took him to the vet, he sat stoically on the examination table as they cleaned his wound and stitched him up. The vets were utterly astonished; there were three assistants in the room to hold him down, but they had nothing to do. They stood and watched as Fred bravely went under the needle, fully aware of what was happening. He still never made a sound.

Many years later, his friend PVP died. Thought his long life, PVP maintained a constant monotonous litany of hoarse, solemnly discordant meows. Fred found his body in the garden, and uttered his first sound. My mother came running to see what the strange noise was. After that, every few weeks, Fred hid himself alone in a closet or in the basement crawlspace, and imitated PVP's meow, eventually stretching it into a long, deep yowl. It was an eerie sound, much too deep, loud and extended than one would imagine could come out of a cat, or even a person. It sounded like he was on a PA system. He would do this for a few minutes, and then emerge from his hiding place as though nothing had happened. After that, this ritual became part of his life.

There are lots and lots of great stories about Fred, but they all share a common theme: Fred was a sage. I'd like to think that if there is such a thing as reincarnation, then he must have been a tulku, maybe taking one last look at the world.

On Tuesday, he had a stroke, and died without pain among people who love him. He was about nineteen years old.

4.01

Posted by Russell on May 19, 2008 at 1:56 a.m.
For the first time, I just paid more than $4 a gallon for gasoline. It cost $40.34 to fill the tank on my tiny Toyota Yaris. My commute to UCLA is 37 miles each way, and I get about 38 MPG for that trip. I normally do a little better, but the Sepulveda Pass always seems to wreck my milage. At about $0.11 a mile, one trip costs me $7.77. If I drove in every day, it would cost me about $155 a month. That's almost as much as the payments on the car. If gas goes up another 84 cents, then I'd be paying more for the gasoline than the car just from driving to school.

Ouch.

Meanwhile, a Metro day pass costs $5, and a month pass is $62.00. If you commute in LA, chances are pretty good that your employer will buy your pass for you.

Mazel Tov

Posted by Russell on May 15, 2008 at 10:36 p.m.
The Supreme Court of California has ruled that the ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. Even the dissenting justices wrote that they support same-sex marriage -- they are of opinion that it isn't mandated by the California constitution.

Honestly, I was expecting it to go the other way.

Patt Morrison had a lawyer for the losing side on her show a few minutes ago, and he basically framed his position this way: Allowing same-sex couples to get married places personal choice above community standards. Allowing people to ignore community standards will erode the morality of our culture. That sounds like a pretty weird argument for a supposedly conservative point of view.

When it comes to something as private and personal as marriage, let community standards be damned. America's uniqueness flows from its protection of personal liberty, even when that means protecting things that you would not do yourself, or that make you feel uncomfortable when other people do them. I've visited the Harmonious Society, and I like it here better. A lot of blood has been spilled over the years for the liberty we now enjoy. If living in a free society means we have to watch dudes kissing on TV, I'd say that's a bargain price for a lot of protected liberty.

Mazel Tov.

The famous Chinese smog

Posted by Russell on May 04, 2008 at 9:50 a.m.
When I was little, we used to have Smog Alerts in Los Angeles fairly regularly, sometimes for a few consecutive days. My elementary school used to keep us inside on those days, and I used to stand on the second floor balcony that overlooked the foothills, staring at the crap in the air. Around noontime, it looked like an overcast sky, but without the ceiling effect. It diffused all the way to the ground. Then, in the afternoon, the sky would explode in a malignant display of colors. The horizon was capped by a black line hovering above the ground with a mantle of crimson and orange, like the lips of a steamed muscle. The sun would squat over the ocean in a rust-colored splotch smeared across a quarter of the sky. Shadows turned the color of tea, and the air turned pinkish and cloudy like you were peering through gasoline. It looked genuinely dangerous.

Astonishingly, those days were a measured improvement over what my parents experienced. The smog used to be thick enough to obscure the sun completely, turning the daylight into a diffuse glow. Sometimes, it blocked enough of the daylight to create a sort of murky twilight. Here is the first known photo of LA's smog, from 1943 :

Beijing is like that, except the mantle of smog is much, much wider than the one that covered Los Angeles in its worst years. For the Olympics, China has been working to improve the situation, but the progress so far is not very impressive. Days with good air quality, called "Blue Sky" days, would be emergency smog alerts in Los Angeles. The Beijing Air Blog has some interesting data on China's ongoing battle with air pollution, though there haven't been many posts in a while. Here is Tienanmen Square on April 27, 2008, which was officially a Blue Sky Day :

The smog extends pretty far from the city. This is the shot from a train window about a hundred miles north of Beijing. The factory (refinery? LNG plan? cement factory?) is only about a mile or two away, and it's almost completely invisible.

I'm not going to delve into why this is a bad thing. Global warming, cardiopulmonary disease, lead, mercury, yadda yadda. You already know the arguments, or you can make your own. Here's a reason that doesn't require any sort of scientific background to understand. The day after I took the photographs above, a heavy thunderstorm scrubbed the smog out of the sky. This is what China is supposed to look like :

China is a damn beautiful country, when you can see it.