Monday, September 30, 2013

The Great Wyoming Adventure: Getting There

You don't really comprehend the vastness of the Western USA until you attempt to cross it.

Nowadays, in our lovely modern vehicles, we zoom across immense expanses of space at lightning speed, but even so, the west is big.

It's about 1,000 miles from San Francisco, California, to Jackson, Wyoming, and to get from here to there, we followed (roughly) the route that the westward emigrants took 200 years ago, such as the California Trail and the Oregon Trail.

Of course, they had to walk, and it took them months; it only took us two days.

Our route took us over 6 mountain passes that were more than 6,000 feet in elevation, including the brain-blowing, car-killing 8,431 foot Teton Pass on the Idaho-Wyoming border, which in barely 10 miles between Victor, Idaho and Wilson, Wyoming, rises 2,500 feet and then falls the same amount, a 10 percent grade up and down.

(The others were Donner Pass, Emigrant Pass, Golconda Pass, and H-D Summit and Goldson Summit on US 93 between Wells, Nevada and Twin Falls, Idaho.)

Practically speaking, though, by following the historical route of the emigrants, what we did was to follow river valleys:

  • Leaving San Francisco, we followed the Sacramento River up through the Central Valley
  • Entering the Sierras, we followed the Yuba River.
  • Descending the Sierras into Nevada, we followed the Truckee River from Truckee, California, down to Fernley, Nevada
  • Across Northern Nevada, we followed the Humboldt River
  • And from Twin Falls, Idaho, through to Jackson, Wyoming, we followed the Snake River.

All of these are interesting rivers, but the river that really matters for this story is the Snake River.I'll have more to say about the Snake River in later articles, but for now, take it from me that one of the best ways to get to Wyoming is to drive up the Snake, stopping along the way at beautiful places like this, a turnout on U.S. Highway 26 east of Idaho Falls, Idaho:

The entire route is rich with both history and scenery. Along the way you pass locations such as:

Now, although they say that "getting there is half the fun," it really isn't. Long stretches of the drive are just straight roads through the desert, punctuated by stops for gasoline at a roadside station in Nevada where the McDonalds has a casino in the back, or a service station in Idaho tucked between immense potato fields.

So we spent some of our time talking, and some of our time listening to audiobooks, and all of our time driving.

And eventually, safe and sound but thoroughly exhausted, we made it to Wyoming.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Back online

We're back from our 11 day Wyoming Adventure.

Lots of laundry and unpacking to do. As time permits, I'll try to post some thoughts about the trip.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The parbuckling is complete

The BBC have a nice page: Costa Concordia: Stricken ship set upright in Italy, with a nifty time-lapse video.

It looks like there was definitely a point about 3/4 of the way through where the righting appeared to accelerate, but then was somehow brought back under control. Must have been very exciting during those moments.

Some great pictures down at the end of the article, including an amazing long-range shot showing the enormous compression damage along the side of the ship where the cabins were resting on the rocks.

Officials now plan to fully inspect the vessel and begin to prepare the next stage - the effort to repair and refloat it and eventually tow it away to be destroyed.

"It's not over yet," said salvage master Mr Sloane.

The overall plan is interesting: basically they're going to construct an enormous sea-worthy barge around the wreckage, then attempt to float the entire thing as a unit and tow it.

According to this page: Salvaging the Costa Concordia, the refloatation won't even be attempted until late next spring.

With the ship considered a write-off, its final destination is expected to be a dry dock in Sicily, where it will be cut up.

Why Sicily? My knowledge of the Mediterranean is weak, but it seems like that's a voyage of about 300 miles, which seems like a long, long ways. I assume the destination is Palermo or maybe Messina, but aren't there places like Livorno or even Rome which are much closer?

Well, anyway, I'm glad that the parbuckling was a success, and I hope that the rest of the operation is uneventful.

Monday, September 16, 2013


The enormous project to right and remove the remains of the Costa Concordia is now well underway.

There's some nice reporting on the NPR site:

  • Costa Concordia Salvage Operation To Begin Monday
    "The old nautical term for the operation is called parbuckling. Over a 10- to 12-hour period, the ship — now slumped on its side on a sloping reef — will be slowly rotated as dozens of pulleys will pull it upright.

    "The big unknown is the condition of the side of the ship lying on the jagged reef, which juts into the hull by some 30 feet. But the engineers in charge are confident that the operation will be successful — so confident that there's no Plan B.

  • How To Watch As The Costa Concordia Is (Hopefully) Righted .

The main website for the project is just loaded with information, diagrams, and details:

The parbuckling will be performed using strand jacks which will be tightening several cables attached to the top of the caissons and to the platforms, which will be pulled seawards, while the cables attached to the starboard turrets will be used for balancing.

This is a very delicate phase, during which the forces involved have to be offset carefully to rotate the wreck without deforming the hull.

The Guardian has a great blog with lots of updates, and lots of pictures: Costa Concordia: cruise ship lifting will be completed on Tuesday – live updates.

The white and black arrows on the photographs below show how far the Costa Concordia has been lifted. The black arrow shows the position of an upper deck before the salvage operation began, the white as it is in progress. The brown residue on the side of the vessel shows where it was submerged.

The BBC also has lots of great information: LIVE: Attempt to pull the Costa Concordia upright

The Washington Post has a dramatic slideshow.

And the Titan Salvage website has lots of information, too.

Overall, it seems like the project is going well.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

A Wyoming reading list

We're contemplating a trip to Yellowstone, so, as is my way, I've been getting myself ready.

Thus, a brief Northwest Wyoming Reading List:

  • Top Trails Yellowstone & Grand Tetons: Must-do Hikes for Everyone
    With trips from Mammoth Hot Springs to Old Faithful, from the Absarokas to the Gallatin Range, and from Jackson Hole to the Teton Crest Trail, Top Trails Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks has all visitors need to enjoy the ultimate in natural and geothermal wonders
    We're not really expecting to do any epic hikes during our trip, but we do want to get out of the car and into the woods. So this book, from Wilderness Press, is a nice compromise. We have to be careful picking the hikes, because in their desire to be encylopedic the authors include trails spanning the range from half-mile nature walks suitable for taking your 4-year-old to 30 mile 3-night backpacking adventures.

    So obviously they aren't actually "Must-do Hikes for Everyone" (darn cover editors).

    But the book is nicely organized and the trails are clearly described, and I'm sufficiently experienced with reading trail guides to believe I can select appropriately.

  • A Field Guide to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks
    More than 1.200 color photographs with concise descriptions reveal the richness of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. This is the definitive field identification guide to the region's rocks, minerals, geysers, waterfalls, mushrooms, trees. wildflowers, insects, amphibians, reptiles, fish, birds, mammals, tracks and scat, and the night sky. Includes 75 natural features with locator maps and 650 species.
    This. Book. Is. Simply. Gorgeous.

    Since the top draw of a trip to Yellowstone is to experience the top ten of North American wildlife viewing (according to Bryan):

    1. Grizzly Bear
    2. Bison
    3. Gray Wolf
    4. Black Bear
    5. Bald Eagle, Golden Eagle, Osprey, Great Horned Owl
    6. Moose, Elk, Antelope
    7. Gray Fox, Red Fox, Coyote
    8. Big Horned Sheep
    9. Mountain Lion
    10. Badger, Wolverine
    , an accessible field guide is most desirable.

    I love the fact that this field guide includes sections on geysers, on mushrooms, on "trails and scat", and on constellations of the night sky.

  • Yellowstone National Park, WY (Ti - National Parks).

    Grand Teton National Park - Trails Illustrated Map.

    The National Geographic Trails Illustrated maps are simply the best maps you can get. They are accurate, they are gorgeous, they are sturdily-built, and they are designed from the viewpoint of the nature enthusiast. You'll think it's nuts to spend $10 on a map, but you won't regret it.

  • Ring of Fire: Writers of the Yellowstone Region
    A unique anthology of prose and poetry from the volcanic and otherworldly splendor of the Yellowstone region. Powerful, engrossing, and controversial works by prominent authors and fresh talents. Moved by the natural wonders unique to their part of the world, these writers from Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming come together in a "Ring of Fire" around the world's first national park.

    As with any anthology, you will find yourself picking and choosing as you read this book, but overall I've really enjoyed it. The stories and essays are over the place, but among the ones that stuck out as I read:

    • Return to Wyoming, by Geoffrey O'Gara. Driving mostly at night to try to spare his failing car, O'Gara is struck by how, each time his car chooses to overheat, it turns out to be at a location that he remembers from his childhood.
    • The Firebabe, by Susan Sweetnam. Moving to a new small town, Sweetnam finds herself joining the volunteer fire department. Initially intimidated by the skill of the veterans, Sweetnam experiences the thrill of learning how to be a firefighter herself.
    • On Spread Creek, by C.L. Rawlins. Working as a guide at a dude ranch, Rawlins experiences simultaneously the joy of exposing city folk to the mountains as well as the sadness of realizing that what the guests think to be a series of mountain meadows is actually the result of years of clear cutting and strip mining by the lumber and mining industries.
    • Coming Off Lee Creek, by Louise Wagenknecht. Wagenknecht, a Forest Service ranger, describes her transfer from Northern California to Wyoming with a great story about the interactions between government officials and ranchers, highlighting the struggles she went through as a woman to be accepted as one of the guys in the rugged Wyoming mountains.

    There's much more, but overall I was really pleasantly surprised by Ring of Fire, which much exceeded my expectations.

  • Mountain Time: A Yellowstone Memoir

    Schullery's book is now 30 years old, and the Yellowstone he writes about it still older, for he wrote the majority of the book while working as a park ranger, park historian, and environmental specialist in Yellowstone from 1972-1977.

    Still, this is a marvelous book. Schullery is a gifted writer, and he obviously loves the Yellowstone area. The book is structured as a series of independent essays, but they are sequenced and arranged nicely and each one is a joy to read.

    A little taste of Schullery's light and charming style can be seen in the chapter about elk, "Elk Watch":

    Antlers are occasionally a hazard in the realm of human/elk cohabitation. The residents of Mammoth, like those of any other community, like to decorate their houses at Christmas; many string lights on their walls and shrubbery. One of the local bull elk got himself tangled in a string of lights, probably while feeding on the shrubbery, and for several days afterward paraded around with his antlers festooned with lights as if he was looking for an electrical outlet.
    It's all great: sometimes heart-breaking, sometimes hilarious, Schullery's book sweeps you along, and you'll barely notice the pages fly by.

  • Lost in My Own Backyard: A Walk in Yellowstone National Park (Crown Journeys)

    This is the lightest of the books I chose to read, both in heft and in style. Cahill, a well-known journalist and author of several entertaining travel books, presents just what he claims to present: the book is a series of descriptions of various hikes that Cahill took in Yellowstone.

    Whether you love this book or hate it will depend primarily on how you feel about Cahill's light-hearted, almost tongue-in-cheek style. It works very well for me, but I can see that others might find it infuriating or condescending.

    Here's a bit of a sample, to help you understand what I mean:

    The map suggested that a great many of the falls on and around the Bechler region faced generally south, which meant the sun would shine directly on them at least part of the day. And that meant that every day in which there was sun, there'd be a rainbow or two or three as well. You could count on them: I thought of the Bechler as the River of Reliable Rainbows.

    Over the next several days we moved up the Bechler and courageously endured the sight of many waterfalls generating many rainbows. Colonnade Falls, for instance, just off the trail, is a two-step affair, with a 35-foot plunge above, a pool, and a 67-foot fall below. The lower fall was enfolded in curving basalt wall. The gray rock had formed itself into consecutive columns more in the Doric tradition than the Corinthian. It had a certain wild nobility, Yellowstone's own Parthenon, with falls and a fountain.

  • Hawks Rest: A Season in the Remote Heart of Yellowstone

    I haven't read Hawks Rest yet, but I'm very much looking forward to it. Here's a bit from the publisher's blurb:

    Beginning with his hundred-mile hike to reach the Lower 48's most remote place, Ferguson gives us a fascinating, personal account of three months living alone in the wilderness - a summer spent monitoring grizzly bears and wolf packs in Hawks Rest, the heart of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Through his encounters with park rangers, wildlife biologists, outfitters, and intrepid visitors, Ferguson weaves a poignant story of a land under siege. Opinionated first-hand accounts illuminate the dream and the difficulty of preserving the Yellowstone wilderness - America's first national park and a touchstone of all things wild. Ferguson's previous writings on nature have been well received. Publishers Weekly wrote about The Sylvan Path: "In prose as inviting and uplifting as a walk in the woods, naturalist Ferguson shares his lifelong passion...with a sense of discovery, humor, and deep reverence for his subject, [he] reclaims the natural world for himself, and for the reader as well."
    So stay tuned; I'll let you know about this one.

  • National Geographic Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks Road Guide: The Essential Guide for Motorists

    I don't remember why I thought this would be worth getting. It wasn't. I'll keep it, though; maybe it will seem better when I'm there.

And, to occupy the long hours of travel, something new to try: three audiobooks:

  • Bring Up the Bodies: A Novel, by Hilary Mantel, read by Simon Vance.

    I just adored Wolf Hall, and this is Mantel's sequel. Says the author:

    The action of Bring Up The Bodies occupies only nine months, and within that nine months it concentrates on the three weeks in which Henry's second wife, Anne Boleyn, is arrested, tried and executed for treason. So it is a shorter, more concentrated read. There are no diversions once the plot against Anne begins to accelerate, and the tension builds as her death approaches.

    It's quite possible to read Bring Up The Bodies without reading Wolf Hall. It makes sense in its own terms. But I think a reader will get a deeper experience by starting with the first book and seeing the characters evolve.

    Well, I read Wolf Hall, but my wife didn't; we'll see how our reactions to Bring Up The Bodies differ.

  • Explosive Eighteen: A Stephanie Plum Novel, by Janet Evanovich, read by Lorelei King.
    Before Stephanie can even step foot off Flight 127 Hawaii to Newark, she’s knee deep in trouble. Her dream vacation turned into a nightmare, and she’s flying back to New Jersey solo. Worse still, her seatmate never returned to the plane after the L.A. layover. Now he’s dead -- and a ragtag collection of thugs and psychos, not to mention the FBI, are all looking for a photograph he was supposed to be carrying.
  • Flush, by Carl Hiaasen, read by Michael Welch.
    You know it's going to be a rough summer when you spend Father's Day visiting your dad in the local lockup.

    Noah's dad is sure that the owner of the Coral Queen casino boat is flushing raw sewage into the harbor -- which has made taking a dip at the local beach like swimming in a toilet. He can't prove it though, and so he decides that sinking the boat will make an effective statement. Right. The boat is pumped out and back in business within days and Noah's dad is stuck in the clink.

    Amazon didn't exactly make it clear when I ordered this that it was a Young Adult book ("#48 in Books : Mystery, Thriller & Suspense : Thrillers")

    But I just love Carl Hiaasen.

So there you go: a Northwest Wyoming reading list.

Did I miss any favorites of yours? Let me know!

Rim fire winding down

I hadn't been over to Inciweb's Rim Fire status page in a while, so I dropped in to see how the progress goes.

This is the long, slow, quiet part of the firefighting work: the part they call "mopping up", though there isn't a mop to be found.

After all these weeks, the fire remains only 80% contained, and there are still more than 2,000 firefighters working on it.

Conditions in the fire area remain complex:

Damage assessments of destroyed or damaged structures, infrastructure, and developments interior of the containment lines continues as interior fire activity subsides. The pockets of unburned fuel within the perimeter of the fire area continue to consume.

Small contingents of employees from Hetch Hetchy Power and Water have been allowed back into Mather.

Anyone traveling on roads within the fire area should use extreme caution. Fire personnel and equipment continue to work in the area. Hazards include smoke weakened trees (that may fall) and hot burning stump holes. If you must drive through the fire area please do not stop, leave the roadway, or enter the burned area on foot.

The dry language of the bureaucrat conceals an agony of effort.

The remaining direct fire-fighting activity is hard because it is in truly remote areas:

Continued fire spread to the northwest into the Yosemite Wilderness north of Hetch Hetchy is expected. Pockets of vegetation will continue to burn within the containment lines.

That terrain north of Hetch Hetchy is as rugged and remote as it gets in the lower 48 states; I suspect they'll have to just let that section of the fire burn itself out, possibly going until the first rains of the fall arrive in mid-October.

Meanwhile, before any of the damaged areas can be re-opened, including America's most beautiful mountain pass, Tioga Road, a lot of work must still be done:

Fire suppression repair has been completed on 30 miles of dozer lines, 2 miles of hand line, 36 miles of chipping (along roads), and 10 miles of roads.

It's a long, slow process, but the last 2 weeks have gone according to plan.

I doubt I will live to see the rebirth of this forest, but I have my memories of it, and I'll look forward to visiting it in the years to come, to see the healing start.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Yo, bro

Once again the "brogrammer" issue comes to the fore: The Brogrammer Effect: Women Are a Small (And Shrinking) Share of Computer Workers.

According to a Census report out this week, women today still make up a frustratingly small 26 percent of workers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs. But whereas their presence has at least grown or held steady in most of these fields, it's been on a 20-plus-year decline in computer workers, such as developers, programmers, and security analysts.

I've been in the computing industry for 30 years, so I guess I'm at least somewhat willing to comment.

It's not as though there are no women in the industry at all. When I first started out, one of the first programmers who I found truly inspirational and motivational was a woman. And at my first job after college, my boss, my boss's boss, and my boss's boss's boss were all female.

During the years, the pattern has continued. I've met some superb programmers, both male and female. And I've had some great bosses (and some awful ones), both male and female.

At my current day job, we have multiple female executives, as well as a number of female managers and engineers. We've also sponsored events, such as the Bay Area Girl Geek Dinners. My officemate is headed to Minneapolis next week for this year's Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

But if I'm honest, my experiences over those 30 years pretty much mirror the statistics from the Census report.

Which is not a good thing.

I guess I'm not really sure if it's the "brogrammer" thing or not. The engineers I've had the pleasure of working with are a long ways from these stereotyped clods, though certainly from time to time I've seen the occasional clunker. Of course, I've never been close to an experience like this: To my daughter's high school programming teacher.

Sadly, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and you, sir, created a horrible one for girls in computer programming.

Did you not see her enthusiasm turn into a dark cloud during the semester? Did you not notice when she quit laughing with and helping her classmates, and instead quickly finished her assignments and buried her nose in a book? What exactly were you doing when you were supposed to be supervising the class and teaching our future programmers?

I worry about the lack of women in computing, but, then again, I worry about the lack of people in computing, in general.

And more than either of those issues, I worry about the problems of unemployment and underemployment of our youth.

  • The Idled Young Americans
    Over the last 12 years, the United States has gone from having the highest share of employed 25- to 34-year-olds among large, wealthy economies to having among the lowest.
  • Young Adults Make Up Nearly Half Of America’s Unemployed Workforce
    College graduates, as recent Labor Department data showed, are increasingly working in low-wage jobs, largely because they have made up a majority of jobs added since the recession ended. One of every four Americans is projected to be working in a low-wage job in a decade.
  • Better jobs reports don't help this lost generation of unemployed young adults
    these young people who can't find jobs now are likely to be scarred by the experience for their entire careers. They will have lower wages for life, according to several economic studies. That will cause social problems in addition to economic ones as these young people delay "life steps" such as purchasing a house, or even retiring, since they have not been able to build up as much in savings.

So, yes, save us from the Brogrammers.

And yes, let's try to figure out ways to address the skewed gender makeup in the computing industry.

But most of all, let's figure out a way to get the next generation involved, so that our children, and our children's children, can enjoy the wonderful world we've lived in.

Legends from flyover country

Yahoo: The terrifying Mexican football legend of Columbus, Ohio

While the USA players celebrated their own qualification with their most putrid of domestic beers, the Mexican players were left to ponder what they must do to end Columbus, Ohio's reign of terror. But it may not be satisfied until Mexico's national team is reduced to the lowest depths of non-existent irrelevance that the USA's team once occupied. A place where the only sound that can be heard is the faint whisper of "Columbus, Ohio..."

Beethoven and Jonathan Biss

I'm really enjoying the latest Coursera class that I'm taking: Exploring Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas.

This course takes an inside-out look at the 32 piano sonatas from the point of view of a performer. Each lecture will focus on one sonata and an aspect of Beethoven’s music exemplified by it. (These might include: the relationship between Beethoven the pianist and Beethoven the composer; the critical role improvisation plays in his highly structured music; his mixing of extremely refined music with rougher elements; and the often surprising ways in which the events of his life influenced his compositional process and the character of the music he was writing.) The course will feature some analysis and historical background, but its perspective is that of a player, not a musicologist. Its main aim is to explore and demystify the work of the performer, even while embracing the eternal mystery of Beethoven’s music itself.

The course is led by Jonathan Biss, who teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia (and who was born in Bloomington Indiana, which is where my parents lived when I was born).

So far, I've finished the first two weeks of lectures:

  • In week 1, Biss provides a quick overview of 150 years of the development of music, from Bach to Mozart to Haydn to Beethoven, helping us understand Beethoven's place in music history and why that is relevant to both studying and listening to Beethoven's compositions. Biss also gives us just enough music theory so that we can comprehend what a sonata is, how it differs from other forms, and what that means for the music of a sonata.
  • In week 2, Biss leads us deeply into Beethoven's Piano Sonata Number 4, Opus 7, the work that Biss chose to represent the early period of Beethoven's piano sonatas. Alternating between describing the work and playing selections from it, Biss deconstructs and analyzes the sonata in detail.

Biss is just a delightful speaker. He is engaging and clear, and best of all his tremendous love for and respect of the music shines through, and is just so infectious. When you listen to Biss describe how a piece of music affects him, and why it affects him, you instantly grasp what he's talking about.

The course materials on Coursera include a class wiki, with lots of background material and pointers to further resources for study.

I'm not a professional musician, and never really studied music except at the most elementary level, but I've always enjoyed music, and I know that studying music helps me to appreciate it as a listener.

So I'm really looking forward to more opportunities to learn from Jonathan Biss, and to a greater appreciation and enjoyment of music.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


I meant to post this as part of my article on Watership Down, but then totally forgot: Shelter

In Shelter you experience the wild as a mother badger sheltering her cubs from harm. On their journey they get stalked by a bird of prey, encounter perils of the night, river rapids crossings, big forest fires and the looming threat of death by starvation.

Food is to be found, but is there enough for everyone? You will learn that the cubs need food not just to survive, but to enable them overcome the varying challenges they will face as they make their way through the world.

Are you ready for a truly different adventure, something that might evoke feelings you've never felt in a game before? In the wild, all living creatures are put to the test. The question in the end is who will survive to live another day?

Has anyone played it?

When very meets extreme

In the database world, this is a time of conferences.

Two weeks ago, there was VLDB 2013: the 39th International Conference on Very Large Data Bases.

This week, it's XLDB 2013: the 7th Extremely Large Databases Conference.

VLDB, of course, is the grand old conference in this part of the computing world, and the technical program reflects that. The list of speakers, and the program committee, represent pretty much a Who's Who of the database research community world wide. It's hard to find an area of database research, or a database research team, that isn't represented at VLDB, and the always-excellent papers are a treat to pore over.

XLDB is a younger upstart, but has quickly become a very exciting conference. As their home page outlines,

XLDB attempts to tackle challenges related to extreme scale data sets. Main activities include identifying trends, commonalities and roadblocks related to managing and analyzing extreme scale data sets, and facilitating development and growth of appropriate technologies including (but not limited to) databases.

XLDB is rather unabashedly commercial, and this year's conference was no exception, with talks by teams at Google, Facebook, eBay, Oracle, Target, Chevron, and Netflix, among others.

I think it's great to see both conferences doing well, and I'm sure I'm going to be studying the various research that was announced at these events for months.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Rediscovering Watership Down

As a child, I was a precocious and voracious reader. In my early teens, ravenous and impatient, I raced through Richard Adams's Watership Down. Now, forty years later, I felt a strong desire to return to it, and so I did.

But this time, with less time remaining to me, I took more time, and enjoyed a summer of rediscovering Watership Down.

It turned out that I remembered almost nothing. Of course, I remembered brave Hazel, Prince of the Rabbits. And I remembered that I had identified strongly with Fiver, the introverted, moody, unathletic young rabbit who had visions of the future.

There are many more rabbits in Watership Down, of course: Bigwig, who is powerful and fearless; Dandelion, with his marvelous stories; Blackberry, fast and clever; Silver, the faithful lieutenant; Pipkin, the tiny rabbit with an enormous heart; Speedwell, the adventurous scout; and Holly, the wise old veteran who shares his wisdom with the youngsters.

This seems so cliched when summarized thus, and it's fair to attribute to Watership Down a certain amount of "me too". Following in the footsteps of such ground-breaking work as The Wind in the Willows or A. A. Milne's tales of the Hundred Acre Wood, Adams clearly was climbing on the shoulders of the giants that went before him.

But Adams brings a fresh spirit and a very graceful style to his epic tale, and his love of his characters carries him past cliche into a work that truly deserves to be considered in the same class.

Surely what most readers remember about Watership Down is the way that it immerses you in the world of the rabbit. "The holes and tunnels of an old warren become smooth, reassuring and comfortable with use," writes Adams, describing what it's like to be a rabbit away from home on a wet morning, sheltering in a dank hole instead:

Bigwig, with all his usual brisk energy, set to work. Hazel, however, returned and sat pensive at the lip of the hole, looking out at the silent, rippling veils of rain that drifted across and across the little valley between the two copses. Closer, before his nose, every blade of grass, every bracken frond was bent, dripping and glistening. The smell of last year's oak leaves filled the air. It had turned chilly. Across the field the bloom of the cherry tree under which they had sat that morning hung sodden and spoiled. While Hazel gazed, the wind slowly veered around into the west, as Cowslip had said it would, and brought the rain driving into the mouth of the hole. He backed down and rejoined the others. The patterning and whispering of the rain sounded softly but distinctly outside. The fields and woods were shut in under it, emptied and subdued. The insect life of the leaves and grass was stilled. The thrush should have been singing, but Hazel could hear no thrush. He and his companions were a muddy handful of scratchers, crouching in a narrow, drafty pit in lonely country.

Others may remember the clever and fascinating fables and legends re-told by the rabbits as their oral history, tales of the great rabbit prince El-ahrairah and his sometime companion Rabscuttle. Just reading the titles of the stories will give you a hint at the delights they hold:

  • The Story of the Blessing of El-ahrairah
    "All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed."
  • The Story of the King's Lettuce
  • The Story of the Trial of El-ahrairah
  • The Story of El-ahrairah and the Black Rabbit of Inle
  • The Story of Rowsby Woof and the Fairy Wogdog

Still others will prefer to read Watership Down as being a story with a greater purpose. Adams goes out of his way, in his introduction, to state that

I want to emphasize that Watership Down was never intended to be some sort of allegory or parable. It is simply the story about rabbits made up and told in the car.
But whether this is false modesty, or whether it is more a description of what he "intended" than what actually became, it is clear that Watership Down is, in fact, far more than "simply the story about rabbits".

Firstly, there is the topic of gender identity. Nearly every character in the book is a rabbit, and nearly ever rabbit is male; there are female rabbits in the story, but rarely are they even given names, and no female rabbit plays any significant role until very late in the book, when several of the male rabbits choose mates and settle down to raise families. Moreover, in some sort of bizarre throwback, the otherwise modern-thinking rabbits think nothing of organizing and executing raiding parties to kidnap females from other tribes for their own purposes. Worse, at times the roles of the females are described in the most demeaning sort of way:

Buck rabbits on their own seldom or never go in for serious digging. This is the natural job of a doe making a home for her litter
Trying bringing this sort of attitude up in any second grade classroom nowadays and you'll be hooted out of school.

Secondly, there are of course the social issues raised by the book. In the large, Watership Down is a story of the clashes of various sorts of social organization, from democratic to authoritarian to socialist to libertarian. Almost every animal in the book has an opinion about the right way to organize things, and the central crisis of the book involves an epic battle to overthrow the cruel dictator who has imprisoned his rabbits with both physical bullying and psychological manipulation. Adams skillfully describes the subtle and effective techniques that the tyrant uses to cement his power:

Woundwort was no mere bully. He knew how to encourage other rabbits and to fill them with a spirit of emulation. It was not long before his officers were asking to be allowed to lead patrols. Woundwort would give them tasks -- to search for hlessil in a certain direction or to find out whether a particular ditch or barn contained rats which could later be attacked in force and driven out.


The patrols were the training grounds of cunning trackers, swift runners and fierce fighters, and the casualties -- although there might be as many as five or six in a bad month -- suited Woundwort's purpose, for numbers needed keeping down and there were always fresh vacancies in the Owsla, which the younger bucks did their best to be good enough to fill. To feel that rabbits were competing to risk their lives at his orders gratified Woundwort, although he believed -- and so did his Council and his Owsla -- that he was giving the warren peace and security at a price which was modest enough.

A more true description of the rise of a warlord I have rarely read.

And there are religious discussions, too, as for example when Fiver and Hazel get into a discussion about whether there is life after death:

"Well, there's another place -- another country, isn't there? We go there when we sleep; at other times, too; and when we die. El-ahrairah comes and goes between the two as he wants, I suppose, but I could never quite make that out, from the tales. Some rabbits will tell you it's all easy there, compared with the waking dangers that they understand. But I think that only shows they don't know much about it. It's a wild place, and very unsafe. And where are we really -- there or here?"

"Our bodies stay here -- that's good enough for me. You'd better go and talk to that Silverweed fellow -- he might know more."

Still, in the end, I think that Watership Down remains for me the same book that it was forty years ago when I first spend time between its covers: a stirring and action-packed tale of derring-do and adventure, of exploration and escapades and thrills and chills, and of great battles to sing of around the hearth:

Along the western horizon the lower clouds formed a single purple mass, against which distant trees stood out minute and sharp. The upper edges rose into the light, a far land of wild mountains. Copper-colored, weightless and motionless, they suggested a glassy fragility like that of frost. Surely, when the thunder struck them again they would vibrate, tremble and shatter, till warm shards, sharp as icicles, fell flashing down from the ruins. Racing through the ocher light, Bigwig was impelled by a frenzy of tension and energy. He did not feel the wound in his shoulder. The storm was his own. The storm would defeat Efrafa.

What's not to like about that? The world can still use some fine books about youngsters who set out to make a better world and, along with a few scrapes, mis-steps, and false starts, persevere and succeed in the end.

I'm glad I returned to Watership Down. I know not if I shall return to it again; I suppose only time will tell.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Big Bro

Your must-read article of the month is on the Pro Publica website: Revealed: The NSA’s Secret Campaign to Crack, Undermine Internet Security

the N.S.A. spends more than $250 million a year on its Sigint Enabling Project, which “actively engages the U.S. and foreign IT industries to covertly influence and/or overtly leverage their commercial products’ designs” to make them “exploitable.”

And be sure to read their Editor's Note:

There are those who, in good faith, believe that we should leave the balance between civil liberty and security entirely to our elected leaders, and to those they place in positions of executive responsibility. Again, we do not agree. The American system, as we understand it, is premised on the idea -- championed by such men as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison -- that government run amok poses the greatest potential threat to the people’s liberty, and that an informed citizenry is the necessary check on this threat.

Well done, Pro Publica.

Starting today, the games count

In honor of the occasion:

The Autumn Wind is a pirate,
Blustering in from sea,
With a rollocking song, he sweeps along,
Swaggering boisterously.

His face is weather beaten.
He wears a hooded sash,
With a silver hat about his head,
And a bristling black mustache.

He growls as he storms the country,
A villain big and bold.
And the trees all shake and quiver and quake,
As he robs them of their gold.

The Autumn Wind is a raider,
Pillaging just for fun.
He'll knock you 'round and upside down,
And laugh when he's conquered and won.

Or, if you prefer, watch it! (and don't forget to turn those speakers up LOUD).

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Palette Choice in Inciweb Rim Fire mapping

The mapping addicts at Wired have been doing some great work with the Rim Fire mapping data from Inciweb, trying to understand how to make it most understandable.

  • Last week, in Yosemite Fire’s Destruction Mapped in Beautiful, Frightening Color, the team highlighted one of the Inciweb-provided maps and how it used color to help explain the movement of the fire from day to day:
    The progression of the Rim fire into Yosemite National Park has been strong, steady, and scary, fueled by extra-arid conditions after an exceptionally dry winter in California. This map shows the growth particularly well, with each color representing the area burned each day.
  • This week, the team returns to the analysis, studying how the choice of color palette affects the experience of the map: The Color of Fire: How Palette Choice Impacts Maps of Yosemite’s Rim Fire
    The Inciweb map grew incrementally and is being used to follow the fire on specific days, so using vastly different bright colors that easily stand out from each other was probably a conscious decision. But Simmon’s map gives people like us who are not on the front lines a much better grasp of the life of this fire.
  • Meanwhile, "since I've got you on the phone," don't miss this superb reporting over at the Santa Barbara Independent: On the Safety of Firefighters: Real Time Danger During the Jesusita Blaze and Human Lives vs. Expensive Homes.
    Over the past several years, there has been a noticeable shift in attitude regarding the dangers in which we place wildland firefighters. In 2008, the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics ( initiated a lawsuit designed to push for wildland firefighting reform. “Firefighters should not be asked to defend a home that is indefensible,” said former FSEEE field director Bob Dale. “No home is worth a firefighter’s life.”

    As is the case in Santa Barbara, the primary concern is not the backcountry wildland fires like the 240,000-acre Zaca Fire in 2007 that burns for two months but consumes no houses. It is the homes that have been built in the past 20-30 years along the base of the Santa Ynez Mountains that worry firefighters. This is the point at which the wildland meets an encroaching urban community. What is different here is that you are asking Forest Service employees trained to fight wildland fires to respond to the urban interface and you are asking city firefighters trained in defending structures to do so in a wildland environment.

The Rim Fire effort appears to have gone quite well over the last week. Once the controversial decision to conduct "burnout operations" in America's premier National Park was approved and acted upon, the last week has gone mostly as the incident team predicted it would, and so far as I know has been essentially casualty free, so kudos to the team for that great result.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


The bridge is dead, long live the bridge!

  • New Bay Bridge span opens
    The first "recognized" driver, guided into the number one lane by Caltrans, was Christen Gray, of San Leandro. As she tried to explain her excitement over being among the first over the new span, her passenger, Anthony Thomas, blurted out, "It's shiny!"
  • New Bay Bridge Opening Completes Decades-Long Dream
    “The story is ending well but the road to get here was far too long and far too winding,” said Metropolitan Transportation Commission executive director Steve Heminger, who has been involved in the $6.4 billion project to build the new span almost from the beginning because he was its project manager.
  • S.F. Bay Bridge re-opens with new 'quakeproof' span
    Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco, cut a chain with a blow torch to mark the opening Monday afternoon after leading those who had gathered around the bridge's toll plaza in a countdown to the reopening. The old eastern span will eventually be demolished.

    "I hope this is more than just connecting two land masses," he said. "I hope that the progress that's being represented at this moment is for a generation to dream big dreams and to do big things."

  • Spirit of victory prevails at opening of new Bay Bridge
    "We have overcome what at times seemed insurmountable," said CEO Michael Flowers of American Bridge Company, the lead contractor on the project, at the opening event at the Bridge Yard building, formerly a Caltrans warehouse. "The finish line is in sight."

    The new structure replaces an original span that cost $77 million and was built with the world's deepest marine foundation in just 3 1/2 years. Both were built during tough economic times: the Great Depression and the Great Recession.

  • Bay Bridge opens as drivers compete for 'first' trips across new eastern span
    State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) said legislators "will review and learn from our mistakes" to ensure that similar delays and cost overruns do not happen on other large infrastructure projects in the state.
  • New Bay Bridge Opens Ahead of Schedule
    "It was incredible, man," Nhua Rodriguez told NBC Bay Area. "Nice, clear, no traffic. Very good, man."

    Omar Hassan also liked his ride: "I thought it was excellent. Spectacular. I was blown away."

  • New Bay Bridge, same old traffic
    Traffic across the bridge is typical of a weekday, the California Highway Patrol reported Tuesday morning. Cars were bumper to bumper at the toll plaza early and the speed across the bridge was about 40 mph, the CHP said.

Who said "History is written by the victors"? It's interesting to see the different slants that people give: some see the decades of failures and cost overruns; some see the triumph that the new bridge was built at all.

Some want to remember, some want to forget.

For now, there is a new bridge, and: "It's shiny!"

Monday, September 2, 2013

Rim Fire updates

I've been spending a lot of time at the superb Inciweb site recently. Why aren't all government web sites like this? Inciweb is just a superb site, with detailed, accurate, exact information, clear descriptions, no fluff.

Of course, the reason I've been on Inciweb is due to the Rim Fire.

I'm sure this isn't the first time you've heard of the Rim Fire, though if you're not from this part of the world you've probably heard it called the "Yosemite Fire". If you're just getting caught up on the Rim Fire, let's start with a few highlights from today's Fact Sheet:

  • Day 16
  • Acreage: 222,777 Square miles: 348.1
  • Largest wildfire in the United States to date in 2013
  • Acreage in Yosemite National Park: 60,214
  • Proportion of the fire burning in Yosemite National Park: 27 percent
  • Proportion of Yosemite National Park within the fire perimeter: 7.9 percent

The commitment to fighting this fire has been mammoth; at this point, I believe that every aerial asset that CalFire possesses has been involved in the effort.

So far, the major human-related loss to the fire has been the legendary Berkeley Family Camp, which was a complete loss:

Very bad news tonight for the thousands of East Bay families who are fans of Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp. It burned down today, according to John Miller, spokesman for the US Forest Service. Owned and operated by the City of Berkeley, the beautiful and popular camp along the Tuolumne River near Yosemite National Park has been around since 1922. But today, it fell victim to the massive Rim Fire

My colleague in the cubicle to the left of me has been taking his family to Berkeley Family Camp for 7 years.

My colleague in the cubicle to the right of me has been taking her family to Berkeley Family Camp for 11 years.

They're still wearing their Family Camp tie-dye T-shirts to work on Fridays, but it's with a much different emotion now.

Thank goodness that that just-as-legendary Camp Mather was saved:

According to Camp Mather officials, the San Francisco Fire Department, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and Recreation and Park Department have all had a hand in keeping the core of Camp Mather safe from the fire.

Even though the containment is now 60%, as this morning's status update reminds us, the situation remains critical:

Fire activity continues to be active in the south and southeast with moderate rates of spread and torching. Today winds will be coming from the south southwest with up to 20mph gusts. Fire activity has been slow and moderate in the north end of the fire. Today’s fire weather is extreme. Very active fire and extensive spotting continues to hamper suppression efforts and pose risks to firefighters.

One reason that this fire has a very personal interest to me is that, just exactly a year ago, I was backpacking right in the middle of this fire. It is very emotional to look at my pictures from last year and imagine how much that part of the world has changed in just the last 16 days.

The best map of the fire, I think, is this one. The black line represents the control line. See if you can find Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Note that the south shore of the reservoir is listed as a containment line. Even though the fire is so active that it's leapt over 300 feet at a time to spot and initiate new outbreaks, there's no way that it can go directly across the reservoir.

That is why the burnouts from Hetch Hetchy south to Harden Lake were so critical, and why that was the line that the firefighters fought like crazy to secure. (It's the straight vertical north-south line at the rightmost edge of the fire.) Without that line, the fire would just race up the Tuolumne canyon (known as "the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne"), and they probably couldn't stop it again until it reached Tuolumne Meadows, at which point most of the park would have burned.

The moment of decision came on Thursday night, August 29th, when, after days of waiting for a break in the almost non-stop winds, there came an afternoon of calm, and a forecast of a cool and (relatively) humid evening. That night, as Inciweb dryly puts it:

Firefighters began burning operations south of Hetch Hetchy and along Old Yosemite Road. ... Night crews will continue with burning operations as long as weather conditions allow

So when you go back and read the hourly reports of the fire on Inciweb (or elsewhere) and wonder why there is so much discussion of tiny little Harden lake, well, it wasn't really about Harden Lake, it was about trying to save Yosemite National Park from experiencing what happened to Yellowstone in 1988.

in the summer of 1988, Yellowstone caught fire. The fires, which began in June, continued to burn until November, when winter snows extinguished the last blazes. Over the course of that summer and fall, more than 25,000 firefighters were brought in from around the country.

In the end, the flames scorched about 1.2 million acres across the greater Yellowstone area.

Now, the Rim Fire is still nothing like 1988; as Bill Gabbert reminds us:

On the worst single day, “Black Saturday” on August 20, 1988, tremendous winds pushed fire across more than 150,000 acres.
That's nearly the entire Rim Fire acreage, on a single day.

But if you're trying to understand the Rim Fire, and struggling with the dry and terse information on Inciweb, accurate and exact though it may be, may I recommend that you spend some time with the marvelous document prepared five years ago by the Yellowstone staff for the 20th anniversary of the fires: The Yellowstone Fires of 1988

Since 1988, fires have continued to burn in Yellowstone—more than 85,000 acres as of 2007. According to historic records, that’s to be expected. However, the average number of lightning started fires has been increasing each year since the 1990s. The majority of scientists believe this increase is due, in part, to climate change. They say that, generally, the western United States will experience increasingly intense fires—fires similar to those of 1988.

Humans have a complicated arrangement with our world. What we do matters, and it's often hard to detangle cause from effect.

But Yosemite National Park is perhaps the most beautiful spot on our beautiful planet, and I wish those five thousand hard-working firefighters the very best of luck (and safety) over the next several weeks.

And thank you for cutting that line down to Harden Lake.