Thom on October 21st, 2014

Last week, as mentioned yesterday, our family hiked the Frary Peak Trail on Antelope Island. As promised, here are some pictures. (Click for larger images)

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Antelope Island is within view of Downtown Salt Lake City. Such a view inspires me–to hold my breath for a really long time. No wonder I have trouble breathing around here.

 

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The island is primarily low, rolling land around the base of a range of peaks, the tallest about 2200 feet above the lake. This is the view toward SLC. It’s late in the year, and the Great Salt Lake is getting pretty low. You could just about walk from Syracuse to Antelope Island and only get a little wet.

 

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Here we go, up the trail toward the crossroads, where the trail splits. One fork goes north to Dooley Knob, the other heads toward Frary Peak to the south.

 

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One of the best features of Antelope Island is the sheer variety of terrain and rock formations. At first glance it’s a fairly bleak place, but the longer you spend there the more you realize what a unique and beautiful place it is.

 

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There’s not much rain or run-off to speak of, but clearly there’s enough to create some ravines that support the few clumps of trees on the island. They can be quite striking in their fall foliage.

 

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In case you needed proof, I did go on this hike, too! This is at a natural fortification overlooking a gentle plain we figure would make a great site for a truly epic battle.

 

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This is Elephant Head. After looking at it for much of the hike we decided that we need to go there for our next hike. It’s probably twice as long a trail to get there as the one we took, but it’s mostly flat until the end, so it might not be too bad. But we’ve got to have a goal!

 

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And here we are at the summit; that’s the three-mile marker. Someone else planted the flag. In the background you can see the true highest point on the island, but the trail ends not much farther on, and unless you’re a mountain goat or an experienced climber I wouldn’t go much farther.

 

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And here we make our way down again, looking toward the northwest. That’s Elephant Head poking up at the left.  The boys are out in front, with Terhi trailing behind, while Emma and I lag at the rear–no one ever wants to wait for the photographers. We got a fair number of flower pictures, but I’ll leave those for another time.

Once we got back to the van we pulled out the cooler and had some lunch before we headed to the visitors’ center and the gift shop, then home. We just love Antelope Island. Even though you can see the city across the bay, it still feels remote. It’s very quiet out there, and it’s easy to feel like you’re the only people left on earth. We may have to go camping out there sometime.

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Thom on October 20th, 2014

Not far from our house, in the southeast corner of the Great Salt Lake lies a large island known as Antelope Island. It’s also a state park, and one of our favorite places to go, whether for a scenic drive or hiking. We’ve made several trips out there since we first discovered it a couple years ago. On one of our trips we found the Frary Peak Trail, which takes you to the highest point on the island via a three-mile trail that rises 2100 ft. It’s not a difficult trail–there are a few spots that require some get-up-n-go to get up–but the heat of summer can be a little daunting. There are nearly no trees, just baked hillside.

The first time we tried to hike it we didn’t have water. We made it to around the two-mile mark before we turned back. But there’s something about having “been beaten” that niggles at you, and we vowed to go back and finish the trail.

We tried again this summer when we had a Chinese exchange student with us. His dossier said he liked hiking, so we took him up on it. We had food and water. But we hadn’t even reached the mile mark before he was acting like he was going to drop dead at any second. While we thought he was being melodramatic, we didn’t want his death on our hands, so I turned around and went back to the car with him while my wife and kids took a short trail to Dooley’s Knob, which was just a little over a mile to the top. They enjoyed a nice view of the island, but Frary Peak remained unconquered.

So this last week we decided it was time to try again. We picked a perfect day for it; clear and cool. We had water and food, and determination. And we made it. It was a little anticlimactic to find a transmission tower there, but the view was incredible, and the scenery quite dramatic. There was a higher point still above that, but the trail ended, and it would have required rock-climbing skills and gear to make it the rest of the way. We decided the official end of the trail was sufficient. No “Family Hike Turns Tragic” headlines for us.

We took lots of pictures–none of which I have handy, of course. Perhaps I’ll post up a photo-essay tomorrow. It’s a harsh environment out there, but there’s a rugged appeal to it, much like the more extreme coasts of Scotland. I’d hate to be out there where the weather really turns bad, though.

Along the way we selected our next goal. Along the western shoreline there’s a promontory called “Elephant’s Head” for semi-obvious reasons (if looking at an overhead map, anyway). We overlooked it for much of the hike, and noted there is a hiking trail up onto it. It’s a longer hike, but most of the trail looks to be little more than semi-flat road. We’re thinking that might be fun to tackle next spring.

Meanwhile, we have a sense of accomplishment. Frary Peak is the longest hike we’ve been on as a family, and the fact that it took us several attempts just makes the success sweeter. No matter what, we’ll always have Frary Peak.

Thom on October 17th, 2014

And yet oddly enough, they love me anyway.

I’m reminded from time to time just how much I enjoy my family. Sure, no one can push your buttons faster than family, but no knows how to scratch your back like family, either. I’ve enjoyed my kids all along, but I do admit that the older they get the more amazed and delighted I become with them. They’re turning into real people! Oh, sure, there are some drawbacks with them entering the teen years, but there are balancing factors, too. Their unique talents and interests start coming to the fore. They can have mature conversations. You can (usually) reason with them more. And they can leave you in unexpected stitches with an incredibly witty remark you just didn’t see coming.

We’re also able to engage in activities that require them to carry their own weight, like this week’s attempt to scale Frary Peak. There’s no way I’d risk it with little kids, because I wouldn’t want to carry them back down if they ran out of gas. Now days if anyone’s going to run out of gas first, it’s me.

My kids are awesome. I blame their mother.

Thom on October 16th, 2014

It seems like everywhere you look these days there’s zombie-based entertainment. Even one of my favorite journalists tried his hand at a zombie novel. He recently wrote an article for City Journal in which he attempts to explain why zombies have become such a part of the American–if not world–psyche:

With such cataclysms, man-made or natural, comes the risk of social breakdown that makes us so apprehensive. Shortly after Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast in 2012, residents in parts of New York City armed up with booby traps, baseball bats, and bows and arrows to protect themselves from potential looters. “Bow and arrow,” wrote Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic. “Think about that for a minute. In New York City. This is exactly the appeal of The Walking Dead. . . . A zombie invasion is simply a metaphor for any situation in which the government cannot protect its citizens.” World War Z author Brooks agrees: “Zombie stories give people the opportunity to witness the end of the world they’ve been secretly wondering about while, at the same time, allowing themselves to sleep at night because the catalyst in the end is fictional.” As it turned out, New Yorkers managed the aftermath of that storm, which tested the cohesion of some neighborhoods, with patience and lots of community spirit—but New Orleans during and immediately after Katrina was nearly up for grabs.

I hadn’t really thought of it that way, but it makes sense. I suspect most of us, in one way or another, believe the world is doomed.

Read the whole thing. As an added bonus, you get a quick summary of what “The Walking Dead” is all about without actually having to watch it.

Thom on October 15th, 2014

About as predictable as Columbus Day lately is the protests against Columbus Day. As a bank employee I have to admit to some self-serving reluctance to do away with the holiday, though truth be told, it’s quite probable that even if Columbus Day were done away with the government would find some other holiday to anoint with Federal Holiday status. But I also have to admit to some difficulty understanding what the big deal is.

Not that I don’t try. I try to imagine how I’d feel if we celebrated Lilburn Boggs day every year, or Thomas Ford Day, with the justification being their great contributions to the settlement of the American West. It’s hard to say. Perhaps I’d just accept it with the justification, “Well, it’s about time he meant something positive to we Mormons.” Would I lobby for the holiday’s removal? Probably not.

I can certainly understand the Euro-centric complaint. The vikings and the Chinese both discovered the Americas first, and they apparently understood what it was they were seeing, not simply mistaking it for India. I don’t imagine I’d have a problem renaming it “Explorers Day”, perhaps.

As for the most prevalent complaint, that Columbus led the Pillaging of the New World, it’s technically true. However, to lay the blame entirely on Columbus for everything that occurred in the Americas ever since is far from fair. That’s like condemning Johannes Gutenberg for all bad literature written ever since he invented the printing press, or the Chinese for every person killed by gunpowder weapons.

Besides, the people who advance this argument tend to pretend that the indigenous populations of the Americas were living in innocence and peace, which is far from true. If Jared M. Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel” is to be believed it was only an accident of random evolutionary factors that kept the Aztecs from showing up in Europe and trying to conquer the Europeans. Sure, by today’s standards the way the Spanish treated the Americans was horrible. But it’s no worse than what the Americans wanted to do to the Spanish once they found out their temperament–they only lacked the technological advantages to do so. And it’s no worse than what the native groups were already doing to one another, either. If we put much stock in evolution it makes no sense to expect the Spaniards to lay down their advantages and fight fair.

Granted, if we somehow had the opportunity to choose today what happened back then I would not support it doing what the Spaniards did. But I fail to see what value is to be gained by judging people long dead, and who were products of their era as if they were our peers of today. It doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t grant anyone their lives back. It doesn’t undo what has been done. And even if we possessed the will to try and pull a “Global Do-Over”, remove everyone from lands their ancestors invaded, and roll-back any “cultural contamination” that might have been introduced then and since, I think we’d find that most cultures would at least grudgingly have to admit they’d prefer to keep things the way they are.

What people seldom stop to think about is that the random factors of evolution being what they are, places like the Americas and Africa would likely still be far, far behind the Eurasian peoples in development if we had somehow managed to maintain their isolation. People get excited when they find indigenous tribes living in relative isolation somewhere, pointing at their lack of development as if the people had chosen to remain “innocent”, while forgetting that “innocent” usually means “one step away from starvation and extinction”, as if living hand-to-mouth is somehow noble and preferable to a more enlightened existence.

I would be among the first to admit that not all “development” is what it’s cracked up to be, but given the choice of “being exploited by soulless corporations in order to afford my basic existence” or “going back to nature and living off the land and my own strength and wits” I’ll take the exploitation, thank you. I went camping not long ago, and I am decidedly against freezing my wits in a tent. Give me at least a cabin, and if I’m going to go that far, I may as well insulate it and add central heating. Those who point to primitive existences as somehow desirable aren’t usually living them. The Western idea of “basic existence” is “living high” anywhere else.

It amuses me no end to see people today trying to force their belief on everyone that it was a horrible thing for the Spanish to force their beliefs on the American natives. “Forcing beliefs” is what people do–it’s like The species past-time, right up there with soccer–and the only thing that keeps them from using violent means is the effectiveness of lesser means. We like to think the “Global Warming Deniers should be rounded up and shot” rhetoric is only rhetoric, but it’s not. It’s only the battle-cry of the bleeding-edgers. The rest will follow if we can’t silence dissent by more currently-acceptable means.

Don’t believe me? Look deeper at your own racism, then. Do you really think the peoples of the Balkans are ignorant barbarians? Do you believe ISIS is comprised of idiots? Or the North Korean regime lacks sufficient education? We like to think we’re so much better than these terribly violent peoples, but the distance is much less than we want to admit. It only requires that people believe lesser measures ineffective, that they have no choice but to take the road of violence.

And in that light I have to wonder if the movement against Columbus Day is really just an attempt to convince ourselves we’re so much better than that today. Look at how enlightened we are! We denounce people who didn’t know better at the time. Why couldn’t ol’ Chris have just turned around and sailed home, insisting “Nothing to see here!”? Instead he had to leave us such an uncomfortable reminder of what humanity is capable of. Quick, denounce him, lest we have to admit we could be him. No, we doth not protest too much!

The fact of the matter is that the people we hold up as public heroes were all just people, with all the good and bad that entails. From Christopher Columbus to George Washington, to Abraham Lincoln, to Martin Luther King, Jr., if we could see all their personal and public failures we’d likely be shocked and disappointed. Of course we shouldn’t try to emulate them too closely. But the presence of bad in them doesn’t negate the good any more than the good in them doesn’t negate the bad. It’s funny how we insist today that people shouldn’t judge, but we feel perfectly fine not only judging the dead, but judging them by our own standards of proper behavior.

When I celebrate Columbus Day–in truth, when I bother to think about it at all–I’m not celebrating his opening the gateway for the Conquistadors’ oppression and murder. I’m considering the amount of guts it took to put his life on the line to prove his theory. His only fault, acknowledging modern sensibilities, is that the Americas were accidentally in the way. Had they not been, and had he actually found the route to India, he would have been no more derided and denigrated than Marco Polo. Columbus didn’t set out thinking, “I’ll bet there’s another continent we haven’t yet discovered, and we’ll get there and find the people too primitive to stop us from taking control and looting the place”.

There’s no doubt that luck was against the American natives. But from what was known at the time, odds were at least evenly split that Columbus could have found a continent populated by people far more advanced than the Europeans, but who hadn’t bothered to sail in that direction yet. His arrival could just have easily drawn an invasion that could have put all of Europe under someone else’s thumb. Montezuma’s Revenge could have been Montezuma’s Conquest of the Old World. And most of us likely wouldn’t be here to feel smug about that reversal.

We love to look at history as if “what is” was a foregone conclusion, as if the people back then knew full well what would happen and chose to do their “stupid things” anyway. Oh, certainly there were those who knowingly did bad things even by the standards of the time, but we should not be too quick to lay too large a sin at their door. Columbus could not have foreseen and should not be held responsible for the British settlers’ treatment of the North American indians any more than he can be held responsible for European Colonialism in Africa or for World War I. Give the guy a break.

So no, I don’t at all condone what was done as a result of Columbus’ discovery, any more than I condone Henry Ford’s products being turned into car bombs. But that does not in any way diminish Columbus’ accomplishment in putting his life on the line to prove his point. Yeah, it’s too bad Leif Erikson didn’t tell more people about his discoveries. I’ll bet Columbus would have been more than happy to take the northern route where he could remain in sight of land for much of the trip instead of sailing for days and weeks on end into nothingness. And yes, it’s somewhat arbitrary we celebrate Columbus Day instead of Magellan Day or Juan Sebastián Elcano Day. So what? It’s the positive attributes of Columbus we celebrate more than the man himself.

As I said before, I really don’t care if we rework the holiday and give it a more positive message. But you’ll get me on your side faster if you go at it from a positive angle instead of the complaints I hear currently. Sorry, but it’s hard to take you seriously when you decry Columbus as a murderer, yet hold up Che Guevara or today’s brutal socialist dictators  as some kind of hero. Either brutally subjugating entire peoples (or in Columbus’ case, merely enabling the brutal subjugation thereof) is wrong or it’s not. Your moral relativism is amusing, but amazingly malleable, myopic, and self-serving.

I know you tend to ignore “folk wisdom”, but you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Thom on October 14th, 2014

This last weekend I went on an overnight camp-out with my son’s scout troop. I have come to the conclusion that I am not a true camper. I don’t care much for camping for the sake of camping. I love being out in nature, but there’s nothing particularly ennobling, in my opinion, about sleeping there. It’s perfectly okay to enjoy nature, and then go home.

Certainly there are aspects of camping that develop important skills. I think it’s a good idea to know how to “rough it”, to learn to set your expectations lower for a while. It makes it easier to bear the little inconveniences of life, like the water going out for a day. It’s good to know how to use your gear in case you need to.

I suspect, however, that it’s really just group camping I object to. And perhaps cold-weather camping. We got up to the camp site and spent the first few hours setting up. There was no formal intinerary, no communication as to what we were doing and when. Just “everyone fend for yourself”. We’d been told to come prepared to make tin-foil dinners, and so we did. But everyone else had brought a lot of other things, too, like hot dogs and marshmallows. So by the time the fire had burned down to the right level for making tin-foil dinners the majority of the group had already eaten their fill. Only a few actually made tin-foil dinners. My son and I had to watch everyone else eat while we waited. Not particularly fun.

After that the kids all went to play “capture the flag” in the dark, while we adults sat around the fire and talked. But I’m not a sports of fitness enthusiast. I mostly sat and listened, as the things they wanted to talk about were not something to which I had much to contribute. I was somewhat relieved when my son got frustrated with the game and was ready to go to bed. However, sleeping is not something I do well outdoors. Even with the recent purchase of better a pad I have a hard time getting comfortable. I can only lay in one position for so long before I have to roll over. And rolling over in a sleeping bag is not an easy task.

And it was cold. I think our tent–made for six–is too big for just two. It looses heat faster than our two bodies can generate it. Our sleeping bags were up to the challenge. I wasn’t cold over-all, just my face. I wore a ski cap to bed, but unless I was able to find a comfortable position that allowed me to sink deeper into my bag, my face would stick out and get cold, and the temperature differential was difficult to ignore. I woke up often. I shifted position often. Even my son, who can sleep through anything, had difficulty sleeping.

Four days later I’m still nursing stiff muscles. I’ve certainly slept better while camping. Pretty much every other time, actually.

In the morning it was my turn to feel (slightly) sorry for the other campers. My son and I, being the only vegans, brought our own food and the means to cook it, so we could start eating as soon as the first pancakes came off the grill. Everyone else had to wait for the two cooks to first fry up several pounds of bacon, and then cook pancakes two at a time. (We cooked one at a time, but there were only two of us.) We were done before most were able to get started. And about as soon as breakfast was finished we all packed up and went home.

With the exception of the view and the game of capture the flag, this is not something we couldn’t have done just as well in my back yard. We were out in nature, but we never really took the chance to interact with it. Other than “bring more wood next time” or “watch out for burrs”, I’m not sure any of the scouts learned anything about camping or nature.

When I contrast this experience with the last scout campout I went on, or our last family campout, I realize that it’s not camping I mind so much as camping with no purpose–or at least for no other purpose than “the scouts need X number of campouts to qualify for Y.” The previous campout had included a program, and around the campfire that night we had a great deal of leader-scout interaction. On our family campout we took time to relax around the camp, go on walks, and explore the area a little. This seemed more like “let’s go eat sub-standard food and make ourselves uncomfortable for no apparent reason.”

I don’t mean to complain. Okay, yes I do, otherwise I won’t have a post for today. I do think I need to be better prepared for the next campout, though. I need to be a bit more proactive and be prepared to go do something while I’m there. It was a pretty canyon, awash with autumn splendor, and I saw very little of it. I spent most of the waking hours within twenty feet of the fire pit and the rest of it tossing and turning in a tent. Camping is supposed to be fun! I’ve seen that it can be.

But clearly, fun seldom happens by accident. Next time I’ll try to be prepared to bring the fun with me.

I find that I forgot to review book three in this series, Janitors: Curse of the Broomstaff, but it’s too long ago now to do it justice. Instead I’ll pick up with the lastest book in the series, Janitors: Strike of the Sweepers. Warning – this review will contain spoilers for the previous books.

The Janitors series is supposed to be a five book series, and following that structure, this is the book where things get really dark for our heroes. The Bureau of Educational Maintenance, or BEM, is gaining more and more power. BEM among sci-fi fans stands for “Bug-Eyed Monsters”, which I’m not sure is a coincidence here. Where last book they found a way to ride toxites, the horrible little creatures who prowl our schools, absorbing children’s brainwaves, in this book they find a way to merge them with people, creating even more powerful minions.

But the Rebel Janitors, those still trying to protect our schools and children from toxites, still have some remaining hope in the form of the Manualis Custodem, a old text written by the original witches from which the janitors have descended. The book contains, among other things, instructions on how to bring back the three Founding Witches, whom the Rebels hope will have the power to combat the BEM and their bug-eyed monster brigades.

Much of the Rebels’ hopes continue to lay in Spencer, our young hero who in the last book discovered he has become an Auran, one of the eternally-young wizards left behind by the witches to monitor the world and ensure the continued supply of glop, the source of magical power. Along with his brave, if gullible, friend Daisy Gates, his father Alan, and the rest of the Rebel team, they are on a quest to retrieve the Three Hammers and bring back the Founding Witches.

But nothing is ever easy when you’re up against the BEM, and Spencer and gang, even armed with more new glopified custodial tools, will have their work cut out for them.

Whitesides is at his best in Strike of the Sweepers, balancing humor, action, adventure, and suspense in a page-turner of a middle-grade novel. Twist after twist keeps things lively, while still allowing us to revel in the fun world that is Janitors. As deep and fully-realized as any of the Fablehaven books, Whitesides manages to keep the tone lighter, less dark, though parents should be warned that characters (warning: even main ones) are killed, though generally in non-gory ways. Nor do his heroes treat such lightly.

There is plenty of comic relief throughout, of course, and enough grade school level “gross out” to keep the more reluctant readers interested. I read it aloud to my kids, and even the thirteen-year-old was begging me to keep reading whenever we had to stop for the night. It’s not a long read, but out loud it will likely take four to five hours. I had fun reading it. Only the high stakes in the story keeps me from wishing I could be a Rebel Janitor.

The book does end on something of a cliff-hanger. Things are not looking good for our Rebel friends. Expect the final book to be a real humdinger! It’s going to be a long wait until next September.

Thom on October 9th, 2014

They say necessity is the mother of invention. That doesn’t seem to apply here, as I can’t imagine circumstances under which inventing a gun that makes and fires paper airplanes would be a necessity. But that’s what a German inventor seems to have done. Here’s the article, but more importantly, here’s the video:

This is not exactly a Will-Smithian “I have GOT to get me one of THESE!” moment, but my hat is nonetheless doffed to this gentleman. Such unparalleled coolness cannot be denied.

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Thom on October 9th, 2014

I thought this one was rather cute: Leonardo Da Vinci creates a time machine so he and his friends can go into the future and see how they are remembered.

That’s how I want to be remembered as an artist! In six hundred years there will be a holovid show about a crime-fighting, gun-slinging, wise-cracking robot with the features of an original Kirby vacuum who bears my name! Yes! Immortality! Or perhaps a kids game where they all spin around in circles until someone yells my name, and then they all run screaming in all directions while the kids who is ‘it’ tries to tag them!

Thom on October 8th, 2014

It’s been said that falling off a cliff isn’t so bad, it’s that sudden stop at the end. A writer once described the process of writing a novel as jumping out of an airplane with a big ball of yarn and knitting needles and trying to knit a parachute on the way down.

I’m experiencing something similar. This week I hit the climax, the key point of my entire novel. It was fun! Woohoo! Twenty months of writing pay off! Cue the coolness I’ve been planning since–

WHAM!

I ran smack into a wall. I set up the conflict fairly well, but I can’t seem to find a satisfactory and realistic way to resolve it. The good guys are in a pickle, and the first several ideas I’ve come up with are terribly cliched. Several others I discarded because it would require the bad guys to get a sudden case of the stupids. Nothing I’ve come up with so far seems terribly satisfying, and after all this work I’d really like my ending to be satisfying. I want the good guys win because they were good, not because the bad guys were just incapable of sticking the landing.

I’ve made it this far by tossing out my detailed outline and writing from memory of where I wanted the story to go, but being willing to go with felt right at the moment. It’s worked well. I’ve on the whole stayed true to my high-level structure, but the details have been stronger because they were made up in response to the unfolding of the story. But I suspect I’ve reached the point where I’m going to need to sit down and plan my way out of this. It’s time for the good guys to step up and be awesome guys. And it’s time for the bad guys to fail only because the good guys were just a little more awesome. Nothing I’ve got so far approaches that.

I’m still figuring out what my writing process is. It could be it’s different for every story. I don’t quite like just free-writing and seeing where I end up–I end up with a mess that needs a lot of work to clean up. But I’ve also found that a lot of outlining is too restrictive and takes the fun out of it. Heavy outlining feels like I’ve already written the novel, so why bother going back and writing it again just to add set-dressing? Somewhere in the middle seems to work best…so far. But now I’ve got to find a good ending. I can either keep writing and tossing out endings, or I can sit down and plan it out. My instincts tell me the latter is more likely to work here.

Time for some woodshedding, as we’d say in my musician days.