Cat Flag: Lake Tahoe Edition

Hey Cat Flaggers! Yes, I just got back from a trip to Lake Tahoe, the giant, deep, high-altitude lake on the California-Nevada border. I had a great time exploring an area I had never been to before, and wanted to share some of what I saw and learned with all of you!

By volume of water, Lake Tahoe is the largest U.S. lake that isn’t one of the Great Lakes. It is also the second-deepest lake in the United States after Crater Lake in Oregon. Its name comes from the Washoe Indian word for “lake”, so technically its name means “Lake lake”. I personally think that’s pretty funny.

It was once a major stop-over point for miners on their way to the silver mines of Nevada, with loggers in the area supplying the timber that the mines needed to build safety support structures to reduce the risk of cave-ins. In the early 20th century, as tourism in the region grew, several unsuccessful attempts were made to designate Tahoe as a national park; today, most of the region is covered by national forests and several state parks. Interestingly, the 1960 Winter Olympics were held in Squaw Valley, California, very near the lake.

What struck me the most about the lake, though, was just how clear the water was! I mean, I’m used to the coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean, which are clouded with salt, sand, and algae. Tahoe’s water, meanwhile, was so clear you could see down to the bottom.

This was just the tip of the natural beauty of the area, though. The pine forests were stunning, especially in the early morning sunlight.

Just look at that view!

The most fascinating thing about the lake, though, was that it was a place of contrasts. Allow me to explain a bit.

You are driving up from Sacramento toward the lake. The landscape is typical California: rolling, golden hills of dried-up grass and the odd tree here and there. Gradually, the trees start to grow more numerous, and more and more of them are pine trees instead of deciduous trees. Then, as you drive through Placerville, the landscape starts to change. All the deciduous trees disappear, as do the rolling grass-covered hills. In their places are steep, rocky slopes covered in pine trees. You keep driving up the mountainside, leaving Placerville behind, watching the road signs marking the increasing altitude as you climb and climb. Gone are the big cities and even medium-sized towns; in their place are small road stops, some of which have a sense of humor about how small they are:

Then you reach South Lake Tahoe, and suddenly you are back in civilization, sort of. Sure, it’s still pine trees and nature’s beauty everywhere you look, and most buildings are built with a rustic, log cabin theme. But there’s also a T.J. Maxx, a Ross, a KFC, and a Safeway.

The mountain pine forests seem at first to dominate the Tahoe area, but as you make your way around the Nevada side of the lake toward Carson City, the pines start to fall away, and over the course of a dozen curves in the road they disappear completely, replaced by high desert sands and scrub. By the time you reach Nevada’s state capital, you are clearly in a completely different environment than you were in South Lake Tahoe. It can seem jarring, moving through so many different ecosystems so quickly.

But nothing is more jarring than what greets you as you cross the border from California to Nevada. There is just a single street separating the California city of South Lake Tahoe from the (appropriately named) Nevada town of Stateline. On the California side of the street, you see a collection of boutiques, art galleries, and tourist traps, very much in keeping with the sort of thing you find in many California tourist towns. Then, you cross the street, and BAM! Massive, 18-story casino, located literally feet inside the Nevada border.

The entrance to Stateline is lined with several monstrously-huge, Vegas-style casino-resorts, each smushed-up as close to the border as they can possibly fit. I found the whole thing rather amusing, a physical manifestation of how man-made boundaries and limits can have as much, if not more, impact on the world and the people in it as natural ones. Indeed, by comparison, the “sudden” shifts in the natural environments from grasslands to mountain pine forests to high desert were all comparatively gradual and smooth. It was a reminder that the real world is one where there are plenty of grey areas, and only humans insist on absolutes. “On this side of the line, gambling is legal, and on this side, it’s illegal. That’s all there is to it.”

Speaking of Nevada, I spent some of the trip exploring Carson City and Reno, and had a good time seeing the sights there. In Carson City, I got to see the Artsy Fartsy Art Gallery, a really cool art collective featuring amazing works from Nevada artists, and the Nevada State Museum, a fascinating showcase of the natural and human history of the Silver State. I highly recommend anybody staying in the Tahoe area pay these places a visit.

In Reno, meanwhile, I managed to snag a snap of the Reno Arch:

Downtown Reno, of course, is most famous for its casinos, and some local sculptors decided to celebrate this fact with some interesting public artworks:

The original plan for my trip was that the first day would be spent in Carson City and Reno, and the second would be spent enjoying the natural beauty of the lake. Then, mother nature decided to throw a monkey wrench into those plans.

That haze you see in the background? Blocking the view of the other side of the lake? That’s not fog.

See, a massive forest fire more than a hundred miles away was pumping the area full of smoke from all the burning trees. A health advisory was imposed on the whole region, urging people to stay indoors to avoid breathing in all the smoke. I was experiencing some itching and burning in my eyes and throat that day, like a really bad case of allergies. I felt really bad for anyone with asthma or emphysema in the area that day.

That got me wondering, though. Surely this is far from the first time such a smoke dump has happened in the Tahoe area, right? I would imagine, since forest fires are such a common occurrence in California, that this would be something that happened fairly regularly. How do the animals and wildlife, who can’t hide indoors, handle these things when they happen? They must have some way of surviving the clouds of ash blowing in, right? After all, in the long run, the ash might actually be good for the forest, helping to fertilize the soil. At least, those were my initial thoughts on the matter.

Smoke aside, I really enjoyed visiting the Tahoe area, and I may go back someday. Hopefully, next time I’ll be able to hike through the piney woods and see some more of the natural sights. As it stands, though, I am very glad I made this trip, and I would encourage any Cat Flaggers who are interested to check the Tahoe area out.

Until next time!

Once again, it’s time to fight to save net neutrality

An Editorial

Two years ago, I wrote a blog about the importance of net neutrality as a whole, and Cat Flag in particular. The context was that a federal court had ruled against the net neutrality rules that had been set up by the Federal Communications Commission, and as a result the FCC was trying to decide how to proceed. After a huge public pressure campaign convinced the FCC that the American public still wanted to keep net neutrality, the FCC classified internet service providers as “common carriers”, the same classification long used for phone companies. As a result, the FCC was able to implement new net neutrality rules that were upheld in court.

So, story’s over right? The Internet is safe now? Of course not.

In 2017, the FCC got a new chairman, former Verizon lawyer Ajit V. Pai, a man who had voted against the FCC’s new net neutrality rules and has gone on the record saying net neutrality’s “days are numbered”. Earlier this year, he began FCC proceedings to repeal the FCC’s earlier decision. Never mind that polls have shown that there is overwhelming support for net neutrality by the vast majority of Americans regardless of their political positions; to Pai, net neutrality is a form of government overreach and an undue regulatory burden on ISPs.

Fortunately, the FCC is required to solicit public comments before making a rule change like that. Unfortunately, some spambot from an unknown source has been busted submitting hundreds of comments under fake names in support of Pai’s proposal. When contacted by Forbes magazine about removing these fake comments, Pai said he would not do so. An activist group decided to set up a website for people to check if the spambot has submitted comments under their own names, comcastroturf.com, only to be handed a cease and desist letter from Comcast threatening to sue them. (Comcast later backed down.) I used the site and found no less than two fake spambot comments under the name “Robert Griffith”. So, I submitted a real comment of my own, explaining my own position on net neutrality and alerting the FCC to the spambot comments.

Fake comment farce aside, I can understand where ISPs and Pai are coming from in opposing net neutrality. From an ISP’s point of view, net neutrality means internet users who just check their e-mails and visit a few blogs have the same internet access, at the same price, as internet users who use high-bandwidth services like Netflix, YouTube, and Steam. It means that the ISPs can’t charge companies like Google and Blizzard to give their customers faster speeds. As an MBA student, I learned about differential pricing – the idea that you want to charge customers exactly what they are willing to pay for a good, but that dollar value will be different for different customers. This is why grocery stores offer coupons and deals that reduce the price for larger purchases; some customers are willing to jump through the hoops to pay less, others aren’t. Each is getting their groceries at a price closer to what they are actually willing to pay for their groceries. Likewise, if internet customers are willing to pay more for higher-bandwidth, faster-speed service, shouldn’t ISPs be able to charge them more?

Except the internet is not a grocery store. As the court that upheld the FCC’s new net neutrality rules pointed out, internet access in the 21st century is a public utility. Since most ISPs are also phone or cable companies, one would think they would be used to being regulated like a public utility.

Most of the big internet companies – Google, Facebook, Amazon, and so on – started out life as small start-ups run by a handful of people. They got to the top through a free market that is free precisely because of the principle of net neutrality. Could you imagine if we lived in a world where Facebook wasn’t able to grow and ended up shutting down because Myspace could pay ISPs extra to load faster on users’ computers? Heck, we’ve seen cable companies drop channels over contract disputes; without net neutrality, what’s to stop Verizon from blocking Hulu for similar reasons? No wonder Google, Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Twitter, Vimeo, Etsy, and other big websites are opposed to Pai’s proposals.

This is an issue I feel passionately about because it directly affects me. Cat Flag runs on WordPress, so if something were to suddenly happen to WordPress, I would be in big trouble. So all I’m asking, if you agree with me (or even if you disagree), is that you let the FCC know what you think about this issue.

  • Please visit this web page on the FCC’s website
  • Where it says “Proceedings”, please list “14-28” and “17-108”; those are the actual FCC cases having to do with the net neutrality proposals.
  • Remember, anything you enter is a matter of public record, so please keep it civil. And don’t set up a spambot.

Thank you.

Who Designed the U.S. Flag?

The 4th of July is coming up in a few days, and already everyone in my hometown getting ready for a big, patriotic party. The stores are all selling red-white-and-blue decorations and have put hamburgers and hot dogs on sale. Even I’m planning on busting out the grill on the fourth as I celebrate my nation’s birthday. By far the most common sight this time of year, though, is the American flag, the good ol’ Stars-and-Stripes.

I’ve given my country’s flag the Cat Flag treatment before, but today, I wanted to talk about its history in more detail today. Specifically, I want to do one of my favorite things: answer a simple question that has a not-at-all simple answer. Who designed the flag?

Let’s start by getting one thing out of the way:

It was NOT designed by Betsy Ross

The year was 1870. William J. Canby went to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania with a story his aunt had told him about his grandmother. He claimed that in the spring of 1776, Elisabeth “Betsy” Ross had sewn the very first Stars-and-Stripes flag on the orders of George Washington himself. Over the years, this story has become a part of America’s national folklore, with her home being turned into a museum, a bridge named for her, and postage stamps issued to commemorate Ross’s memory.

Only one problem: there is zero direct historical evidence that this ever happened. That’s not to say it didn’t happen, mind you; historians consider this story “neither proven nor disproven”. Historians debate its merits based on what we know about the time period and what indirect evidence there may or may not be for such a meeting.

Even if the story is true, though, Betsy Ross didn’t design the flag itself. Canby’s telling of the event explicitly stated that Washington arrived with a design already drawn up for Ross to sew. According to Canby, Ross’s only contribution was changing the shape of the stars – Washington’s design had six-pointed stars, but Ross thought five-pointed stars looked better and were easier to make.

So, if Ross didn’t design the flag, who did?

The man who claimed to have designed the flag (and was stiffed)

Meet Francis Hopkinson. Before the Revolution, he had alternated between working as a customs officer and running his own business. When the war broke out, though, he became a member of the Continental Congress, where he was assigned to the Marine Committee. On June 14, 1777, the committee issued a resolution stating “That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

It makes sense that the Marine Committee would take a keen interest in declaring an official U.S. flag, as American ships at sea would need to be able to identify each other and be identified by the navies of allied nations such as France. Prior to this, Americans used a wide variety of different flags, many of which included British flags like the Union Jack or St. George’s Cross, something that was a bit inappropriate now that the United States had declared its independence.

After the flag resolution was adopted, Hopkinson asserted that it was his design and began sending bills to Congress to pay him for it. He sent four formal requests to Congress to pay him. Congress never did.

Still, he must not have felt too bitter, as he continued to play a role in the new nation’s politics, participating in the Constitutional Convention and serving as a federal judge.

The high school student who designed the current 50-star flag (and got a B-)

Of course, the Stars and Stripes that Hopkinson (allegedly) designed was only used for a few years. As I mentioned on my blog before, as the nation grew the decision was made to add a star for each new state admitted to the Union. Over the years, the flag has undergone many, many redesigns.

Thus, when Hawaii was admitted to the Union as the 50th state in 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower needed a new design to squeeze in one more star.

A high school history class in Ohio decided that it would be fun to have the students come up with their own 50-star flag designs for a class assignment. One of the students, Robert G. Heft, turned in a flag that was pretty simple, laying out all 50 stars in a square, using alternating rows of six and five stars. Heft received a B- for his design. After class, Heft made a deal with his teacher: if his flag design was actually adopted, the grade would be changed to an A. Probably laughing at how preposterous the odds were that Heft’s design would ever be accepted, the teacher said, “you’re on.”

What the teacher didn’t count on was that Heft lived near his local Congressman, and was able to use this connection to get his design in front of Eisenhower’s eyes. Of the thousands of proposed designs submitted by people across America, Eisenhower decided to go with Heft’s proposal. According to Heft, his teacher did hold up his end of the bargain and change his grade.

That’s right, a 17-year-old designed the flag you’re holding!

HAVE A HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY, AMERICA!