Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Consciousness and the universe

The New York Times occasionally rises above its grave and methodical reporting of politics, world events, sports, and business affairs.  It does so, certainly, in its extensive coverage of the arts, but also -- less frequently but at times more dramatically -- in its essays on science.

In today's issue, an essay entitled "Our Existentially Lucky Numbers" tackles the basic question: Why is there Anything?

The essay is too brief and superficial to really delve into the subject -- and who would read it if it delved more deeply? -- but it raises the issue for us to ponder.  Everything about our  Universe seems designed to permit the existence of Us.  The Human Race.  The writer speaks specifically about the value of "alpha," an electromagnetic constant whose value is given as 0.0072973525698.  A number that sounds totally random, but one which, if it were even the slightest bit higher or lower, would have allowed no stars to have ever been formed.  Or us to have lived to worry about it.

There are other such constants.

Most explanations -- aside from "that's just the way it is" -- are variations of an Anthropic Principle, a conclusion that our existence itself in some way explains the nature of the universe.

"Intelligent design" nowadays has a bad ring to it, as a counter-"theory" to that of evolution.  But the Anthropic Principle, in many of its forms, suggests some form of "design" for the universe.  Not a divine guidance of evolution, step by step, shaping life as we know it on Earth, but as a setting of the original parameters of the Universe at the time of the Big Bang.  Because none of us -- and I include you and me -- can follow all the scientific nuances of the discussion, we are left free to pontificate on the meaning of it all in whatever ways might satisfy our own predispositions.

Wikipedia summarizes from a book by Paul Davies to present seven different responses to the question of "Why is there Anything," or, more specifically, why do the constants in our Universe happen to be those very specific and unique constants that make it possible for us to be here asking the question:

1. The absurd universe: Our universe just happens to be the way it is.
2. The unique universe: There is a deep underlying unity in physics which necessitates the Universe being the way it is. Some Theory of Everything will explain why the various features of the Universe must have exactly the values that we see.
3. The multiverse: Multiple universes exist, having all possible combinations of characteristics, and we inevitably find ourselves within a universe that allows us to exist.
4. Intelligent Design: A creator designed the Universe with the purpose of supporting complexity and the emergence of intelligence.
5. The life principle: There is an underlying principle that constrains the Universe to evolve towards life and mind.
6. The self-explaining universe: A closed explanatory or causal loop: "perhaps only universes with a capacity for consciousness can exist." This is Wheeler's Participatory Anthropic Principle (PAP).
7. The fake universe: We live inside a virtual reality simulation.

No. 1 is the unimaginative answer, and that embraced joyfully by writer Doug Adams.  No. 7 is a delightful answer that I have discussed in prior posts.  The others seem to be to be various forms of "intelligent design," the "Designer" being a more or less conscious "person" depending on which choice one considers. 

My problem with intelligent design, from a scientific viewpoint, has always involved scientific elegance.  If the purpose of the Universe is to provide life to humans on Earth (or even to humans on Earth plus other beings on other worlds), the Universe as we know it seems to be overkill.  It's as though I built a single-family house and had several square miles of building materials left over, sitting around useless.  If our existence is the only reason for the Universe, a Ptolemaic universe with Earth at the center and a few crystalline spheres surrounding us would make more sense.

On the other hand, I realize, if I had the power to create Earth and all its accessories, presumably I could throw off a few billion galaxies while so doing, just to keep Earthlings puzzled and pre-occupied, with not much additional effort.

The nice thing about the issues raised by the Anthropic Principle is that we can speculate endlessly.  I don't foresee any final conclusions being drawn in the next few centuries.

Monday, June 22, 2015

In Xanadu

Dalrymple back at Cambridge

Imagine being an undergraduate and deciding that your summer vacation would be more fun if you retraced the route Marco Polo followed in 1271, from Jerusalem to the Chinese Emperor's summer palace at Shang-tu (Coleridge's "Xanadu"), a bit north of Peking (Beijing).  I've traveled a fair bit in my life, but reading about such an adventure at any age leaves me seething with jealousy.

But that's what William Dalrymple did, at the age of 22 while still a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, back in 1986.  Traveling by bus, minibus, hitchhiking, walking -- through Syria, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and all across China.  He did the final leg into Beijing in a first class train coach, having been caught traveling once too often into sensitive areas of China forbidden to foreigners.  In 1989, he published his account of the trip, In Xanadu.

Dalrymple tackles his trip with all the impetuosity and fearlessness of extreme youth, accompanied by his two female friends -- the first, Laura, a "fearless traveler" whom he met at a party in England, who was able to accompany him only as far as Lahore; the second, Lou, a former girlfriend, who joined him in Lahore and completed the expedition with him.

The travelers departed from Marco Polo's route at only one point -- Afghanistan in 1986, as now, was patently unsafe for casual travel.  They detoured through southern Iran and the wild and wooly Pakistan province of Baluchistan.  Once they reached Lahore, Pakistan in the 1980s was still safe for travel and enjoyable -- a condition that today we can only envy.  I seriously considered joining a hiking expedition in Gilgit and Hunza, near the Chinese border about the same time that Dalrymple was passing through.  I seriously regret now that I didn't seize the opportunity.

My primary reason for reading the book was to hear of Dalrymple's travels north of the Sino-Pakistani border -- into Xinjiang, with its Uigher population, and its city of Kashgar where I will be spending several days in three weeks.  Dalrymple, like other authors such as Colin Thubron twenty years later, found Kashgar disappointing.  Holed up in the former British consulate, which by 1986 had been been demoted to use as a primitive hostel, he found little about 1986 Kashgar that was romantic:

A gloomy dust haze hangs over the town like a shroud.  The old city walls have been pulled down and only fragments remain.  Large open streets have been punched through the bazaars, with separate lanes for cars, buses, bicycles, and pedestrians.  There are no cars yet in Kashgar; there is a five-year waiting list for bicycles, and few of the buses are ever in working order.  ...  {T]he Chinese want to give the impression that Kashgar is looking forward to the next century.  For this reason, the streets are now lined with charmless totalitarian buildings and in the centre of the  principal boulevard stands an outsized statute of Mao, hand raised in benediction towards the empty expanses of People's Park.

Mao no doubt is gone, thirty years later.  And Dalrymple himself soon discovered traditional Uighur life continuing in makeshift bazaars squeezed into the blank spaces between the sterile boulevards imposed by the Han Chinese authorities. 

But I believe it was Thubron who noted the increasing Chinese tendency to eradicate most of the ethnic particularities of Chinese cities, but to save and "sanitize" a sectors of those cities for tourist consumption.  Thus, I may discover that Kashgar offers a Disneyfied area of "Uighurland" for my enjoyment -- in the same way as Samarkand and Tashkent had been tidied up and prettified -- now seemingly almost Californian cities with radically renovated monuments -- when I visited Uzbekistan two years ago. 

Although to Dalrymple, traveling Marco Polo's Silk Road seemed to take forever, he necessarily skims over much of the route.  He and his companion were ill, or they were traveling by night, or they were totally focused on dealing with odd locals and bureaucratic functionaries, or they simply had to move all too quickly through an area that they themselves would loved to have investigated more thoroughly.  Dalrymple is very much a travel writer in the British tradition of Robert Byron (whose reconstruction of  nonsensical dialogues with locals he loves to emulate) and Patrick Leigh Fermor -- a traveler who is also an amateur art history connoisseur.  He spends many pages describing mosques, palaces and other monuments in detail.  He states openly that he is happy to be able to pontificate without fear of contradiction about architecture that professional art historians haven't yet had a chance to dissect authoritatively.  The reader may or may not appreciate his detailed discussions.

More popular with "Lonely Planet" type readers may be his ruminations over the hardships of traveling on the cheap -- of which there were many, and frequent -- and his willingness to ignore "forbidden" areas or activities, and continue blithely onward until nabbed.  And even then his frequent ability to talk his way out of trouble.  Sometimes they were saved just by luck, as when an Iranian police officer was about to arrest Dalrymple and Laura as spies, but then discovered Dalrymple's university library card:

"What is this?" he said.  He looked at the card.  Then he looked up.
"You are at Cambridge?"
"Cambridge University?"
"Cambridge University."
His expression changed.
"Oh.  Agah," he said.  "By the great Ali!  This is the most famous university in the world."
He examined the card.
"Ah, my heart!  Look at this card.  Expiry date June eighty-seven.  Borrowing October eighty-six.  Five vols.  Oh, Agah.  For me these are magic words."
"For me too."
"Agah.  I am your servant."
I sat up.
"Do you mean that?"
"Agah.  You are a scholar.  I am at your service."
He did mean it.

In a foreword to the 2014 edition, Dalrymple cringes a bit at his youth, naivetè, tendency to stereotype others, and Anglocentricity:  "a person I now feel mildly disapproving of: like some smugly self-important but charming nephew who you can't quite disown, but feel like giving a good tight slap to ..."  Well, sure, but we're all young once, and Dalrymple went on to become a highly respected travel writer and historian.  His 1989 book is informative and amusing and a product of its era -- only thirty years ago, but "a world that has in many ways already disappeared." 

I read the book primarily to learn Dalrymple's observations of Kashgar and of the Uighur people.  I'm a little disappointed at the observations (offered both by Dalrymple, and by Colin Thubron in his more recent Shadow of the Silk Road) of Chinese attempts to weaken Uighur culture and impose Han ideals of tidiness and order on ancient Kashgar.  But every traveler sees the sights before him differently, depending on his own background and interests. 

I look forward to drawing my own conclusions three weeks from now.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Mission aborted

So, last Wednesday I decided it was time to stress my body in preparation for my trek next month in the Chinese Pamirs.  No more lollygagging around the fells of Cumbria, calling it "climbing.".  No more daily four-mile walks at sea level, and calling that a "work-out."

It had been four years since I climbed to Camp Muir on Mount Rainier.  A climb from Paradise at 5,400 feet to Camp Muir at 10,000 feet.  Could I still do it?  I was certain I could.

Generally, in June, you would hardly consider hiking from Paradise.  Often, at this time of year, you'd find ten feet of snow.  This is the year of global warming, however -- at least in the Northwest Corner.  Paradise is clear, dry, beautiful, and blooming with wild flowers.  Marmots are frolicking.  California tourists are rooting about.  Summer is here.

I packed my daypack, and grabbed (after waterproofing) some light leather boots that I hadn't worn for several years but that appeared in good shape.  I drove the three-hour drive from Seattle, arriving at Paradise at an embarrassingly late 10:30 a.m.  I should have started a couple of hours earlier.  But we were near the solstice, and I would have light until well past 9 p.m.  I wasn't worried.

To reach Camp Muir, one follows the Skyline Trail from Paradise, connecting near Panorama Point (6,800 feet) with the Pebble Creek Trail.  Once one reaches Pebble Creek, the trails cease.  You are on the Muir snowfields, which climb ever upward to Camp Muir.

I began cheerfully climbing in the bright June sunshine.  After about 45 minutes -- still hiking on the gravel Skyline Trail -- my foot caught slightly.  I looked down and noticed that the toe of my right boot was loose.  Uh oh.  I walked on carefully for a few more minutes.  Could I actually hike in snow with a flapping toe on my boot?  Then the lugged sole simply dropped off the boot.  After another couple of hundred yards, the sole on the left boot also fell off.

I was now walking on a light under-sole -- essentially hiking in ballet slippers.  And -- as I discovered as soon as I hit the first snow on the trail -- hiking in water absorbent ballet slippers.  More and more of the trail was becoming covered with snow, and my feet were quickly cold and wet.  Moreover, the trail was becoming steeper, and I was trying to negotiate it with no lugs on my soles to provide traction.

This wasn't going to work.  I made it to Panorama Point, enjoyed the scenery, and returned.  Prudence prevailed.

I've got other boots.  Ones I'm certain won't disintegrate.  I'm returning to Rainier this week.  I'd be willing to accept my endeavor's failure as the result of my own muscular weakness or injury, or because of my inability to handle high elevation. 

But not simply because of "equipment failure."   

Sunday, June 7, 2015

English ramble

I returned Friday from my seven-day hike on England's Coast to Coast Path -- a route cobbled together from existing paths, bridle trails, country roads, and faintly discernible right-of-ways by hiker Alfred Wainwright in 1972. 

The path is still not officially recognized, apparently, by whomever recognizes paths.  Therefore, it is poorly (or not at all) marked as it passes through national parks, but is quite clearly marked elsewhere, in areas where the business brought in by hikers is happily welcomed. 

As mentioned in an earlier post, I completed only the western half of the total route, from St. Bees on the Irish Sea to Kirkby Stephen, just shy of the Pennine range and Yorkshire beyond.  My seven days could be broken into three distinct forms of terrain.

1.  Day 1, crossing the coastal plain.  A fairly flat hike, with a climb, not particularly necessary, over an odd, isolated peak named "Dent," thrown in for the sake of variety.

2.  Days 2-5, crossing the fells and dales of the Lake District, from Ennerdale Bridge to Shap.  Each day offered at least one ascent and descent -- varying in difficulty -- before reaching the night's lodging.  For a couple of stretches, alternative and more difficult routes were offered.  These I declined.  The fells are beautiful, lonely, and at times a bit foggy.  I ran into frequent groups of hikers -- many of them teenagers-- on only one stretch, on day 2, between Ennerdale Bridge and Rosthwaite.  This leg of the path lies in a popular area in the Lake District, and presents a number of hiking and backpacking opportunities into higher and more remote locations.  The dales, where I slept at night, were much-visited tourist areas.  Grasmere, the largest of these towns, is famous for its associations with the poet Wordsworth.

3.  Days 6 and 7, in historic Westmorland. These were relaxing days of hiking through rural England -- across meadows and over moorland, and along narrow country lanes -- beginning in Shap and ending in Kirkby Stephen.

Hiking in England today probably varies little from hiking in the same area sixty years ago, with the modern addition of GPS and wi-fi.  The people are friendly in the same way as English people appear friendly in old movies.  Everyone greets you as you pass.  Older folks are eager to tell you stories.  Teenagers smile, look you in the eye, and wave.  They even speak to you in complete sentences.  (!)  In fact -- I actually witnessed English teenagers cheerfully eating meals and walking with their families without looking sullen and without rolling their eyes!

Both the fells and the lowlands are home to far more sheep than humans.  The land is green beyond the imagination of today's Californians.  (A local told me with amusement how excited a group of Californians had been to witness rainfall.)  And yet, although weather forecasts before leaving home had been dire, in seven days of hiking I walked in significant rainfall for a total of only one hour on one day. Somehow, rural England maintains a welcome balance between the modern world and the values and landscapes of past generations.

It was a great walk, and I'm homesick for England already.  I may well go back another time and finish the eastern half of the walk through Yorkshire to the North Sea.  I certainly will go back and hike again somewhere in Britain. 

Photographs of my hike, posted on Facebook, can be viewed at https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10153419970764602.1073741880.761679601&type=1&l=bdee8c6e94.
Facebook membership not required for access.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


Friday evening, I fly to London, and thence by train to St. Bees, Cumbria, for the start of my hike eastward on the Coast to Coast pathway (western half, only).

Sunday evening, I began feeling queasy. Queasy turned to nauseous, and nauseous turned to hanging my head over the rim of the toilet.  After several repetitions over the course of the next few hours, I eventually succeeded in emptying my digestive system of whatever was disturbing it -- including, so it seemed, the interior lining of my stomach.

Monday, I lay in bed most of the day.  No longer nauseous, but totally wiped out.  Just going downstairs to get a glass of water was an exercise in balance and determination.  Eating was out of the question, until I tentatively nibbled on a piece of toast in late afternoon, and then a small bowl of cereal before bedtime.

Today, I'm once again eating, but still languishing about the house -- lacking in energy, a bit spacey, but obviously improving.  I'll be ready for departure on Friday, even though packing will now be a last minute operation.  (It never takes nearly as long as I anticipate, in any event.)

But this entire mini-crisis has been a reminder to me of how the best-laid plans of mice and men, etc., etc. etc.  Even for a guy who loves to lay plans -- especially for him, perhaps -- fate throws the occasional monkey wrench ("spanner," I guess, since I'm bound for England) in the works.  I can't depend with absolute certainty on my body's working to perfection -- or even to the level of less-than-perfection to which I've become accustomed.  Even though I take Vitamin D tablets regularly.  I'm not a robot, a machine that requires only an occasional squirt of oil to operate on all cylinders.

Hardly original thoughts, are they?  And yet, when you're used to decent health, it's startling to find it lacking.  This has been, as I say, merely a mini-crisis.  But it reminds me that I'm mortal, a piece of living meat with an ever-shrinking shelf life. 

I have to learn to take nothing for granted.  And I need to fully appreciate these days when bad health is merely a temporary inconvenience, an irritation, a brief interruption in my well-laid plans -- and not yet an irreversible condition. 

Friday, May 15, 2015


As I recall vaguely from physics (and I do cheat with a quick look at Wikipedia), a "Hamiltonian" is an operator commonly expressed as the sum of operators corresponding to the kinetic and potential energies of a system in the form

 \hat{H} = \hat{T} + \hat{V}

where those little carets over the letters indicate operators.  I recall a professor saying that if you had enough information, you could theoretically write a Hamiltonian operator that would describe the entire universe in terms of energy at the instant of the Big Bang, and predict the universe's precise evolution, right up to the present and beyond.  Maybe what God really said in Genesis, he joked, was "Let there be the Hamiltonian."

Just a little physics humor.   Some of you may still be reading.

I was reminded of the Hamiltonian by an article in this week's New Yorker about a British computer programmer named Sean Murray.  Mr. Murray has written something like a Hamiltonian for his own universe -- a computer game called No Man's Sky, soon to be released, apparently, by Sony.  His universe, available for exploration and exploitation by game players, will contain 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 unique planets.  Have fun, kids!

Unlike most computer games -- and electronic games is a subject I know very little about -- Murray's game does not use vast amounts of memory to contain all the information required to portray each of those 18 x 1018 planets.  Instead, his game contains a number of algorithms -- read the article, if you need more information -- that generate each planet as it is visited, and give the viewer a graphic representation of the planet based on its size, orbit, chemistry, and other knowable features.  Most planets will be lifeless.  Some will be inhabited by various life forms.  Some may have signs of past civilizations, just as in real science fiction.

The design allows for extraordinary economy in computer processing: the terrain for eighteen quintillion unique planets flows out of only fourteen hundred lines of code.  Because all the necessary visual information in the game is described by formulas, nothing needs to be rendered graphically until a player encounters it.

I suppose we are now drawing closer to the features of this "game" that I now find so irresistibly fascinating.

[T]he game continuously identifies a player's location, and then renders only what is visible.  Turn away from a mountain, an antelope, a star system, and it will vanish just as quickly as it appeared.  "You can get philosophical about it," Murray once said.  "Does that planet exist before you visit it?"


I'm not interested in hearing your psychiatric comments on my personality, but I'm often surprised that I can leave an object on a table overnight, and find it exactly where I left it the next morning.  How clever of the algorithms (although until now I hadn't thought to use this word), I think to myself, to enable it to be recreated -- exactly as I left it -- as I re-enter the room after a night's sleep!

I've posted before about scientists (of unknown competence) who suspect that we are characters in a computer game, and that the game will crash in the near future because our own digital profligacy will have exceeded the storage capacity of our creator's system.  This theory makes as much sense as any other cosmology that unaided reason can devise.  My own suspicion is that the star kid who started up the game of Earth got bored long ago and left it running while he went to get lunch.  But damn -- his game had a good programmer.  I can stare at my computer screen, casually turn my head away and look at something else, and then quickly look back at the screen.

It's still there, unchanged.  Or -- it was instantly recreated for my benefit, unchanged.

Murray admits that some of the planets his algorithms create are boring.  But even when they turn out to be boring, they're interesting to explore just because they are new and unknown.  I guess the first explorers of, say, Australia might have eventually become bored.  But they kept at it, not knowing what was apt to show up.  And as one of Murray's co-workers remarks about their game's universe, "It is a bit like it really does exist, isn't it?"

Murray, and we the human race, may be learning what it's like to be God the Creator.  Which is a fascinating thought.

Sure.  It's all fun and games (and money for Sony) right now.  But -- as the story of the Tower of Babel reminds us -- it probably won't end well.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Into the abyss

Hiker walking past Vishnu
basement rock canyon walls

The bottom line is this -- the Phantom Ranch (see last prior post) remains beyond my reach.   I feel like Adam and Eve -- barred from Paradise by an angel with a flaming sword.

I arrived at the Grand Canyon's South Rim on Friday afternoon, greeted by light snow showers that, by Saturday, had become heavy snow showers.  Very similar to my arrival and first full day in April 2012.  And the forecast was for minimal precipitation on Sunday, with perhaps a ten degree warming trend.

Conditions sounded ideal for a repeat of my 2012 hike to the river with -- perhaps -- the opportunity for an additional push onward to the ranch.

But in 2012, I began my descent on the Bright Angel trail bundled up and carefully avoiding slips on ice for the first mile or so going down into the canyon.  On Sunday this year, it was already shirtsleeve weather at the top when I began hiking at about 7:50 a.m.  I reached Indian Garden -- three  thousand feet below the rim -- at 10 a.m.  The old-fashioned dial thermometer that the National Park Service thoughtfully provides, hanging on a tree, showed that it was already 70 degrees.  I still had another 3.5 miles (and 1,300 feet elevation) to the river, and another 1.5 miles beyond that to the ranch.  A mule tender predicted that temperatures would reach the upper 80s by afternoon at the river. 

In 2012, by the time I reached the river, it had been only 70 degrees.

It was a tough decision, because Indian Garden itself felt very comfortable, and I felt very good following the descent.  But the probable increase in temperature bothered me, and I (chickened out) (made the prudent decision) (choose one), and decided to descend no further.  If I'm ever to make the round trip to Phantom Ranch in a day, I'll have to do it earlier in the year, departing from the top in freezing morning temperatures.

As a consolation prize, I made the three-mile round trip out to Plateau Point, a nice view point with an excellent view of the boiling Colorado -- gazing down at the river as it churned about, taunting me, 1,300 feet below.

Indian Garden is a bit of an oasis -- a woodsy area with surface water (at this time of year), resting on an impermeable layer of "Bright Angel shale" that keeps the water from soaking away before plant roots can take advantage of it.  Below this last sedimentary level, the trail enters the "Inner Canyon."  The wide vistas about the canyon provided until that point -- and that figure so prominently in photographs of the Grand Canyon -- give way to steep walled, narrow canyons of dark, extremely hard, metamorphic rock.

Beyond the siren call of Phantom Ranch, it's this geology of the lower portion that attracts me.  Just past Indian Garden, the trail passes what is called -- without hyperbole -- the Great Unconformity.  During the eons that layers of rock were laid down, there was a period when millions of years of sedimentary rock were gradually built up, and then eroded away all the way back down to the metamorphic "basement layer."  The present sedimentary layers that today rise to the rim were later deposited upon this re-exposed basement, leaving a gap of 1.2 billion years of  geological record totally erased -- or as the Park Service describes it, gone like pages torn out of a book.  The hiker can see where the lowest of the "newer" sedimentary layers lie directly on top of a metamorphic layer that predates the sedimentary layer by 1.2 billion years.

And -- being language-obsessed as I am -- it's perhaps the names given these basement layers, as much as their interesting geological development, that captivates me:  Vishnu schist, Brahma schist, Zoroaster granite, Rama schist, and -- most ancient of all - Elves Chasm gneiss.  To a non-Hindu, at least, these are rather dark and forbidding names, calling forth thoughts of ancient legends or war and cruelty, and applied in the Grand Canyon to the darkest and most ancient of primeval stone and rock.

In 2012, I found it impressive to walk through narrow canyons of this material -- stone forged under great heat and pressure through countless eons, back before the smallest one-celled life forms first began questioning their place in the Universe.  It was like being present at the beginning of time -- a far more potent experience than simply studying examples of these rocks in a museum or along the National Park Service's (excellent) park walk displays.

Emerging from amongst those walls of Vishnu schist into the warm and welcoming arms of the Phantom Ranch, with its warm beds, steak dinners, and happy, laughing guests, would be like experiencing the emergence of intelligent human life fully-formed from the stuff of lifeless stardust.  Or so I like to think. And babble about.

I'll give 'er another try, maybe next year.  

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

On the trail

Over the years, a quick check suggests, I've posted five times about my trips to the Grand Canyon.  Perhaps I've exhausted the topic.

Perhaps.  But Friday I fly to Phoenix, and thence by car once more to my favorite park for pre-summer hiking.  A short visit -- I'll stay there just three nights.  I hope to do a little hiking.

In 2012, I hiked from the South Rim down to the river and back in one day.  Against the Park Service's fervid advice.  But it had been snowing up at the top (it was still April), and temperatures were quite pleasant at river level, so the usual fears of heat prostration didn't pertain.

Last week, temperatures down at the river were running in the 90s, and I had my doubts about trying it again.  But the weather has moderated over the past few days.  I'll just have to wait and see what conditions are like when I arrive Friday evening.

If conditions are ideal, I'd like to hike once more down to the river, and then another two miles up the river to Phantom Ranch.  Ever tried getting reservations at the ranch?  Good luck!  I tried to get accommodations for my family a couple of years ago.  They have to be obtained thirteen months in advance.  On the appointed first day of the month, you call the designated phone number over and over, hoping to get through while everyone else is doing the same thing at the same time.  All reservations for the month in question -- thirteen months in the future -- were gone within a half hour.

So if I can't stay at Phantom Ranch, I'd at least like to look it over and say that I'd seen it.  But getting there would add another four miles to my day's hike.

I was pretty exhausted when I arrived back at the rim three years ago.  And as folks are kind enough to point out, I'm not getting any younger.  We'll see.

The Grand Canyon is so beautiful, so awe-inspiring, so "awesome" in the real sense of the word, that it's silly to turn a hike in the canyon into some kind of "personal best" contest with myself, some kind of desperate attempt to prove that I'm still a kid.  I'll keep that prudent sentiment in mind this weekend.

I recall a Park Service sign pointing out that -- on average -- every two or steps down the trail takes you through another million years of geologic history.  That's something to think about.  Something to make one feel small and insignificant. 

But then -- as the one-time tiniest kid in my class -- that's always come easily to me anyway.  I'll let y'all know how things work out.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Pathfinding through the fells

Three weeks from today, I'll be flying en route to London, preparing to hike the western half of the famous Coast to Coast path -- as discussed in an earlier post.

This will be the fourth hike of this sort I've done in Britain, and I suspect the most difficult.  The path starts from St. Bees on the Irish Sea, cuts through the fells and dales (the ups and downs!) of the Lake District, and becomes more horizontal as it traverses Westmorland, ending up at Kirkby Stephen near the Yorkshire border.

Three years ago, Maya and I discovered how easy it is to lose one's path when hiking in the Lake District high country.  A combination of fog, rain, a faint path, and lack of signage finally doomed us.  We had to retrace our steps to our former night's accommodation and call a taxi to take us circuitously (and expensively) to our next night's rest.

I blamed myself for our misadventures, but the guide book I'm reading in preparation for the C2C (as they like to call it) warns us that the signage is intentionally poor in Britain's national parks (one of which includes most of the Lake District).  The point seems to be that real men don't need signs.  Hikers of the proper sort have a compass, a wet and soggy map, and the brains that God presumably gave them to put the two together.  Unlike American national parks -- whose shiny, well-engraved wooden signs remove all ambiguity as to the proper direction -- at least on dedicated trails.

The C2C path has standardized locations, of precisely known longitude and latitude, designated by number as "waypoints," points that can be located on my iPhone's GPS. I have downloaded maps showing the path's waypoints by number (and they are also marked on the sketchy maps provided by the company that has arranged my accommodations).  However, I'll be going into this hike with no previous "on foot" GPS experience, and I don't want to rely on aiming for waypoints as my primary means of finding my way over and through the misty fells.  (GPS waypoints are intended only as backups to more normal path-finding techniques, in any event -- you can't use them as you would a GPS in your automobile.  "Turn left at that funny looking oak tree and then follow the path for 3 tenths mile.")

No.  Luckily, I'm provided with an excellent pocket book containing highly detailed hiking maps along with precise instructions.  I just have to keep the book reasonably dry during inclement weather.  But the book does repeatedly suggest that various portions of the route are tricky to follow, even using its expert guidance.  The book's maps are sketches emphasizing landmarks, not contour maps.  I do have a good compass, and I'm hoping to locate contour maps -- at least for the area covered during the first couple of days, when route-finding will apparently be most difficult.

I always tend to worry about these difficulties more than proves necessary once I'm on the scene.  And it's a pleasant kind of worry, reassuring me that the hike will be a challenge, and that I won't be just trudging alongside a road (which, unfortunately, too much of the Hadrian's Wall hike -- as fun as that hike was, historically and scenically -- proved to be.)

It's a mere seven day hike, with a warm bed and great food awaiting me at each day's end.  If I get lost -- well, let's face it.  It's not like getting lost in the North Cascades.  Nor can I pretend that I'm Daniel Boone, struggling through an unknown countryside, and fighting off wild animals and Indian attacks.

But it should be enough of a challenge that I'll have a few stories to relate when I get home.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Submarine volcano

Over the years, I've climbed four of the five volcanic peaks in Washington -- Mt. Rainier (twice), Glacier Peak (twice), Mt. Adams, and Mt. St. Helens (once before the eruption, several times to the crater edge since).  I was with a group climbing the remaining volcano -- Mt. Baker -- when one of our group developed problems half-way up, and we had to turn around and help her back down.

Mt. Olympus is not a volcano, but -- along with the rest of the Olympic range -- a part of the remnants of Pacific Ocean sea floor that were jammed up against the continent by the eastern motion of the Pacific and/or Juan de Fuca Plates -- remnants that failed to dive under the North American Plate like most of the moving sea floor, and instead were scraped off and ended up above ground.

But even Olympus -- though not a volcano -- apparently resulted indirectly from volcanic activity.  It ended up above the North American plate, rather than subducting beneath it, because it came from a portion of the moving plates that had been built up volcanically to a high elevation -- a "seamount" -- while still far under the surface of the ocean.

Which brings me to the lead article in today's Seattle Times. About 300 miles off the coast of the Northwest Corner, at the junction of the Pacific and Juan de Fuca tectonic plates, one finds the Axial seamount, a volcano rising about three thousand feet above the ocean bottom.  The article points out that -- since it lies nearly a mile under water -- the volcano resembles the shield volcanos of Hawaii more than the pointy peaks of the Cascade range, and results from a flow of magma rather than sudden explosions.

Nevertheless, even non-explosive eruptions are fascinating to scientists for what they reveal about volcanic activity in general.  A week ago, during a 24 hour period, 8,000 small earthquakes were recorded in the area, caused by the movement of magma beneath the sea floor.  These quakes would suggest the imminence of an eruption, but so far an eruption has not been detected.

The Times article was devoted primarily to a discussion of the sophisticated monitoring devices maintained by the University of Washington, and the University scientists' observations based on the resulting data.  But for us non-geologists, the article was fascinating because it brought to our attention the existence of this nearby display of the Earth's dynamism.

This week, the disaster in Nepal has shown one possible effect of the constant movement of tectonic plates.  The Axial Seamount shows us another, one far more benign in terms of its effect on human population. 

Axial is only 3,000 feet high, a baby volcano compared with, say, Mt. Rainier.  Fortunately, it lies far outside the jurisdiction of the State of Washington, so I feel absolutely no compulsion to add it to my scorecard of ascents by attempting to climb it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Equal protection

Today, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the long awaited question of same-sex marriage.  The press has debated the issue so extensively over the past several years, and public opinion has moved so rapidly in support of such marriages, that when the Court finally reaches its decision -- whenever it is handed down, and whichever way it goes -- the event may seem anticlimactic.

The actual consequences of a decision against same-sex marriage probably would affect only persons in Southern and some Midwestern states with conservative populations and legislatures.  Even with respect to those states, however, whatever else the Court decides, it appears almost certain that the Court will hold that the "Full Faith and Credit" clause of the Constitution requires all states to recognize the marriage of any couple legally wed in any another state.

To me, the frustrating aspect of the legal debate is the apparent inability to recognize the distinction between civil marriage and marriage as a cultural and/or religious status.  Even Justice Kennedy, who has been on the "liberal" side of this and similar social issues, and who may well cast the deciding vote, worried aloud at today's hearing, noting that the definition of marriage

has been with us for millennia.  It’s very difficult for the court to say, ‘Oh, we know better,’

But marriage, as a civil institution, is a governmental creation, a grant of certain privileges to (and the requiring of certain duties by) individuals who choose to join together as partners. When it comes to ensuring fairness in the granting of governmental benefits, it is the highest duty of the Supreme Court to "know better."

The state isn't consecrating these partnerships, or calling down God's blessings upon them. It's conferring a status under civil law.

It may well be that historically (although with many historical exceptions) marriage has existed between one man and one woman.  It may well be that such a limitation reflects the religious belief of many or most Americans at this time in our history.  It may even well be that such is God's plan for human life and the rearing of children.

But the state does not endorse religious or cultural models, except perhaps unconsciously when those models are accepted without question by a vast majority of the population.  The state isn't required to recognize or authorize marriage, any more than it authorizes baptisms or confirmations or requires church attendance.  The government is free to leave marriage to the clergy as a purely religious rite.   But -- if the state wishes to authorize marriage as a civil relationship (perhaps as a means of ensuring the protection and proper rearing of children) -- with all the tax and other benefits that the status confers -- it must do so and confer those benefits subject to the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Legally, this conclusion seems obvious to me.  And I fail to see how permitting all citizens to marry interferes with the religious and cultural traditions that limit marriage to one man and one woman, any more than the government's allowing men to use a razor interferes with Hasidic strictures against shaving. 

Much of the argument and confusion about this issue seems based on the simple failure to differentiate between religious and cultural norms for marriage, on the one hand, and the government's constitutional duty to make civil marriage equally open to all citizens, on the other.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

A dome with a view

In the early hours of Easter Sunday, just a week after my 21st birthday, I arrived in Florence with forty or so of my college classmates -- beginning a six-month study-abroad program. 

After a couple of hours sleep, a number of us walked from our suburban residence -- alongside the road to Fiesole -- into the center of town.  There, for the first time, appeared before me the towering brick dome of Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral -- known simply as "the Duomo" ("the Cathedral").  I  was awestruck.

I've returned many times to Florence -- never again, alas, as a 21-year-old -- and I've never ceased to be awestruck. 

A couple of weeks after that first arrival, I climbed to the top of the Duomo -- the equivalent of climbing a 40-story building -- muttering in my novice's Italian frequent "scusi's" and "permesso, signore's" as I squeezed past other visitors (at a time when visitors were primarily Italians themselves.)  At the top of the dome, at the base of the lantern, is a balcony from which one views the entire city, and much of Tuscany beyond.  That view is almost an obligatory tourist attraction -- and if the reader has ever visited Florence, he probably has shared my appreciation.

From the garden of the "villa" in which we lived and studied, one could glance up from his books each day and stare at the Duomo in the distance, glistening in the Tuscan sunlight.

Rather than continuing to wax nostalgic, I should say that these memories have been revived by my reading of Brunelleschi's Dome, Ross King's account of how the present cathedral was constructed in the mid-fifteenth century and, in particular, how the challenges inherent in the design and construction of the cathedral's dome were met by the first of the great Renaissance architects, Filippo Brunelleschi.  As King points out, not only was this dome the most ambitious project of its kind since the height of the Roman Empire, but it remains today the world's largest masonry dome -- larger than those of St. Peter's in Rome, St. Paul's in London, and the Capitol in Washington, D.C. 

And it was built without modern technology, by a civilization just beginning its revival from the technological torpor of the Middle Ages.

King's book is interesting from both an historical and an engineering perspective.  He sets forth in clear language the technical problems that Brunelleschi needed to overcome in constructing such an edifice, and his daring decision to build the dome without the use of any interior, supporting, wooden scaffolding -- relying on gravity and mortar alone to hold the rising dome together as it was built.  He describes the engineering difficulties encountered in building a dome of such large dimensions -- and a pointed rather than circular dome -- with none of the visible exterior buttressing that French and German builders used in constructing the pointed arches of Gothic churches.

The author describes the ingenious tools that Brunelleschi designed and built in order to raise and position mammoth blocks of sandstone to unprecedented heights.  He describes the perils of the workmen, as they lay bricks while hanging over the abyss below.

At a less technical -- and more human -- level, he relates the political, artistic, and personal infighting between Brunelleschi and competing architects -- especially his chief rival,  Lorenzo Ghiberti, whose gilded bronze doors on the neighboring Baptistery are one of Florence's artistic wonders.  Although Brunelleschi and Ghiberti built and designed like angels, they squabbled and fought like adolescents. 

The book is a short read, containing a wealth of architectural and engineering information, a story of technological triumph immersed in a sea of political in-fighting, military history, social and economic background, and Tuscan landscapes. 

For anyone who has ever visited Florence, there will be "ah ha" moments, where one thinks "yes!  I remember seeing that!"  In reading how Brunelleschi constructed both an interior and an exterior dome, I remembered my first climb to the top -- how I found myself leaning farther and farther inward, to avoid the slanting roof over my head.  I realized at the time that I was in some sort of space between two shells -- but after reading King's book I have a much cleared picture of just where I had been climbing.  The reader will find many similar enjoyable revelations.

Florence can be enjoyed on many levels.  But Brunelleschi's Dome, by showing the genius and hard work that produced the city's most memorable building, adds greatly to that enjoyment. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Alex Crow

On his fourteenth birthday, Ariel played Pierrot the clown in a school play.  He stayed dressed in his clown suit after the play, because one of his classmates had hidden his clothes as a joke. 

Later the same day, the rebel soldiers came to town.  They abducted some of his friends as involuntary conscripts; they killed the others.  Ariel hid in a walk-in refrigerator while the rest of the town was gassed to death.  Only Ariel survived.  For the next few months, Ariel wandered about, struggling for survival -- an orphan and a refugee -- dressed in the clothes on his back -- those of Pierrot the clown.

A year ago, I reviewed Andrew Smith's funny, revolting, and preposterous YA novel, Grasshopper Jungle.  Yesterday, I ran across the New York Times's review of Smith's latest novel, The Alex Crow.

I had to read it.  And I have.

But for a jammed rebel rifle, Ariel would have died on his fourteenth birthday.  He escapes one harrowing experience after another, including forcible rape by older boys in a UN refugee camp, until, just before he turns 15, he bumps into an American officer at the camp.  The officer -- Major Knott --befriends him, brings him back to America, and places him with the family of a friend and co-worker in West Virginia.

We never learn the location of Ariel's homeland, except that it's in the eastern hemisphere.  But, as Major Knott learns, Ariel has accomplishments beyond those of a survivor.  He is fluent in both English and French ("I like languages").  He knows immediately that West Virginia is "in the eastern United States, between Virginia and Ohio."  He is intelligent, and he is observant.

In West Virginia, he meets his adopted family, including a brother Max, just sixteen days his senior.  Max and Ariel are sent to a summer camp for six weeks.  A major portion of the novel relates their adventures at camp (extremely funny at times), the growing if strained friendship between the two brothers, and Ariel's gradual discovery of the reason Major Knott was so generous with his time and energy, and so willing to bring Ariel to the United States.

All bullying involves the bully's desire to exercise control over another.  But not all those who long to control others are obvious bullies -- they aren't necessarily tough "big kids" in school, or violent rebel soldiers, or teen rapists, or insecure camp counselors.  Nor even overly-inquisitive psychologists.  Sometimes control freaks come to us under the guise of friends, as good people who wish to "make the world exactly the way we want it to be.  All for the best, of course."

After reading the review -- a favorable review -- in the Times, I was expecting a book full of horrors, a book every bit as bizarre as Grasshopper Jungle.  A book that, as the review put it, "left me uncomfortable and emotional and  wondering what exactly would make someone write a book like this."  But no.  Aside from a bit of science fiction, that isn't what I read.  I found Ariel's life to be amazing and unusual and frightening and sad, but not unbelievable. (Although there were a couple of bizarre side plots, involving other characters.) And very touching.

And the aspects of science fiction?  In another five or ten years they may seem prescient.  To those of us in 2015 who know of drones, drones used both for observation and for targeted killings; of omnipresent surveillance cameras; of warrantless monitoring of communications; of unchallengeable "no fly" orders; of the exponential increase in the computing power of chips -- none of the disturbing and intrusive science in The Alex Crow seems preposterous.  Just not fully developed, as of yet.

So far as we know.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015


Tree exploded in Arboretum by
lightning bolt.
Photo:  Seattle Times

Lightning is rare in the Northwest Corner.

We get it several times a year, but generally it's what we call "heat lightning" -- where the sky lights up from some storm beyond the horizon, often so far away we can't even hear the thunder.  As kids, with closer strikes, we would count the seconds until we heard the thunder, and divide by five to calculate how far away (in miles) the electrical discharge occurred.  Six or seven miles was fairly common.

But sometimes we see real, honest bolts of lightning, up close, zig-zagging down from the sky,  just like we see in movies (or like I've seen flying into cities like Miami).  Not often, but sometimes.  Just like sometimes we have a heavy snow during the winter.

A little over an hour ago, as I sat at this very same computer, with no warning at all, the room lit up with lightning.  Before I could begin counting "one one thousand, two one thousand," a bomb seemingly exploded.  The entire house shook.  The roar of thunder -- after the first sharp explosion -- rolled on for five or ten seconds.

I wasn't terrified.  It wasn't like being hit with an earthquake.  But it was startling, and it was close. Very close. The Seattle Times reports that about 500 houses are without power because of lightning strikes.  Not me.  The lights didn't even dim, as they frequently do during tree-downing wind storms.

But it reminds me once again -- an obsession of mine -- of how tenuous is our hold on life.  That was one loud blast, and it was close.  I don't know what it struck, but something -- a tree, a chimney, someone holding an umbrella -- served as a conduit between ground and sky for a fierce discharge of amperage.  It could have been my roof.  It could have been me out in the yard.

Nature's amazing, and -- as the cliché has it -- capricious.  I mentioned in a recent post that a meteorite could strike us at any time -- but we learn to disregard that fact.  A meteorite, an asteroid, a killer earthquake -- or a simple lightning bolt.

Both my cats have been under my bed upstairs ever since the bolt hit.  They may not share our human ruminations on mortality and fatalism.  But they know something damn scary when they hear it.

I'll go calm them down, uttering soothing platitudes that I don't really believe myself.  "Come on you guys -- it was just a little thunder.  Nothing to worry about!"

Nothing at all.


8:30 p.m. -- "Lightning struck a large tree at the Washington State Arboretum, causing it to shatter." --Seattle Times
The Arboretum is across the street from my house. No wonder it sounded close.

Friday, March 27, 2015

"I got in!"

In the movie Billy Elliot, young Billy's dance teacher has persuaded him to apply to the school of the Royal Ballet in London.  Following an apparently disastrous audition, he waits nervously to hear the verdict, pretending to everyone that he couldn't care less.

One day he walks into the house and sees "the letter" waiting for him on the table, surrounded by his father, brother and grandmother.  He picks it up, looks around with a look of panic, and retreats to his bedroom behind a closed door.  Finally, his family can stand the suspense no longer.  They burst into his room.  He's sitting on the bed, holding the opened letter with tears in his eyes.  They stare at each other.

"I got in!" he croaks.

This is the time of year when college admission decisions are being mailed out, and scenes similar to Billy's are being re-enacted around the country.  When I saw Billy Elliot, I recalled my similar response when I received "the letter" from the only university to which I'd applied (the University of Washington, my safe "back-up," had a much later deadline).  My brother was standing beside me as I retrieved the letter from the mailbox. 

I couldn't do it.  I couldn't open it in front of my brother, letting him (or anyone else) watch me at that moment of extreme vulnerability.  I walked into another room and closed the door.  I, too, "got in."  My joy was explosive.

This all comes to mind because, yesterday, Maya -- my great niece -- received notice that her application to the University of California, Berkeley ("Cal" to most of us) had been accepted.  Maya is probably better mentally balanced and certainly more self-confident than either Billy or I were, so she may well have received her letter with total composure.  But when she relayed the news to her relatives, there was no denying her excitement and happiness.

She now has to decide between Berkeley and another UC school.  I'm lobbying strongly for Berkeley, a university experience that I think will be helpful to her in many ways -- in ways beyond mere preparation for her chosen field of environmental studies.

But however she decides, I'm confident that she is a young woman who will make the most of her time in college.

Congratulations, Maya!