Monday, November 30, 2009

A Race for the Soul

The PBS doc about the Western States 100 is available on YouTube [ht TrailRunningSoul]. Interesting to me since one of the runners they follow (Patti Haskins) is a friend from the PCT in '04.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

My Own Private Badwater. With Snow.

I hiked from Death Valley to Owens Valley. You can see more pictures on Picasa. Videos are at the end, and here's the full trip report:

Late Sunday or early Monday I finished grading exams and mailed off my scores to the professor. I printed maps using the .tpo file provided by Brett "Blisterfree" Tucker on his website, but didn't even have time to double-check that I had actually printed two copies and didn't miss anything. Monday at 2PM I had an interview for an RA job that I don't think I'll get, and at 3:30 or so, the car was loaded and I was headed to Lone Pine. After an 8 hour drive I camped in the truck at Portagee Joe campground just outside town. In the morning my friend Nano and I (who I met at ADZPCTKO a couple years ago) left his car at Whitney Portal and drove my truck to Death Valley. After getting a permit (through perhaps the easiest process I've ever had in a National Park) we drove to Badwater, and took off hiking west from 282 feet below seal level at 11:30.
The weather was a perfect 70 degrees and the polygonal salt slabs were fascinating.
After crossing the valley we headed up Hanaupah Canyon. I went up this canyon a few years ago in my only previous trip to Death Valley, but I made it a lot further this time. We went until a little after dark (which unfortunately came at a very early 5 PM) when we reached water in the canyon, which happened to be right across from a mine shaft.
The next day we scrambled to the top of the ridge between the Middle and South Fork of Hanaupah Canyon, then followed it up, and up, and up, and up over steep loose scree fields to the crest of the Panamint range. We hung a left on our only maintained trail of the hike for one mile to reach Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet.
We doubled back, went north a miler or two on the trail, and then dropped west down, down, down Tuber Canyon. There was a lot of slipping and sliding on loose rock before finally reaching the canyon floor. We followed the canyon down until dark, where we were surrounded by impenetrable brush on one side and a cliff on the other. We could also hear water so we knew we were at the first of a couple potential springs in the canyon, but we weren't going to be able to find it (or get down the cliff) in the dark, so we camped there for the night.
In the morning, after easily finding the great spring, we exited Tuber canyon into the Panamint Valley, and headed north up it then west across Panamint Dry Lake, and up the road to Panamint Springs Resort.
After an ice cream break at the resort (from the looks of the place, that word is used loosely) we headed up the road towards Darwin Falls.
We camped in the wash near the trailhead for the lower part of the falls, then explored them in the morning. There are 9 falls that require fun scrambling to see. We saw the first four. It is humanly possible to hike directly up the canyon by climbing around the falls, but the Hiking Death Valley guidebook says there are some low class-5 moves involved, so we took the longer walk around, which Brett lists as the main L2H route anyway.

After China Garden Springs (above), we scrambled up and up and up another canyon until reaching and then crossing the Darwin Plateau. We reached our lone water cache 64 miles in at the intersection of Saline Valley Road and highway 190. This is where Nano and I split up. We enjoyed hiking together, but we clearly weren't going to make it the entire way to Mt. Whitney, and he didn't feel like pushing to get to Lone Pine, so he started hitching back to Badwater to get my car. The plan was for him to switch it out with his car at the portal, but if possible, find somebody to drive my car down to Lone Pine, to where I was planning on hiking. This was at 1:30 PM on Friday. I took off north on Saline Valley road, which went around the Santa Rosa Hills and through Lee Flat Joshua Tree Forest. I covered about 15 more miles that afternoon, and went to sleep under the stars under a nice Juniper tree at 7:30PM. At about 12:45 or so, I was awoken by moisture on my face. "I guess I'll set up my tent now, good thing I didn't send it back with Nano," I thought, as the first precipitation of the trip fell. Oh, wait a minute. That's not rain. That's snow. And from what I could tell, it was really coming down. Better to hike in 1-3 inches of snow than 1-3 feet, I thought, so after setting up and then dismantling my tent, I started hiking at 1:15 AM. I soon left the White Mountain Talc Road and climbed up the Inyo Mountains towards Cerro Gordo, an active mining and ghost town. I had camped at about 5000 feet, and there wasn't much snow there, but I didn't reach the summit at 8200 feet until 5AM, at which point there was a good 4 inches of snow. All the while I could see squat, but luckily all the walking was on (relatively) easy to follow dirt roads. I would have liked to have hiked north on the crest of the Inyo mountains for a few miles before dropping x-country down Long John Canyon and walking right into Lone Pine, but with the snow and the possibility that the storm block in one of our cars at the Portal, I had to get out ASAP. So I followed the graded Cerro Gordo road down the west side of the Inyos down to the village of Keeler on highway 136. Nano and I got ahold of each other, and it turned out he hadn't switched our cars yet, but it was a relatively simple matter to eat pancakes at a restaurant in Lone Pine and then use my AAA membership to get a giant tow-truck up to the portal in a good 6-7 inches of fresh powder to tow his car down the mountain. Simple in that the tow truck was giant but was only 2WD so even it had trouble. Anyway, now that I'm warm and dry (well, sort of, my apartment has serious moisture buildup that is driving me crazy) I'm thinking how the snow wasn't that hard to walk in and jeeps were still going up and down to the Portal for fun, but if I'd been much further out, crossing the Inyos could've been bad, and just because Jeeps can get somewhere doesn't mean you can get a rear-wheel drive sedan there.

All in all I thought this trip was absolutely fantastic. Previously, when a hiker friend of mine told me about his love of the Great Basin, I didn't understand it at all. I just thought it would be hot and boring. But in the fall, Death Valley was fantastic. I do have to say that it was still lifeless, but fascinatingly so. I can literally count the animal life I encountered (insects included) on one hand. How often is that you can do your business, hike all day in the sun, and occasionally sit down in the dirt, and see not a single ant or fly? Yes, seeing a couple desert bighorn would be rad for sure, but if you think about it, the 99.9% lack of life is cool too. With the exception of the snow (which makes for great stories now) the weather was perfect. 60-70 during the day, 30-40 at night. I would prefer a little more daylight, but there's nothing to do about that. And as far as the scenery being boring; I'd disagree completely. I didn't love the desert on the PCT or CDT, but it didn't seem so stark there. By comparison with Death Valley and the Great Basin, the other high deserts I've hiked seem sort of bunched or jumbled together, in Death Valley the contrast between valley and range is stark, leading to beautiful vistas, not to mention truly unique dry lake beds and salt flats.

The route was almost all cross-country or dirt roads, with very little pavement and also very little maintained trail. The roads are often old 4x4 roads that aren't much traveled, and the cross-country sections ranged from very easy (across a dry lake bed) to very difficult (up and down Telescope Peak). I loved the x-country sections, and thought a few of the miles were some of the hardest I have ever done.

As far as logistics of the L2H go, just check out Brett's page. He's got everything you need. I'm happy to answer specific questions. Blake Wood also ran the route a while back (turns out, my escape route was the route he took) and wrote an article for UltraRunning [Thanks, ZG]. Brett's maps are all you need to do the hike, but another great, and very thorough, resource is Hiking Death Valley, which I picked up a few years ago, and is, in my opinion, one of the best two guide books I've ever read (the other being Roper's High Route book).

Videos from the hike:
Immediately after splitting up. I was a little amped at this point, so discount all hyperbole by about 10-15%.

Right before I started out hiking in the snow.

Just after crossing the peak of the Inyos near the mining/ghost town of Cerro Gordo.

A friendly discussion about parking.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Well that was fun. My truck is free, Nano's car is stuck, but aaa should fix that. While we wait, pancakes and hot cocoa in lone pine.
Snow storm. 8500 feet bailing to highway. I'm totally fine. But i think car might be stuck at whitney portal.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ugggh. And now for the good times.

Ugh. Cranked out exam grading over the last 3 days. Now I just need to print two sets of L2H maps, buy food, pack, do a job interview about a possible research assistance position for next semester, then drive to Lone Pine and then Death Valley.

I totally don't deserve this break, and should stay and do research, but I promise I'll start doing research as soon as I get back. Or maybe after I get back from Indonesia. Or maybe after I take the WFR course. Or maybe after the teacher training course next summer. Or maybe after going to Siberia next summer. Someday, definitely.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

I Can't Talk

Well, next Monday is still a few days off, but I seem to have gotten a bad cold and completely lost my voice, so that's not great as far as L2H goes. At least my truck is fixed (read the comments on two posts ago).

David Cross' I Drink for a Reason is un-readably un-funny.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Enthralling Shopping

A couple websites have created interesting ways to shop: and [NYT article by Richard Thaler about Swoopo, HT to Brad Delong]. Or interesting to this outdoorsy economist, at least.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Little Big Game

Just so everyone knows, the Cal econ grad students whooped up on the Stanford econ grad students yesterday. We beat them in basketball, football, and soccer. We lost in volleyball and ultimate. The Arrow-Debreu trophy, a bronzed apple core inside an Edgeworth box, depends only on football, so it will continue to reside in its rightful place (the grad student lounge in Evans) for at least another year. Photos.

I did not run 50K today because it sold out before I could register. Instead I tried out my Fivefingers. They'll take some getting used to.

I might try and hike from Badwater to the top of Mt. Whitney next week with a friend via the L2H route.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Where Men Win Glory

I just finished Jon Krakauer's Where Men Win Glory. I was disappointed and wouldn't recommend it. I've always defended Krakauer against critics of his previous books, but I have issues with this one.

1. Cite your sources.
2. If you're going to rag on Bush, do it about something non-obvious.
3. Quoting endless quotidian sections of your subject's journal is not the same as showing us that the thoughts and desires inside the heads of crazy adventurous men are the same as those rattling around inside our own heads.

In more detail:
1. Krakauer's method of crediting sources is to have a "Notes" section at the end with a list for each chapter that says "My sources were interviews and correspondence with Marie Tillman..." or "My main sources were Ghost Wars..." or something to that effect. The main text has essentially zero footnotes, end-notes or end-of-sentence citations; each chapter just gets a giant list of general sources in the back, so you have no clue who said any specific piece of information.

When re-investigating falsehoods told about a certain incident that people have already become familiar with, I feel it's essential to make your new sources part of the narrative. But Krakauer just mentions the three military friendly fire investigations and congressional testimony in the final few chapters of the book, despite the fact that they're obviously the source of much of the information for the entire book.

So after reading the book, I really have no idea where Krakauer's info came from. He's sort of accusing the military of this grand conspiracy regarding both Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman, and I'd be more likely to believe that's what happened (instead of a bunch of people independently lying and misremembering to cover their own asses as they do every day) if I knew where Krakauer got any of his info from. Maybe he did a bunch of top notch investigative journalism, or maybe he just read Ghost Wars and the book by Tillman's mom.

2. Did you know that George Bush stole the 2000 presidential election? Or that we invaded Iraq despite the fact that Saddam Hussein didn't have any WMD and had nothing to do with 9/11? Personally, I already knew those things. I mean, don't get me wrong, because I hate George Bush just as much as the next guy, but re-telling me those facts without telling me any new details, and without citing any new sources seems like a waste, and is probably making readers who don't already believe these facts less likely to believe the story about Tillman.

3. I think the brilliance of Into the Wild comes from taking us inside the mind of Chris McCandless and making us realize that we all share some of those same thoughts and that same wanderlust. There's one line in this book (that I unfortunately can't find right now) about how the lust to run off to war is much more present in society than people are willing to admit in pleasant company. When I read that I line I thought, "Yes, that's what I want this book to be about." But instead Krakauer doesn't go anywhere with that (except very briefly in the postscript), and the book is mostly (not clearly verified) political journalism.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Super(?)freakonomics, with Big and Little "F"

I read Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's sequel to their book Freakonomics, namely, Superfreakonomics. If I had to describe it in one word, I would say "smug." If given two words, I'd say "not funny."

At times the book is a fascinating collection of recent research. But too often, the book feels like contrarianism for its own (or for coolness', or for conservatism's) sake.

My beefs:
Several times, they talk about how, by solving one problem, we managed to create another problem. (Ireland raised the garbage bill, so people burnt their trash, and set themselves on fire.) But the authors are not always careful to measure the magnitude of the unintended consequences, and seem a little too quick to mock whoever thought the change was a good idea (often the government).

The University of Chicago (where Levitt teaches) is described as "perhaps the most storied economics program in the world." I admit that's probably true, but it comes across as pretentious given that it was said (1)by a Chicago professor, and (2)in the context of poorly written sentimentality describing John List, who worked his way up from tiny state schools to become a Chicago professor, against all odds, while the rest of the profession was both stupid and out to get List because List proved them all wrong, and in response, they just hated him more.

They say we all have a religious need to flagellate and loathe ourselves, and attempts to reduce carbon emissions fill that need for godless liberals like me. I will let Paul Krugman and Brad Delong go after this chapter. (Delong posts way too frequently for me to keep track of, there are at least 10 related posts from Oct. 16 & 17, I linked to the final. Just google the book and you will discover the wild argument that erupted before the book was even published.)

I don't know. Perhaps, since I'm an economist and (sort of, maybe one day will) have a dog in this fight, I am being too critical and the average reader will like it. It just seemed a lot more fun when Freakonomics was about sumo wrestling and thus harmless. A friend compiled a list of reviews that mostly don't deal with the global warming ruckus. From a pure writing-quality perspective, I found the book sarcastic in obvious places with a surfeit of exclamation marks and thus not amusing.

Now, a discussion of small-f freakonomics. A few weeks ago, the macro professor I work for sent out this link. The key quote is this:
"When future generations ask the economics profession 'What were you doing while the great bubble built up ahead of the Second Great Depression?', and we have to reply 'Lots and lots of quirky little working papers about sumo wrestling and speed-dating', it is going to be really, really, fucking embarrassing"
That kind of bugged me, and in this sense I come to Steven Levitt's defense. Obviously, I think microeconomics is important, and not all economists have to study "the economy."

Personally, I am constantly struggling to find the balance between two extremes. On the one hand is very technical econometric or modeling mathematical minutia related to something to something important. Examples of something important is the returns to education, labor supply, or unemployment duration. But if you study any of those, you end up having to study the elasticity of some parameter or whether some production function or other should be CES or Cobb-Douglas, and I don't understand what the parameter means, let alone the elasticity of the parameter. (NB: actual debates way more arcane than this.)

On the other hand is something interesting, like baseball, which is generally covered by fewer people, so you don't have to go quite as deep into the details. Sometimes I'm convinced that doing research on baseball is fine--it's not going to make the world a better place, but neither will most "important" research, and it will prove that I can use basic applied econometric tools well, and I can apply it to things that will interest the average undergrad, which will be good for teaching. But fundamentally, I don't really care about baseball.

So hopefully I can find something "important" that I actually care about (in ridiculously great detail). Is that thing the protection of federal land for the purposes of conservation and recreation? Maybe. I just read Doug Scott's The Enduring Wilderness, which is basically a pretty wonky history of the Wilderness Act. I'm thinking maybe I could look at the effects on the local economy of wilderness preservation by putting together a database of all the National Parks, Monuments, and Wilderness areas, then looking at local tax revenues or something. Just a thought. The book made me aware of the existence of the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment. Maybe there's something there. We'll see.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Thanks for the National Forests, TR.

This was a pretty good Fresh Air interview with Timothy Egan on his new book about the Forest Service and the giant 1910 fire that changed politicians' and the public's perceptions and thus saved the Forest Service. It portrays Gifford Pinchot in a much better light than Ken Burns' National Parks doc.

"We are rich because we have [the forests.]"--Egan's mom

Monday, November 02, 2009

Old Photos

My room-mate paid $4 for a giant box of old photo prints. I think it was well worth it.

I'll rub your chin if you rub mine.

In the future, neck pain will be but a distant memory.

So then I says to him, "why don't you watch where you're going?"

America's hi-tech medical records system.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Kayaking, Dinosaurs, Shooting Yourself

All my kayak gear came in at REI, so I had to ignore the oil spill and go paddling twice this weekend. I'm (obviously) still getting the hang of it, so I didn't go super long or far, just out along the Berkeley pier. It's also a little creepy when you have to park next to the oil spill response team's trucks and watch out for their boats dragging big balloon lines behind them. Anyway, no obvious oil slicks thus far, so it was good times. It's a blast to be charging out into open water with waves crashing on the bow, but coming back in it's a little nauseating and hard to stay in a straight line.

Why did nobody tell me about the existence of bike kayak trailers? That'd be so much cooler than driving the truck to the marina. [From streetsblog.]

Chuck Klosterman has a new book out that I devoured this week--Eating the Dinosaur. I love the essays on time travel and creative play-calling in football, and the ones on Kurt Cobain and David Koresh, ABBA, and TV laugh tracks are OK. The book has its moments of brilliance (best possible responses to real situations such as getting caught soliciting gay sex in an airport bathroom or shooting yourself in the leg in a night club) but in general I'd say I could have done with less introspection. Klosterman turned in on himself and analyzed the act of his own writing and interviewing, and I would have preferred the usual humorous insightful writing and interviewing other people. It's no Chuck Klosterman IV, but it's worth reading.

Oh, and since I think Klosterman does a good job of saying how Plaxico Burress could've defended his actions after his shooting (sorry, too long to quote), here's what PB actually said, which doesn't seem to be that different.

Deep (Long) Thoughts on Running

As readers probably know, I've done a bit of running in the past few weeks. October 10 I ran the Dick Collins Firetrails 50-miler, October 18 I ran the Diablo 50K, and October 24-25 I ran 95.5 miles at the SF One-Day. Actually, I technically only scored 94.4 miles because, despite hauling apples one last time to try and get another lap done in under 8 minutes, I missed it by a half second. (See pic below, which I yanked from DC-H's facebook (thanks!) via a shift-apple-4 screenshot)

All during these races my knee has been hurting, pretty badly at times. That's made me think more deeply than normal about running, and I've come up with two things. One, running is fun, but sometimes only type-2 fun. Two, running on pavement sucks.

First, is running fun, and do I want to keep doing it? Of course, and of course. But with my knee hurting, I haven't really wanted to do much training, and when I have gotten out, I haven't been enjoying it as much lately. It's a good thing the daylight is running out and winter's coming; I could use the off-season. I ran 8 ultras in 2008, and I've run 7 so far in 2009, with two more 50K's nearby before year's end. Of those I'll probably run one, in two weeks. Then I'll probably do the usual and take a break until February or March, when I'll run a 50K or two to get ready for Diablo in April. Right now I'm not that excited about running that race for the 6th time, but hopefully I'll feel different in the spring.

As to the SF One-Day in particular, while running it, I very much enjoyed it from 9AM to about 6PM when the sun went down. I managed to keep going at an OK pace (14-15 minute miles, which was plenty given the cushion I'd built) for the next few hours until a friend showed up at 11PM. After he left I started to lose it and slowed to 20 minute miles. A friend came from 3AM to 6AM, but by the time he arrived, I'd already given up on making 100 miles. He basically helped me keep going and for the most part we walked 20-minute miles, but before and after his help I did 29, 38, 51, 28, and 52-minute laps, mostly because I sat down and rested, and possibly fell asleep briefly. Once the sun came back up, I finished strong, just like last year, doing (in order) 18, 17, 16, 13, 11, 10, 9, and 8-minute miles. I had another 8 minutes left to try to get one more in, resulting in the above photo.

It felt great to finish strong, just like I did last year. But I also hated it pretty much all night long, just like I did last year. The Cure song Policy of Truth came on my iPod and I told myself to remember the oft-repeated lyrics: "never again is what you swore the time before." This is fascinating to me having heard so much about behavioral economics and hyperbolic discounting at school (that's fancy-speak for saying people never save enough for retirement). At 2:00 in the morning when I was abandoning the 100-mile goal, I absolutely did not care about it. Also, I remember hating pretty much everyone and everything (and telling my sister who called from Indonesia to STFU). Then the sun came up and I felt great and finished with almost 95.5 miles, 5 laps shy of breaking 100, 5 laps shy of winning my age group (this was my best and last shot to do this--PCTR has a calendar-year race series and next year I'll be in the much tougher 30-39 age group), and 5 laps shy of winning my first race mug instead of my 13th race coaster. ARG.

It's not like those extra 5 miles (which would take me an hour in good circumstances) would've been easy, but they were likely possible. In retrospect, I wish I'd sucked it up a little, but it's only easy to say that after the fact instead of in the middle of the night after running 75 or so miles. The real problem is the lack of a commitment device. It might have been nice if, ahead of time, I'd told my buddy that came out in the middle of the night if there was any chance for me to break 100, then he was to scream at me and tell me "I didn't come out here at 3 in the morning to walk with you, you f---ing pansy. Now let's MOVE!" But at the time, I would've hated him for that (see discussion of phone call above). So what I really should have done is, ahead of time, gone to economist Dean Karlan's website: There I could've written a binding contract with myself (verified by a neutral 3rd person) that if I failed to run 100 miles, my credit card would be charged any amount I chose for a donation to a charity that I despise (you can choose either side of abortion, environment, marriage equality, gun control, or Bush/Clinton presidential libraries to be your despised "anti-charity"). Having $200 potentially go to a loathsome anti-marriage-equality group would have been enough to get me those extra 5 miles.

Maybe next year. Except I hated it. Except I like it in retrospect. Except next October I better be busting my ass to get my research done for the job market.

Now, finally, to my second point: pavement sucks. Ever since my knee started hurting, I've been thinking a little about why. I read a couple more articles about barefoot running, watched some videos online (see below)
and looked into two (ridiculously expensive) methods, chi running and pose running.

My first reaction upon hearing the name "chi running" was my "just because it's thousands of years old and from Asia doesn't mean it's true" bias. (See this explanatory Onion article.) But I must admit that doesn't mean it's not true either. All the sources seemed to say that running barefoot, you take shorter strides and land on the front of your foot, whereas with shoes you point your toes up and land on your heels. Also, we may have evolved running long distances, so you'd think runner's knee and all these problems would have gotten weeded out, and running with shoes changes your form and takes you away from the way you evolved to do it. The only flaw I see with that argument is that we certainly didn't evolve running long distances on pavement. Last week this NYT article mentioned this fact. The article also mentions Christopher McDougall's book Born to Run, which advocates for barefootedness. I'd like to read this soon, but I'm 24th on the wait list at the library.

Anyway, I was convinced enough to give it a try, so during the last two races I tried shorter strides and landing on my front-foot. Like everybody says, it makes your calves tired. I also got a pair of Vibram five-fingers. Or rather one pair of KSO's and one pair of Sprints, neither of which I'm sure fit right, and one of which I'll surely be returning (you're supposed to order one size down of the KSO's, but REI doesn't carry size 40, and the Sprints in size 41 seem to fit fine, but the rubber heel sticks out oddly far in the back.) I haven't really tried them out running yet, but at least we can be sure of one thing: they look ridiculous.