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I was on vacation in Pahoa, on the island of Hawaii, recently, and I had trouble with my camera. Sometimes the autofocus wouldn't work, or the shutter. A resident of the town told me they're always having problems with electronics -- computers, watches, any kind of electronic gear. He said it's because of the magnetic fields surrounding Mauna Loa volcano, which is about 40 miles away. Is this true?

-- Toni, North Park

Dear Matthew Alice:

Once a week my job takes me out to Jacumba. As I drive down the back roads, I notice giant boulders strewn about in a similar way that one might sprinkle jimmies on ice cream. In other places, giant boulders are carefully balanced on other boulders, as if someone had put them there long ago. How did the landscape come to look like this? Also, are there volcanoes out there that might one day explode and pummel me with pumice?

-- skent, the Net

Thinking is not what Hawaii is about. You don't go there to exercise your logic circuits, you go there to bliss out, natch. So when your damned computer doesn't work or the VCR is on the fritz or your car won't start, the path of least-brainwave-resistance is to look out the window for something to blame. When you're surrounded by big fat volcanoes, some of them active, well, you're pretty much forced to assume they're the culprits. The El Niños of the Big Island. Stub your toe? Burn the poi? Grass skirt fall off during the big hula number? Danged volcanoes! Don't tell your friend in Pahoa, but the geophysicists at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, near Kilauea volcano, got a chuckle out of the story. Yes, magma flow and geologic movements do generate magnetic fields, but they're of such low intensity they're difficult to measure, hardly strong enough to louse up your Walkman or snooze alarm. Think for a moment (now that you're back home). If volcanoes screwed up computers, how the heck would the scientists at the HVO ever get any work done?

No pumice predicaments in skent's future. Our local volcanoes are pretty much defunct. But the Jacumba/In-Ko-Pah area is an old volcanic area. Flat-topped Table Mountain is a dead 'cano, but the boulders weren't shot out of it. Those mountains of round rocks used to be one more or less solid mass of magma, cooled underground. As water percolated down, carrying acids, it ate into softer veins in the mass and split it into cubes. As the magma layer was revealed through erosion, moisture and natural sandblasting rounded the boulders to their present form. Basically, the landscape was sculpted that way, not arranged from diverse pieces. Poway's Woodson Mountain has a similar history. They're both famous geologic landmarks.

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