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Hey, Matt: Is it possible to get free energy from volcanoes? — Big Thinker, via email

We’re already doing it, Big. Sort of. If you’re thinking of harnessing the energy in those wow!, picturesque volcanic explosions, with flames and gas and smoke — of course, you can forgit it. Eruptions are totally unpredictable. A whole bunch of energy is released at once, making it a chore to capture. If we can cheat just a little bit and consider using heat from underground magma as an energy source, then we’re in business. Buildings are heated with geothermal energy. Electricity is generated that way, too.

While all the hot stuff is still underground, it’s a lot easier to deal with. And we’ve been using ground heat (usually combined with water) as a helpful resource for thousands of years. So, Big, either you’re way too far out there with your ideas or several millennia too late. Take your pick. Maybe I should get you together with the lady who proposed dumping all our garbage into a volcano’s mouth instead of a landfill. Between the two of you, you might come up with something we can use.

Hey, Matt: I have two totally unrelated ponderings to which I’m hoping you’ll have the answers! First, where did the phrase “made from scratch” come from to denote “homemade”? Second, when you’re driving home from a really long trip and see “San Diego XX miles” on one of those green signs along the freeway, where are they measuring the distance to? The center of the city? If so, who got to decide where the center is? — Jess P., San Diego

We deal with unrelated ponderings week after week, Jess. In fact, if you summed up the Matthew Alice career in a few words, you’d probably go with “struggled with and conquered unrelated ponderings for a grateful people.” So, no problem. Anyway, when did “scratch” become the anti-Betty Crocker? It seems to have started with 19th-century sports. Foot races. No fancy stadiums, just a dusty street for an arena. The starting line? Somebody scratches a mark in the dirt. If it’s a handicap race, a slower runner might get to start some distance ahead of the pack. A person with no handicap starts “from scratch.” The term appeared in sports newspaper reports of the day (“he won three races from scratch”). And like a select few phrases through the years, people found it useful and adopted it. By the early 1900s it was used by writers to mean “from nothing” or from the beginning with no outside assistance. When quick mixes appeared in midcentury, “from scratch” was the perfect snobbish adjective for a homemade cake.

Your puzzling freeway signs have changed meaning over the years. Early on, the mileage was measured to an important point within a city limits, often the courthouse steps. But as that became less practical, Caltrans has chosen a different spot. “San Diego 36 miles” means it’s 36 miles from where you are to the major freeway intersection closest to the center of town. On 5 south it would mean the crossing of I-5 and I-8.

She Speaks Zebra!

After last week’s treatise on zebras’ prickly personalities, we got a note from Rancho Outback. Once we’d dusted it off and pulled out all the cactus spines, here’s what it said.

Hi there, from that “select handler” of zebras. I have trained many zebras and continue to do so on a daily basis, right up the hill in Ramona. What a shame that someone thinks of zebras’ ways as “evil.”

Zebras are amazing animals, with incredible social groups or families called kinship groups, that enable their survival as individuals and as a species.

Each species has its own special characteristics, but in general these are the facts. Zebras are about five times stronger than horses. They do bite like pit bulls when they bite, holding on, not just nipping like horses often do. If a zebra doesn’t have a reason to bite, then it doesn’t bite. A zebra can take a mule saddle with a crupper (tail strap), as its withers are low, just like a mule. A zebra is a wild animal and, true, cannot be “domesticated” but in the right hands can be tamed and trained. We tame and train zebra after zebra here at the Spots ’N Stripes Ranch in Ramona.

Zebras cannot be trained like horses are typically trained but must be trained using zebra language. Horses are very forgiving and allow for mistake after mistake in working with them. Zebras are unforgiving. Just one mistake in communication with one can be fatal to the budding relationship and dangerous to the human and the zebra. There are many aspects of zebra language, and the use of it in training, including the vocalizations, the behaviors, and having an expert knowledge of the translations of these, along with an expert knowledge of the natural characteristics of the species, are imperative. — Nancy Nunke, Ramona, www.zorse.com

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Jay Allen Sanford June 18, 2009 @ 12:36 a.m.

Heh heh, so I guess zebras aren't "evil" after all. However,even the above stripe-lover's description of the critters at her ranch makes it sound like zebras are a-holes ----


Josh Board June 19, 2009 @ 10:12 a.m.

Yeah, I couldn't figure that out either. A letter in defense of zebras, that goes on and on about how you can't make a single mistake, etc.

Well, those zebras they used to have in TJ are sure nice. You know the ones...outside of the bars, where you can pay a dollar to have a photo sitting on one. Sure, they looked like small donkeys that were just painted with the referee stripes, but still...


Matthew_Alice June 20, 2009 @ 11:59 a.m.

Yeah, I didn't think that letter was the best PR for zebras either. Personally, I'm pretty happy that zebras retain their feisty tempers, attempting to tell us that they'd really be a lot happier back on the African savannahs, running from hyenas than stuck in Ramona.


David Dodd June 20, 2009 @ 12:24 p.m.

What, exactly, does one train a zebra to do? In other words, horses are good for riding and mules are good for packing - what in the world do you train a zebra to do?


Josh Board June 22, 2009 @ 12:48 a.m.

I seem to remember a Super Bowl commercial years ago that had Clydesdale horses playing football. That would've been the perfect use of a zebra, playing the referee (although, my memory is hazy...maybe they did to that and I'm just not remembering).

You bring up a good point, MA. As a little boy, I thought similar things when my parents would throw us into the petting zoo section of the parks. I was scared to death, as an evil goat with a limp was running me down nipping at my arms. I figured they didn't want to be there, having a bunch of brats pet them, poke their eyes, yank their tails, etc. And neither did we!!!


SDaniels June 22, 2009 @ 10:50 p.m.

Apparently zebras respond to redundant verbiage...and what in the world is a "zorse?"


Matthew_Alice June 27, 2009 @ 12:59 p.m.

A zorse is a cross between a zebra and a horse. They can interbreed because they are closely enough related. There are also zonkeys in addition to zorses. Apparently zorses still maintain enough of their zebra attitude to make them tricky to deal with. Enough gene tinkering, I say. Leave them alone! As for what you can train a zebra to do -- I dunno. Jump through hoops? Moonwalk? I think they mean you can train it to do very simple things like carry a pack or not bite your hand off. I still think they're prettier in their native habitat.


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