California smells

Posted in Travel at 12:11 by RjZ

This time of year it’s yellow in Colorado. In the foothills and plains beneath the Front Range, it’s not a snowy wonderland that everyone from outside imagines it to be. It almost never snows in town and when it does, the sun usually melts it the same day. Instead, weather systems move in from the west over the mountains and as they rise up above the tall peaks they cool off and the snow falls on the peaks long before it gets to us. In defense of the cold, the trees lose their leaves and the grass turns yellow and dormant.

I grew up in California though. In California it’s brown during the hot summer. Right now in winter, though, it is the greenest time of the year. I had forgotten all about that until I visited Silicon Valley, in central California, this week. California is positively fragrant. The weather, especially nearer to the coast is so mild and sunny all year round that a huge range of plants can grow there. The Silicon Valley area is anything but wild so non-indigenous plants from all over the world have been brought in.

Growing up in California can be disappointing when you travel. There are places people visit just to see the wonderful flora that are native. The Canary Islands have the Dragon tree, and exotic tree that looks like it’s from prehistoric times and is often called the Stradivarius tree because it’s dark red sap was used to stain the famous violins. These trees are common in California. The Norfolk Island pines really are from prehistoric times. Native to New Zealand and Australia they’re common in California yards. The African coral tree has dangerous thorns on it’s branches and abundant flowers that look like orchids. No need to go to Africa though, it’s commonly planted on wide streets between opposing directions of traffic. I remember visiting the island Mainau in the middle of Bodensee in Germany. So many Germans had recommended this island for it’s exotic plants but when we arrived there it looked like any California neighborhood and we could hardly tell what all the fuss was about until we got back to regular Germany and remembered that most Germans had never seen such an array of vegetation.

Even from within the air-conditioned rental car I could smell the eucalyptus trees. These rapidly growing trees are plentiful in California where the thrive all too well. They were chosen because they grow so quickly, but unfortunately their strong smell comes from the famous eucalyptus oil that is fatal to all the plants around them. If you see these huge trees in California, you’ll notice that there is rarely much grass beneath them. It can’t survive! Worse still, the oil is highly flammable. Eucalyptus trees don’t burn, they explode!

When I got out of the car for my meeting I was nearly overwhelmed by the wonderful smell and the memories brought back by the honeysuckle. Honeysuckle is a delicious smelling shrub and a very popular decorative plant for it’s year round green and long blooming season with small tubular and fragrant yellow flowers. Unsurprisingly, bees love them.

My meeting was at the offices of a Menlo Park venture capital firm. There were drinks before we got down to business and they are rightly proud of their local wines. I had a rather fruity berry-like red. I’d like to tell you that you could taste the sunshine in the glass but it sounds too snooty. (Well, honestly, I guess I did just tell you that.)

That evening, back at the hotel I walked through an arbor with geraniums and gardenias. Gardenias are wonderfully fragrant white flowers that practically glow in the dark. They ought to. As is common for white flowers, they are pollinated by moths, which unlike their butterfly relatives, only come out at night. Colors are harder to make out under star and moonlight, and so anything other than white would be wasted, but their fragrance is so powerful I am sure the moths have no trouble at all finding them.

I left today, but on the way to the airport I could actually smell the curry, cumin and mustard seed emanating from the five Indian restaurants I passed in less than four miles of driving. This isn’t some literary metaphor. I really could smell curry in the car! The delicious fragrance demanded I stop for buffet. I was excited by the over ten vegetarian choices at the buffet and tried to sample as many of them as I could pack into my stomach. I think I may have had too much, but it was worth it.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the packed roads of Silicon Valley didn’t also smell of traffic and exhaust, but California has the tightest limits on vehicle pollution in the nation and it’s not nearly as bad as one might expect given the sheer quantity of cars on the road.

All those cars and people, the hazy cast to the marine layer gives to the sky and those four months of brown without any of the fun of our snow covered mountains doesn’t make me miss California much, but it was nice to remember that California doesn’t stink, it smells!

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Travel tips part 1, or how I learned to relax and spread freedom and democracy

Posted in Travel at 12:10 by RjZ

It’s your first time in a so-called third world country. Guide book in hand you’ve made it from the plane through the mobs of people to the bus that takes you to the center of town. It doesn’t matter where you’ve traveled to for this trip, I’ll bet the bus is full of people. Travelers with backpacks and locals with farm animals jostle for space in the aisles. If you haven’t travelled much you’re carrying a big pack and maybe a smaller one in front of you because you wanted to be prepared for everything. The only thing you weren’t prepared for was how to manage your huge pack on cramped busses. If the bus isn’t packed to well beyond capacity, it’s because you’ve arrived so late at night that you’re lucky to have found cheap transport at all.

No matter what time you arrive, when the bus finally disgorges the farm animals, locals and bewildered travelers, you get to face touts for the first time. Suddenly dozens or even hundreds of young men are barking at you: Taxi? Hotel sir? Tuc Tuc madam? Change money? You need hotel, sir? I bring you best hotel. My brother’s hotel, very good madam. There’s no denying it can be frightening. From all sides people are literally yelling at you. You push your nose into your guide book to find the hotel you’ve dutifully highlighted as being the cheapest, clean hotel, with the best English speaking hosts. One of the touts catches your glance as you look up again and you have no choice but to talk to someone.

“I want to go to the ‘Happy Traveler’ hotel” you say. Suddenly there is a huge frown on his face. “Oh, so sorry, sir. They are closed now. I know a better hotel. Not far. Clean!” ‘Oh come on’ you think, this is this year’s guidebook. You ask another tout and get the same response. You’re getting nervous now. You’re sure that’s the hotel you want but you’ve got that heavy back pack and there’s no way you’re going to be able to carry it in this heat all the way to the hotel. Tuc TucSweat is running down your chest and you’ve got no choice to trust one of the drivers.

So you pick the one you think won’t actually drive you to the middle of the forest, strip you naked and leave you there. You try telling him other hotels in your guidebook but somehow, miraculously, they’re all closed. Not to worry, his uncle’s hotel is much better. Like it or not, that’s where you’re going! Unfortunately, you don’t know how far it is, so you can’t even negotiate a good price for the taxi ride. This isn’t Europe, so there’s no meter in the cab, and well, at least it’s got air conditioning which the tuc tucs don’t have and they don’t look very safe anyway–maybe if you didn’t have that big pack!

And then the good news finally breaks. You arrive at his uncle’s hotel safe and sound and, to be honest, it’s just great. It’s clean and not too expensive and the host understands everything you say. You get an actual key to the room and the fan on the ceiling actually seems to work, although it’s wobbly and squeaks rhythmically as it turns. You’ve paid the driver who doesn’t seem to go away and, well, everything is just fine. When you emerge from your room, unburdened finally from your load, your smiling driver is still there and now he’s offering to take you to wonderful sights that brought you to this part of the world in the first place. If you end up taking him up on it, you’ll find him to be a pretty good guide and, while pricier than getting there by yourself, not that bad a deal if you’re on a tight schedule.

And that’s the lesson. Relax! Almost everywhere I’ve travelled it’s nearly the same story. It takes a herculean effort to avoid the touts, when in fact the easiest way to avoid them is simply to capitulate. As soon as you do, your new guide will defend you from all the others. If you don’t like the hotel he brings you to, just ask him to bring you to another. In most cases you won’t have to pay any more for the privilege either. He’s probably got “uncles” all over town at all price and luxury points.

Why begrudge these would-be travel agents? It’s this fear and confusion that will ruin your trip if you let it. Trying to beat the rip-tide of touts and connections is a sure way to drown in this new culture. It’s quite possible that you’ll drive by the hotel you wanted the next day and see that it wasn’t closed after all. Go check it out. Fifty-fifty chance it won’t be as good as the one you stayed in anyway because it’s over-run now that it’s in the guide books! This free-wheeling capitalism is the truest American export. Just like our version, it’s not without it’s pitfalls and it’s sometimes even dangerous, but keep your wits about you and most of the time, things are just great. So relax and enjoy your trip, for this is the better way to spread freedom and democracy around the world than at the barrel of a gun and we all might learn to get along better in the process.

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Don’t tell me what to do, just give me a chance to do it.

Posted in Liberty at 16:52 by RjZ

The conclusion to the Reason article:Happiness Is…Higher Taxes: Is one man’s productivity another man’s pollution? really get’s to the bottom of what I would consider a guiding principle of what governments should and should not do.

In a land where Mormons, Muslims, and masochists walk side by side, and none is specially positioned to certify the correct concept of value, the role of government is not to pick a philosophy and shove it down our throats. It is to provide a reasonably neutral framework that allows each of us to pursue our ends peacefully in the light of our own convictions about the good. There’s a reason liberal democracies get top marks in happiness. 

One can apply this philosophy over and over again when attempting to make decisions about which laws are good and which might not be such great ideas. Our goal should not be to better society, but rather to provide equal opportunity.

The neutral framework described in the quote isn’t a leveling of the people; forcing the strong to lift more because they are stronger, or the rich to pay more because they are richer. Instead it is a leveling of the playing field. The stronger team may still win, but everyone had an equal chance at success.

I have faith in the individual and am confident that those who will lose at one game will find another game in which they can be successful, provided the games aren’t rigged in the first place–and that, then, is the primary role of government; not to tell us which game is the right one to play.

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