Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Tick tick tick

Only one week to go until the 2013 World Championship Match begins between Magnus Carlsen and Viswanathan Anand.

Other fun sites for getting ready for the match include ChessDom and ChessVibes.

Go Vishy! Win one (more) for the old guys!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Small towns near and far

In a situation like this, it is the job of the mayor to defend his town: Mojave chase: gunman led officers across desert.

Ridgecrest is a city of about 27,000 people adjacent to the vast Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, which sprawls over more than 1,700 square miles of desert. U.S. 395 runs through the western Mojave, below the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada.

Ridgecrest Mayor Dan Clark called the incident disturbing, especially because the small city is relatively crime free.

Sadly, it is not true, but I understand that the mayor must say things like that.

And Ridgecrest has hard problems to solve. There are no easy answers for the poverty, the transient population, and the remoteness that arise out there.

Still, I disbelieve the mayor.

Meanwhile, closer to home, my own small city is trying to do some cleanup of its own: Estuary Cleanup in Full Swing

The project is happening just across the street from my office, so I have a front row seat for much of the activity:

The Alameda Police Department (APD) is among 15 agencies involved in the multimillion dollar cleanup of the Oakland Estuary currently underway. Agencies that include the Coast Guard, the State Lands Commission and San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission are using Francis Collins' property at Clement Avenue and Oak Street to stage their operation.

The tug boats Respect and Captain Al, a pair of barges and a large amount of debris lay at the waterway's bottom just off the property that Collins hopes to develop into the Boatworks housing project. A team from the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) will soon raise all these hazards from the estuary's bottom.

Many years ago, Alameda was a center of marine industry, and there are still some smaller boatyards in operation, as well as many marinas for recreational boating.

But most of the old heavy industry has moved on, so it is no surprise that there is cleanup to be done. Although the government funded the work, I think it's only right that they are trying to get those who created the mess to foot the bill:

"Boats left to sink and rot are more than mere nuisances — they jeopardize San Francisco Bay's ecosystem and the recreational and commercial uses of the harbor," said Jared Blumenfeld, EPA's regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest. "EPA will work closely with our state and federal partners to pursue those responsible for these environmental violations.

For example, the EPA is looking for the owners of the tug boats Respect and Captain Al to hold them responsible for abandoning their boats in the estuary.

Although it's clear that the impetus for the cleanup was the desire of the real estate developer to move ahead with their housing project, these sorts of civic improvement campaigns benefit us all:

"This is uncharted territory for us," APD Chief Paul Rolleri said. "We will remain in communication with OPD to help enforce laws and ordinances that pertain to the estuary." He said his department will treat illegal behavior on the waterway just as it treats graffiti and broken windows ashore, as a symptom of other trouble or of trouble to come.

We knew Chief Rolleri when he was our next door neighbor, still in police academy, nearly 30 years ago. I'm pleased that he's stayed close to home and is trying to work to improve his small city, not just with words but actions.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Building the singularity

About six months ago I made my way through William Hertling's Avogadro Corp: The Singularity Is Closer Than It Appears.

It's a fun book, if not great literature.

One of the big elements of the book involves a large Internet company which has decided to deploy a set of offshore floating data centers on large sea-going barges.

So anyway, here in the now, and closer to the home, comes this: Is Google building a hulking floating data center in SF Bay?

The barge is 250 feet long, 72 feet wide, and 16 feet deep, and was built in 2011 in Belle Chasse, La., by C & C Marine and Repair. Its registration number is BAL 0010. Behind it is a perfect view of the new eastern span of the San Francisco Bay Bridge. On top is a four-story-tall modular building made from shipping containers and sporting 12 tall white spires that look like they could be anything from masts to flagpoles to antennas. The containers each have three narrow slits for windows, and there is a stairway on the northeast corner that goes from ground level to the top. There's also one container on that side that slants to the ground at a 45-degree angle. Wrapped mostly in dark netting, the structure doesn't reveal what's inside.

As various people have pointed out, similar barges are being built elsewhere: Barge holding mystery structure due in Portland Harbor

Patrick Arnold, director of operations and business development for the Maine Port Authority, said he doesn’t know what the structure is, who paid to have it built, or where it is going, but "this looks to me like a modular fabrication for an industrial site."

Having seen photos, he said the structure doesn’t look like a movie set or an office building. "It’s clearly a modular fabrication for a project of some type," he said.

There's a lot of speculation, and a lot of curiosity. As several people observed, the concept of offshore data centers has been discussed before: Google Planning Offshore Data Barges

The Google design incoporates the Pelamis Wave Energy Converter units, which use the motion of ocean surface waves to create electricity and can be combined to form “wave farms.” The largest existing project uses seven Pelamis units to generate about 5 megawatts of power. Diagrams included with Google’s patent application indicate the company plans to combine 40 or more Pelamis units to produce 40 megawatts of power.

It's somehow both exciting and nauseating to see this level of compute power.

I'll keep my eye on this mystery project and see if more details are revealed.

I wonder how much else of Hertling's dystopian novel is on its way to becoming true...

Thursday, October 24, 2013

You always have to test your change, so make your change easy to test.

I went to make a change today.

I was changing something simple (or so I thought); I was just improving an error message.

Unfortunately, the particular code that issues that particular error message only runs on certain platforms.

Which means, in order to test that code, I had to test it on that platform.

Happily, I can access that particular platform, as it is able to run as a guest virtual machine on my main development system.

However, running a guest virtual machine is annoying, because it is very slow and expensive; I hate using the virtual machines for development because they are 8x-15x slower than using my main workstation.

So I almost made and submitted the change without testing it.

But then I stopped, and calmed down, and realized that That Would Be Wrong.

So I started up the guest virtual machine.

And, since it's Windows, I knew that this meant that Windows would immediately demand to run Windows Update, and download and install a month's worth of patches, and Oracle would immediately demand to run Oracle Java Updater, and download and install a month's worth of patches, and Adobe would immediately demand to run Adobe Reader Updater, and download and install a month's worth of patches.

And so forth.

So after I started up the guest virtual machine, I went and brewed a new pot of coffee, and patiently waited 10 minutes for all the updating to occur, while I drank my cup of coffee.

And then I made my change.

And tested it.

And, sure enough, it didn't worth the first time.

So, I figured out why, and fixed it, and tested it again.

And it worked, so I submitted it.

Which is, of course, why you always have to test your change. Even after 35 years developing software, I still find that my code doesn't always work the first time I try it.

You always have to test your change.

In an ideal world, I'd like it to be a lot easier to test my change on many platforms.

But I haven't persuaded the people who hold the purse strings to make this happen, so for the time being it's very expensive for me to make a change that is specific to a particular platform.

So instead I work very hard to make as much of the code as possible platform-independent, and have the smallest amount of code possible be platform-specific.

It was just my bad luck in this particular case that I had to work on a bug in that platform-specific code.

That's the breaks, in life.

At least the bug is fixed.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Assembling the new MacPro

I'm not likely to want to spend $4,000 of my scarce money on one, but still, this nifty video about the physical manufacturing of the new Mac Pro is fun to watch.

Monday, October 21, 2013

City Water Tunnel Number 3

I must have been really busy last week, because somehow the fact that the next phase of City Water Tunnel Number 3 went online just slipped right past me.

The New York Times summarizes the event: After Decades, a Water Tunnel Can Now Serve All of Manhattan:

In one of the most significant milestones for the city’s water supply in nearly a century, the tunnel — authorized in 1954, begun in 1970 and considered the largest capital construction project ever undertaken in the five boroughs — will for the first time be equipped to provide water for all of Manhattan. Since 1917, the borough has relied on Tunnel No. 1, which was never inspected or significantly repaired after its opening.

The New Yorker celebrates the event by re-visiting their 10-year-old article on the life of the "sandhogs": Building Water Tunnel No. 3:

The old tunnels, Ryan explained, were leaking “like a sieve”; some of the sections were built nearly a century ago and were in desperate need of repair. But until Tunnel No. 3 is virtually complete there will be no way to fix them. In part, this is because getting inside Tunnel No. 1 or No. 2 would require the city to shut the water off, and without a backup supply there would be serious water shortages. But it was more than that, and, as several sandhogs peered over his shoulder, Ryan started to draw a circle on the table with his muddy finger. “See this?” he asked me. “These are the valves that control the flow of water.”

“They’re hundreds of feet underground,” another sandhog said.

The valves were designed, Ryan said, to open and close guillotine-like gates inside the cylindrical tunnels, stopping the flow of water. But they had become so brittle with age that they were no longer operable. “They’re afraid if they try to shut the valves they won’t be able to turn ’em back on,” Ryan said.

PBS classifies Water Tunnel Number 3 as one of the "Wonders of the World": Building Big: Databank: New York Third Water Tunnel, highlighting one of the least boring machines in the world, the High Performance Tunnel Boring Machine for Queens Water Tunnel, No. 3:

The Robbins HP open hard rock TBM, as shown in Figure 2., weighs 610 metric tons (1,345,000 lb) approximately and has a diameter of 7.06 m (23 ft 0 in). The machine can be modified to any diameter between 6.50 m (21 ft 4 in) and 8.50 m (27 ft 11 in), making it suitable for future hard rock tunneling projects. The TBM consists of three major components, the Cutterhead/Cutterhead support, Gripper, and Main Beam assemblies.

And since pictures are the best, here's some from The Verge, but definitely don't miss Geoff Manaugh's super photo essay in Gizmodo: In An Artificial Cave 200' Beneath Central Park with Michael Bloomberg.

And, everywhere we looked, there were other levels, or hydra-like piped connections leading onward to spaces we could see or infer, but never physically enter.

On the floor of the press room itself, for example, there was a manhole, promising further systems and drains far below ...

... and the walkways of the central room itself were steel grates that felt less like a floor in any real, architectural sense and more like an arbitrary level simply plonked down in the room wherever the engineering allowed for it, just a viewing platform for inspecting the bits and bobs of machinery poking out from beneath.

Welcome to the world, City Water Tunnel No. 3!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Stuff I'm reading on a Friday afternoon

My life has just been a blur recently, but the weather is beautiful and I found a few moments to surf the web.

Here's some fun stuff I found, maybe you will like it too

  • The JSR-133 Cookbook for Compiler Writers
    This is an unofficial guide to implementing the new Java Memory Model (JMM) specified by JSR-133 . It provides at most brief backgrounds about why various rules exist, instead concentrating on their consequences for compilers and JVMs with respect to instruction reorderings, multiprocessor barrier instructions, and atomic operations. It includes a set of recommended recipes for complying to JSR-133.
  • Relaxed-Memory Concurrency
    Multiprocessors are now pervasive and concurrent programming is becoming mainstream, but typical multiprocessors (x86, Sparc, Power, ARM, Itanium) and programming languages (C, C++, Java) do not provide the sequentially consistent shared memory that has been assumed by most work on semantics and verification. Instead, they have subtle relaxed (or weak) memory models, exposing behaviour that arises from hardware and compiler optimisations to the programmer. Moreover, these memory models have usually described only in ambiguous (and sometimes flawed) prose, leading to widespread confusion. This page collects work by a group of people working to develop mathematically rigorous and usable semantics for multiprocessor programs. We are focussing on three processor architectures (x86, Power, and ARM), on the recent revisions of the C++ and C languages (C++11 and C11), and on reasoning and verification using these models.
  • The Slow Winter
    John was terrified by the collapse of the parallelism bubble, and he quickly discarded his plans for a 743-core processor that was dubbed The Hydra of Destiny and whose abstract Platonic ideal was brief ly the third-best chess player in Gary, Indiana. Clutching a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a shot-gun in the other, John scoured the research literature for ideas that might save his dreams of infinite scaling.
  • The Belt: Talk by Ivan Godard – 2013-07-11 at Google
    The belt machine model is inherently free of update hazards because all operation results go onto the belt by Single Assignment; in other words, once created they never change their value. Belt machines have no general registers and thus no rename registers that physically embody them. Result addressing is implicit, which produces compact code and easily accommodates operations like integer divide that logically produce multiple results. The machine model integrates naturally with function call, eliminating caller/callee save conventions and complex call preamble and postamble code.
  • The History of Packets
    This guide seeks to take you on the adventure of the changing packet, and how it has survived over the past four decades of networking hardware and computer software.
  • No More Callbacks: 10,000 Actors, 10,000 Threads, 10,000 Spaceships: Adopting Ideas from Erlang and Clojure for a Highly Concurrent, Simple and Maintainable Application
    The first spaceships demo used only the second component of the two-pillared solution – namely a concurrent, transactional data structure that helps with business logic scaling – but not the first: a concurrency-oriented programming language or paradigm.

    To test how well the two parts fit together, we’ve re-written the demo so it uses Quasar actors, as well as the newly released SpaceBase 2.0, which integrates with Quasar. While written in Java rather than in a concurrency-oriented language, the demo uses Quasar’s API which is heavily based on ideas taken from Erlang and Clojure, and I think that the code demonstrates the approach well.

  • Slides and Bibliography of Mohan’s “Tutorial: An In-Depth Look at Modern Database Systems”
    This tutorial is targeted at a broad set of database systems and applications people. It is intended to let the attendees better appreciate what is really behind the covers of many of the modern database systems (e.g., NoSQL and NewSQL systems), going beyond the hype associated with these open source, commercial and research systems. The capabilities and limitations of such systems will be addressed. Modern extensions to decades old relational DBMSs will also be described. Some application case studies will also be presented.
  • Happy Arachtober! There Are Spiders in Your Car
    You probably have spiders in and around your car all the time. That’s part of living in a biological world. Spiders in cars are a problem primarily when the big apes driving the cars freak out.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Forrest Smith is a great GameDev blogger

My blog list is quite full nowadays, so I don't add new bloggers routinely. I'm not sure if that's because I've got high standards, or just because I'm overwhelmed with all the content I already try to read.

Anyway, I stumbled across Forrest Smith's blog recently, and almost immediately added him to my regular list.

Here are 5 great articles from him that you should read:

  • The Tech of Planetary Annihilation: ChronoCam
    The ChronoCam is similar to a replay system except it’s in the live game. While you are mid-game you can jump back to look at the world from any point in time, play in slow/fast motion, scrub the timeline from start to finish, and even play in reverse.

    If your scout gets destroyed and you weren’t paying attention you can use the ChronoCam to find out how it died. If you’re playing with dual monitors you can simultaneously view the game world from two entirely different points in time

  • Extravagant Cheating via DirectX
    Online PC gaming is known for being full of dirty cheaters. Cheats can be implemented through many methods from simple to impressively complex. Macros, hex editing, memory inspection, memory modification, DLL injection, network manipulation, packet modification, and lord knows how many more. These various methods are then used to implement cheats such as rapid fire, no clip, aimbots, wallhacks, etc.

    Today I want to discuss a specific form of hacking and how it’s done. I hesitate to do so, but it’s usage is already widespread amongst hack creators and users. The damage is already dealt. By sharing knowledge of its inner workings hopefully that damage can be mitigated.

  • Synchronous RTS Engines and a Tale of Desyncs
    Have you ever played a game like Starcraft or Supreme Commander and gotten an error message that says “Desync Detected” followed by the game closing? Do you wonder what that means? It stems from certain engine architectures commonly used by RTS games.

    My experience in this area comes from working with the Supreme Commander engine at Gas Powered Games. Starcraft and Warcraft 3 have had desync bugs during beta periods so it’s safe to say they work in a similar manner. For simplicity’s sake I’m going to discuss the SupCom engine specifically from this point forward.

  • 30 Weeks of Game Development
    The hardest part of capturing footage is having the willpower to record every week. It’s easy to push back the capture because a major feature is almost done. Game dev is often an emotional rollercoaster and when you’re in a low it’s hard to muster the motivation to click record.

    I actually stopped making the videos around week 16. Every week felt like too little progress was being made to justify a video. After going gold and watching the early videos I was hit with a wave of inspiration so I synced perforce week by week to re-build and capture

  • Learning How to Learn
    The ability to learn on your own is a mandatory skill if you want to stay at the top of your field or simply continue your education after school. The smartest workers are always learning in their own time, no matter the industry. Working on side projects, reading blogs/research papers, discussing trade secrets amongst peers, etc.

    This post is my personal tale. Your tale is likely to be different. By sharing mine I hope that it can help others in some small way. Good luck fellow learners.

I always wanted to be a game developer. I didn't end up in that particular career, but since the tools that we build in my day job are used by many game development companies, I'm quite interested in the world of the game developer.

Forrest Smith's blog is great, and I love reading his articles, and hope he is able to continue writing like this.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Great Wyoming Adventure: Closing Notes

I promise: this is the last article about The Great Wyoming Adventure. I just had a few other closing notes I wanted to pass along.

Our car was wonderful: solid, reliable, comfortable. We are hoping to make many more trips in it.

We stayed in two different hotels, and they were quite different experiences:

  • The Snake River Lodge was very comfortable and luxurious. We pampered ourselves with trips to the pool and enjoyed all the conveniences. We were very busy trying to fit as much adventuring in as possible, so having all the niceties was great.
  • Transitioning from the Snake River Lodge to Flagg Ranch was a little bit of a shock, because they were two very different hotels. But the cabin at Flagg Ranch was very nice, spacious and clean, and in fact Flagg Ranch had everything we needed, once we got used to it.

At Flagg Ranch, we had: no Internet, no Cell Phones, not even Cable TV. As they say:

No phone, no lights, no motor-cars, not a single luxury.
Like Robinson Crusoe, it's primitive as can be.

But it was wonderful!

The reason for staying at Flagg Ranch is to be in the middle of both Yellowstone and Grant Teton, with easy access to both parks, and to have a nice room to boot.

Flagg Ranch delivered on exactly that promise.

One of the things that was interesting about the trip to Wyoming was how well we ate. I had been a little bit worried about having to eat out all the time, but in fact there were all sorts of wonderful restaurants:

  • I enjoyed my Buffalo Meatloaf at the Mangy Moose in Teton Village
  • We got great lunches from the Aspens Market in Wilson
  • The breakfast buffet at the Snake River Lodge was quite nice
  • The french toast for breakfast at Flagg Ranch was great

But best of all, bar none, was the amazing Pheasant Soup at the Snake River Lodge. I think that the Snake River Lodge hired away the chef (Scott Rutter) who used to be at the Wort Hotel in downtown Jackson, because if you look on the Internet you'll find all sorts of people raving about his pheasant soup at the Wort (and at the Aspen Meadows Resort before that).

But now he's at the Snake River Lodge, and let me tell you: it's almost worth making a trip just for that soup! Here are (some of) the ingredients:

  • smoked pheasant
  • fire roasted sweet corn,
  • pumpkin seed oil,
  • and sweet potato hay
It was styled as a creamy soup, sort of a bisque, and boy was it good!

We went back to the restaurant at least 3 separate times, drawn just by the soup. Apparently, not only did Chef Rutter win a number of awards for this soup, but he's also been a judge on the Bravo channel Top Chef competitive cooking show, so it was certainly a treat to meet him in person at the Snake River Lodge.

Another thing that you probably picked up on, if you read all my essays about the trip, was the challenge of timing the trip.

I'm really glad that we went after Labor Day, because the rush of crowds was much less. We really only felt crowded twice:

  • once on the hike to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point at Jenny Lake, which is the most popular hike in Grand Teton (and it was on a beautiful day with perfect weather)
  • once at Old Faithful, which is, of course, Old Faithful.

Except for those times, both parks were MUCH less busy than I expected, and I'm really glad about that.

However, I think we waited a bit too late in the season. A number of the visitor centers, lodges, and other facilities in the parks were already closed for the season, and for many of the other facilities we were in the last week of operations.

This led to all sorts of minor annoyances, (e.g., the Flagg Ranch restaurant being out of orange juice for breakfast), but also led to a bit of a spooky feeling:

  • buildings would be unexpectedly locked up. This was particularly annoying when they were buildings like the public restrooms on the south rim of Yellowstone Falls, which would be a really nice place to have restrooms.
  • roads would be closed, like the road to Lizard Creek campground, or the road to Lewis Lake campground. Not that we planned to camp at these campgrounds, it was just weird to be driving around and visiting the parks with things half-closed.

Of course, we should be happy; had we been even 1 or 2 days later, the parks would really have been all closed up, and our beautiful 10 day vacation would have been for naught. Foolishly, I didn't even consider this in my planning, but luckily for us the politicians waited until we had had our fill before they locked the doors.

The other thing about waiting this late, of course, is that we ran the risk of bad weather, and sure enough the snowstorm that came through the area was a big impact on our plans. We never got to get over Dunraven Pass, which was a big disappointment, not just because that is described as such a beautiful road, but because I was really looking forward to getting back into the north-east section of Yellowstone (Tower Junction, Lamar Valley, etc.) and that was just flat-out impossible once the weather hit.

So if I did that part over again, I would try to go no later than mid-September.

Lastly, on a fairly light note, one of the things that we do when we go on trips is to play "the license plate game", in which the sport is to try to spot a license plate from an unusual state.

Well, northwest Wyoming is the PERFECT place to play the license plate game! I think that by the end of the trip there were only a handful of states that we failed to see a license plate from:

  1. Arkansas
  2. West Virginia
  3. New Hampshire
  4. Vermont
  5. Maine
  6. Rhode Island
  7. Hawaii

It will be hard for us to top this trip, but we'll sure try!

I hope you had fun reading all my silly essays about it.

Agile, Scalable, Continuous

A co-worker recently asked me about three similar, but distinct, concepts:

  • Agile Development
  • Continuous Integration
  • Scalable Processes

These are all things that development managers must consider when they are trying to create effective teams, but they are separate and distinct concerns.

I find it easiest to distinguish these by thinking about what problems they solve.

Agile development techniques are concerned with the following problem:

The requirements change while the software is still being developed.

When you start a project, you do the best you can to determine what it is that you want to build, but the world of software is so fast-moving that things are always changing underneath you.

Agile development processes are concerned with ensuring that the tools and techniques and processes that the team uses are able to adapt to frequent, almost constant, change.

A great place to start learning about agile development processes is to read the Principles behind the Agile Manifesto.

Continuous integration techniques are concerned with the following problem:

Misunderstandings aren't discovered until the first time somebody tries to run the entire program as a whole.

A popular technique for working on large projects, with large groups of people, is to subdivide the project into many sub-projects, and each sub-project can then proceed independently, isolated from all the other work.

At the end, all of the sub-projects are combined together, and voila, you have a complete project. This step is called "integration".

This can work, if the sub-division is done by a skilled analyst or architect, and if each independent team builds exactly what the overall designer intended for them to build.

But very commonly, when all the pieces are put together, it doesn't work.

And it is only at this point, only at the end of their project, that the teams find out that they'd had a misunderstanding, and didn't build exactly what the original designer had intended. Unfortunately, at that point, substantial rework is required, the schedule collapses, and there is Much Unhappiness.

Continuous integration is a set of techniques for finding out about these misunderstandings early, as soon as possible, rather than at the end.

Here's the best description of these techniques: Continuous Integration

Scalable development techniques are concerned with the following problem:

Tools and processes that work well for small teams, building small products, for limited sets of deployment environments, don't scale up to large teams, building large products, that have to run on many platforms.

A classic, if 15 years old, description of the sorts of problems that arise when large teams build large projects for many platforms is Mark Lukovsky's presentation at the 2000 Usenix conference: Windows A Software Engineering Odyssey, in which he talks about the issues of scalability faced by the Microsoft development teams during the development of Windows 2000.

All three of these problems are important, and must be kept in mind by team leads, managers, and executives in any situation in which substantial software development occurs (which, nowadays, means almost any modern organization).

There are many specific ways to approach these problems, but one thing I'm pleased about is that the software we build at my day job is valuable in all these scenarios:

  • It adapts naturally to change, and can be used in any agile development approach
  • It is efficient and reliable, and can handily support the demands of modern build automation and continuous integration toolsets
  • It scales well, from a simple near-zero-administration install for very small teams up to extremely high-end data center configurations where tens of thousands of developers must cooperate on a single project.

If you're struggling with software development issues, and your tools aren't helping, drop by our website and download a trial to see how we can help!

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Great Wyoming Adventure: Animal Summary

Our trip to Wyoming involved a number of pleasures, but a major aspect was the chance to see less common animals in the wild.

As far as I can remember, here's our final tally:

Wild animals that we actually saw in the wild:

  • Bison
  • Elk
  • Pronghorn
  • Mule Deer
  • White-tailed Deer
  • Black Bear
  • Trumpeter Swan
  • Merganser
  • American Dipper
  • Red-Tailed Hawk
  • Northern Harrier
  • Bats
  • Bufflehead
  • Scaup
  • Teal
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk
  • Swainson's Hawk
  • Magpie
  • Snowshoe Hare
  • Gopher Snake

These are female Bufflehead, right?

Wild animals that we hoped to see in the wild, and which do live in the wild in this part of Wyoming, but which we only saw in captivity:

  • Grizzly Bear
  • Grey Wolf
  • Bald Eagle
  • Golden Eagle
  • Great Horned Owl
  • Gyrfalcon

Some other birds that we saw at that Teton Raptor Center

  • Goshawk
  • Harris's Hawk
  • Lanner Falcon

We saw a lot of birds that you might find unusual, but which were pretty common sights to us, living as we do right between several bird refuges:

  • Canada geese
  • Mallard ducks
  • Cormorants
  • Sea Gulls
  • Western Coot
  • Crows and Ravens

Perhaps the most interesting were the animals that we didn't see in the wild.

The most surprising omission was moose. Time and again people would tell us they had just seen a moose:

  • "where Wyoming 22 crosses the Snake"
  • "just behind Dornan's"
  • "on the east side of the Snake, by the Glacier Overlook"
  • "near Menor's Ferry"
  • "down in Sawmill Ponds"
  • "in Willow Flats, below the lodge"
  • "on the Jenny Lake Trail, just before you get to Hidden Falls"
  • "in the Oxbow Bend marsh"
Well, we looked everywhere; most places twice, a few places three times.

No moose.

Maybe they all went south.

So all we got, in the end, moose-wise, was this:

Another surprising omission was beaver. We must have seen 6 or 7 beaver lodges, beautiful, large, and clearly recently built and in active use, but we never saw any beaver.

Were they all inside the lodges? What do beaver do in late September?

I have no doubt that, had we but more time, we would have seen many more animals, and many more types of animals. To see the most exotic animals (wolves, bighorn sheep, wolverines, mountain lions, bald eagles, grizzlies), you have to get into the backcountry, and you have to be prepared for all that implies.

But there were many, many fascinating wild animals that can be seen from the roadway, or just a short hike away. You just have to slow down, be patient, and keep your eyes open.

Want to see some wild animals? Go take a trip to Wyoming!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Great Wyoming Adventure: Wolves

On the final day of our trip, we somehow weren't quite ready for the adventure to end.

So we arranged to take the long way home.

We took a small detour and went through Montana, in order to stop at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center.

In truth, this is a bit of an odd place, although we both enjoyed our visit very much, and were pleased that we went.

The GWDC is a non-profit organization, and its primary mission involves the notion of the "nuisance bear".

The bears at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center had to be removed from the wild because they were becoming dangerously comfortable around humans. Their stories help share a valuable lesson of how people can take the proper steps to ensure bears stay forever wild. The wolves at the Center are ambassadors, providing a greater understanding of this predator in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

The center has been through several changes of management, and it seems to have wobbled a bit on its course, at times being more of a zoo or tourist attraction.

However, they currently seem committed to their conservation and education agenda, which I think is wonderful.

There are three major groups of animals at the center:
  • The bears are the stars. There are nine grizzly bears at the center right now:
    1. Bear 101
    2. Coram
    3. Spirit
    4. Grant and Roosevelt
    5. Kobuk and Nakina
    6. Sam and Illie
    The bears are not displayed all at once. Different groupings of bears are rotated in and out of the outdoor area.
  • There are two packs of wolves, three in one pack, and four in the other.
    The wolves were born in captivity and are unable to live in the wild. The facilities where they were born did not have room to keep them and the GWDC was able to provide them a home.
  • There is also a small display of raptors, including two bald eagles, two golden eagles, and a great horned owl.

We were lucky in our arrival: we arrived just as the River Valley Pack were being fed, and were able to watch them during that time.

Then, about 30 minutes later, the bears were rotated, and we were able to watch 5 different grizzlies all enter the outdoor area, searching out the various food that the keepers had concealed in the exhibit.

It was bitterly cold when we were there: at high noon, I think I checked and the temperature was 31 degrees! But it didn't seem to bother the wolves nor the bears, and since there weren't many people that day, we had the most amazing opportunities to wander about and look at all the animals to our heart's content.

In theory, you might get a chance to see a wolf in Yellowstone park; there are certainly wild wolves there. But it's very unlikely, unless you work very hard: know what you're doing, hike into the backcountry, commit multiple days to the effort. More likely, you might hear a wolf in Yellowstone, perhaps if you were out in the Lamar Valley some evening, or out beyond Sylvan pass.

But at the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, you have an amazing opportunity to see several wolves, from barely a few feet away.

Here, the wolves give visitors an up-close look at their normally secretive lives. The wolves eat, play, reinforce their dominance hierarchy and howl right in front of the viewing areas.

We didn't hear any of the wolves howl when we were there, but we certainly were able to watch them eat and play and wrestle over bones and territory.

While Donna was spending all her time admiring the beautiful wolves, I was enjoying myself at the bear area. When we first arrived, the keepers were just removing the two massive Alaskan grizzlies (one weighs 1100 pounds!), and preparing the compound for the smaller bears from Wyoming and Montana.

There's almost no way to prepare yourself for the rush of adrenalin and excitement when a grizzly bear comes loping out of the back of the compound, headed for food. These are the most powerful animals you're likely to ever see.
The team also tested what the bears could do to a 700-pound metal Dumpster.

"It was like a beach ball to them," Cairns said. "They could roll it over and over. It took a minimum of two people a concerted effort to tip it."

An interesting part of the work at the GWDC involves testing food storage devices with real bears, in a (relatively) safe environment:

The testing procedures start with the manufacturer bringing their product to the GWDC. Then, it is placed in the bear habitat and baited with especially enticing foods such as fish, meat, molasses or fruit jam. After that, the bears must try to get into the container for 60 minutes for it to be considered tested. If they are unable to open the container or obtain food from it, the container passes as "bear-resistant" and receives certification from the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee (IGBC).
There were five bears in the compound when I was watching, and even though there were very nice signs and displays describing each individual bear and its history, I wasn't alert enough to really tell them apart.

I did particularly like watching Grant and Roosevelt, though. After they were done feeding, these two bears wandered over to the side of the bear area and wrestled for a while. If you've never seen two 500 pound bears wrestling 30 feet away from you, well, you've really missed a treat!

The raptor area, while small, was clean and well-kept. In separate cages, we saw two bald eagles, two golden eagles, and a great horned owl.

After a full week of watching wild animals in the wild, in both Grand Teton and Yellowstone, it was decidedly a different experience to see grizzlies and wolves and bald eagles in captivity.

It's clearly not the same experience at all.

However, we didn't get the chance to see grizzlies in the wild, nor wolves in the wild, nor eagles in the wild. Moreover, it wasn't as though these animals were captured unnecessarily; in each case, if it wasn't for the opportunity presented by a place such as the GWDC, these animals would have been destroyed.

If you get a chance to go to Yellowstone, go to Yellowstone. Park your car, get out and walk, pull out your binoculars and camera, experience the wonder that is Yellowstone.

And if you get a chance to go to Yellowstone, and you want to visit the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, go. You'll enjoy yourself, and you'll help support an organization that, at the very least, really cares about the animals that they're trying to conserve and protect.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Great Wyoming Adventure: Fire in the Mountains

When a co-worker heard that I was about to take a trip to Yellowstone National Park, he gave me a bit of a funny look.

"I was there, drove through there, in 1990," he said.

Any trip to Yellowstone these days is framed in the signature event of the last half-century: the 1988 Yellowstone fires, which burned 1.4 million acres, including 800,000 acres within the boundaries of the park, exactly 25 years ago this summer.

Yes, you read that right: 1.4 million acres. In a single day, August 20th, 1988, called "Black Saturday" at the time, more than 150,000 acres were burned. The park as a whole contains about 2.2 million acres, so about one third of the total park was burned during the summer of 1988, including essentially every area that we visited during our time there.

My co-worker, you see, had traveled through a blackened wasteland.

"It was pretty weird," he said to me.

Even before we made the trip, fire was on my mind, as I had been riveted to the news of the Rim Fire closer to home. And I was also paying close attention to this summer's Druid Fire Complex in the park, as it was threatening to affect visitors to the park.

I've been enjoying America's mountain wilderness for decades, and am no stranger to the issues of fire in the backcountry, but I knew, at some level, that the 1988 Yellowstone fires were a different thing altogether.

It's hard to appreciate what that summer was like. Recently, the New York Times put together a fascinating video retrospective: Lessons From the Yellowstone Fires of 1988.

So it was in this overall context that we embarked on our adventure.

And fire was certainly part of our experience:

  • On our first day, our hike around String Lake took us through areas that were burned by the Alder Fire in 1999. Fourteen years after the fire, we hiked through dead trees, but young trees and bushes were growing everywhere.
  • Driving near Fishing Bridge, we could see a section where the Alum Fire was near the road. We stopped and took a picture.
  • And, of course, nearly every part of Yellowstone Park that we visited was burned by the 1988 fires: from Flagg Ranch up through the South Entrance and past Lewis Lake to West Thumb; from Fishing Bridge over to Canyon; the Upper Geyser Basin; the Midway Geyser Basin; the Firehole River valley; the Gibbon River valley; the Madison River valley. All of it, everywhere, had been burned.

And yet, if I hadn't known this ahead of time, if I hadn't read about it and studied it and planned to look for it, I don't think I would have known.

When we were there, the world looked like this:

Northwestern Wyoming is a magical place. I've been through a lot of wilderness, and seen a lot of country, and I can't recall ever being in a place so wild, so natural, and so healthy. Plants and animals were everywhere, growing and living and thriving. The water was pure; the air was clean; everything was alive.

Here, in coastal California, we are in what they call the "Red Flag" days: those few weeks in October where, every year, the winds shift, reversing their normal pattern and blowing from the mainland back toward the ocean.

For those of us living here, these are the nicest days of the year: warm, dry, sunny, delightful.

But for firefighters, this is a time of maximum alert. In 1991, the horrific Oakland Firestorm arose during the Red Flag days of fall, and every year we must be particularly careful and aware during this time.

Fire is on everyone's mind nowadays. The Yarnell fire report is out, and firefighters across the nation are studying its recommendations on dealing with treacherous weather conditions, and considering how to manage the tradeoffs between structure protection and firefighter safety. In Missoula, Montana, the Forest Service Fire Sciences Laboratory continues their pioneering work in understanding how fire behaves, and how we need to co-exist with it.

Meanwhile, closer to home, although the Rim Fire isn't quite "over" yet, there are already signs of what will come next: Following Yosemite Rim Fire, Regeneration Begins

In his wonderful book, Hawk's Rest, Gary Ferguson discusses some of the aftermath of the 1988 fires:

In studies done 12 months after the 1988 fires, almost a third of all the new plants in burned areas were lodgepole pines. On good soil, soaked with sun and freshened by loads of nutrients leached from the ashes, seeds were sprouting at the extraordinary rate of 300,000 per acre. Tens of thousands more ended up as food for squirrels, mice, and birds. Since most lodgepole seeds tend to disperse within several hundred feet from the parent tree, it's safe to assume that the stock for much of this new timber came almost entirely from that which was lost to the burn in the first place. Therefore, what was lodgepole forest before 1988 will be lodgepole forest again. During the autumn following the fires Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson told the Senate that the park "may well have been destroyed by the very people who were assigned to protect it. The ground is sterilized. It is blackened to the depths of any root system within it." Actually, not only was there an early abundance of transitional plants such as fireweed, current, and rasberry, but the vast majority of greater Yellowstone was soon rebuilding the same mix of communities present before the burn.

Fire was certainly a part of our adventure. But it is a part of nature, and we were having a nature adventure.

Just like it's important to learn about bears, and respect them, and love them for what they are, it's important to learn about fire, and respect it, and understand it for what it is.

The Great Wyoming Adventure: Waterfalls

Yellowstone National Park is also well-known for its waterfalls.

In fact, it was a waterfall that, indirectly, led to the creation of the park. During the Hayden Expedition of 1871, a gorgeous painting by Thomas Moran entitled Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was shown at the Clinton Hall in New York City, convincing Congress to take action on preserving Yellowstone as America's first National Park:

New York's reception of "The Great Canyon of the Yellowstone" was tremendous, and reports of the evening in Clinton Hall painted Moran and his work in terms as colorful and magnificent as one of his canvases. Moran then sent the painting to the Smithsonian, where it was displayed for two weeks before moving to the Speaker's Office in the Old Hall of Representatives. Moran's intent was to entice Congressmen to view it at the Smithsonian, but he said that "it was useless to continue its exhibition at the Smithsonian, so far as getting Congressmen to see it was concerned," and so he managed to secure a place in the Capitol, where he noted that it had "created quite a sensation." (Kinsey 64) During its stay in Washington, the painting struck Congressmen and visitors to the Capitol with the awe of the scene Moran depicted, and Moran himself lobbied tirelessly with Congressional acquaintances to secure a purchase. On June 10, 1872, Moran's persistence was rewarded as Congress appropriated $10,000 for Moran's painting, an extraordinary sum at the time. After a multi-city tour, it was placed in the Senate lobby, the first landscape to join the Capitol Collection, and as contemporary art critic Clarence Cook commented, "the only good picture to be found in the Capitol." (Wilkins 5)

Well, something like that surely isn't to be missed, so I was determined to see the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River for myself.

This was proving to be a challenge, as the early-season snowstorm that had engulfed northwest Wyoming was just getting worse and worse. Each day, the conditions on the ground seemed worse, the weather forecast seemed worse, and the warnings from the rangers seemed worse.

Finally, I could stand it no more, so we determined to make a push into the park and try to get to Canyon, even though many of the roads were currently listed as "closed", or as "snow tires and four-wheel-drive required".

We bundled up, packed our gear, and headed north.

Happily, the conditions were not as dire as forecast, and once we made it over the Continental Divide near Lewis Lake, the roads improved substantially and the drive from Fishing Bridge to Canyon was trouble-free.

It was Just Too Cold to attempt Uncle Tom's Trail, so we settled for the wonderful views of the Upper Falls from the trailhead, then wandered down to the end of the road to Artist's Point, from where Moran made his sketches 142 years ago.

The view from Artist's Point is everything it is claimed to be; if there is a more beautiful waterfall view it is hard to imagine. Perhaps Yosemite Falls on a bright June afternoon is a match for this, but Yellowstone Falls is pretty special.

We lingered as long as we could, then reluctantly moved on. After a short but enjoyable stop at the brink of the Upper Falls on the North Rim, we took a serious look at the weather and started making our way back.

Our plan, which we stuck to, was to drive all the way to Canyon first, make sure that Bryan Saw His Waterfalls, and then we could stop along the way back.

And, so, stop we did!

The road from Canyon to Fishing Bridge leads through a region that many consider to be the most beautiful part of Yellowstone: Hayden Valley, named, of course, for Dr. Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, the Oberlin College graduate, U.S. Army geologist, and Smithsonian Institution explorer who led the crucial 1871 expedition into what would become Yellowstone National Park.

Although we were hoping to see some of the wildlife for which Hayden Valley is so famouse, we weren't treated to any dramatic displays. But we saw

  • Bison grazing
  • Elk resting
  • Trumeter Swans floating
  • Barrows Goldeneye (or maybe Bufflehead?) resting on the rocks
So that was pretty good.

And, oh, by the way: yes, the valley is just gorgeous

Now, I don't want to give you the impression that the Yellowstone River waterfalls were the only ones we managed to see. Unfortunately, Dunraven Pass, named for the Earl of Dunraven, was closed the entire time we were there, so there was no hope of making it over to see Tower Falls.

In fact, there are so many waterfalls in Yellowstone Park that you can find entire books devoted just to unknown Yellowstone waterfalls, a topic to which Tim Cahill devotes an entire chapter of his own book on Yellowstone.

As for us, we managed to see Lewis Falls, a well-known stop along the South Entrance road.

And, we enjoyed our stop at Moose Falls, just inside the South Entrance of the park.
And Grand Teton National Park has a few waterfalls of its own, including the picturesque and popular Hidden Falls.
However, I do have to admit that this, although very enjoyable, and very entertaining, is not actually a waterfall:
I am, obviously, rather a waterfalls fanatic, the sort of person who will easily make the decision to take a 30-mile detour to view something described in a guidebook as "a seasonal fall, but pretty when it's flowing."

Moreover, living as close as I do to Yosemite National Park, I am rather spoiled, as Yosemite must surely be reckoned as the Queen of the Waterfalls when it comes to National Parks.

But the waterfalls of Yellowstone and Grand Teton are wonderful as well, and I most certainly was pleased that I managed to get to see as many of them as I did.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Great Wyoming Adventure: GeoThermal Features

If you were to ask almost anyone about "Yellowstone", and record the first thing they said, it would almost certainly be "Old Faithful!"

( Unless they said "Yogi and Boo-boo!", but perhaps that just dates me. )

There are many, many fascinating aspects to Yellowstone, but certainly the geothermal features (Hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, mud pots, etc.) are a big part of the reason that people go to visit the park.

So on a bitterly cold Thursday in late September, we piled all of our warmest clothes into the car and set off to drive over snowy Craig Pass to visit the Upper Geyser Basin of the Firehole River.

That is, we went to go see Old Faithful ("now, that's a geyser!").

The nice thing about Old Faithful is that it is, for the time being, quite predictable, and the rangers had a nice sign up in the window telling us that we had about 45 minutes before the next eruption.

So we took a walk on the boardwalks around the nearby area, looking at the dozens and dozens of geysers, hot springs, fumaroles, paint pots, and other bizarre features of the geothermal sort.

It takes a certain dedication and a certain fascination with the bizarre to want to do this, as the sulphurous odors, the tortured rock shapes, and the strange bacterial mats that line the edges of the volcanic vents are all disturbing.

It helped that it was lightly snowing, which both enchanted us and somehow made the entire "Dante's Inferno" aspect of it all not quite so intimidating.

Anyway, we saw Old Faithful erupt from the front row of the spectator area. In fact, it turned out that we were in the "splash zone", and with a few seconds I had actually pulled out my umbrella to shield us from the water that the geyser threw into the air in our direction!

Afterwards, we walked over to see the Old Faithful Inn, which is really worth the visit. The six story lobby of this amazing building is entirely built from local wood, and to climb up to the second or third floor mezzanine and gaze around at the various furnishings and works of art is most enjoyable.

We decided that we hadn't had enough walking yet, so we walked down past the Castle Geyser to see some of the other parts of the basin. Although it was quite chilly, it was dry enough, and we were warm enough, and the walk was really quite fine.

We arrived back at Old Faithful just in time for its next eruption. This time, we were a little bit farther away, and a little bit over to the side, and the entire experience was actually much better: we could see the geyser's plume much more clearly, and we didn't get soaked!

Although Old Faithful is the most famous geothermal wonder in the park, it's just one of thousands in the park. We left the Old Faithful area, climbed back in the car, and drove down the basin a ways to see the Grand Prismatic Spring, often described as the most beautiful geothermal object in the park.

Unfortunately, perhaps due to the extremities of the weather, the Grand Prismatic Spring was completely cloaked in steam, and it was very hard to get a feel for its colorful beauty.

The other thing, I think, is that most pictures of the Grand Prismatic Spring are from a helicopter, not from ground level, which is somewhat misleading.

By now, the weather was moving in, and we didn't want to get stuck on the wrong side of Craig Pass, so up and over the pass we went, and on the east side we decided to stop at the West Thumb Geyser Basin, which is much smaller than the Old Faithful region, but which was really quite nice; I particularly enjoyed the curious geysers and hot springs that actually erupt from underneath Yellowstone Lake, just 10 feet or so offshore, giving a most peculiar effect as a result.

I also enjoyed Moose Falls, a small 30-foot waterfall which is fed by a hot springs so warm that crawfish live in its waters year round, leading to the name Crawfish Creek.

The next day, in the midst of much other activity, I prevailed upon my beloved to stop one more time, this time at the Mud Volcano section, which is close to Hayden Valley.

The Mud Volcano region was closed for a while this summer because of the Alum Fire, but happily that fire was no longer a problem and we were able to tour the entire area.

I liked the Mud Volcano region the best of the four areas we visited: it had a great variety of strange features and they were very entertaining. Best of all, it was very quiet compared to the hordes of people over by Old Faithful: no tour buses, no enormous gift shops, no thousand-car parking lots.

Mud Volcano has three particular features that I enjoyed:

  1. The "Dragon's Mouth", a steaming geyser that emerges from a watery cave at the base of a hill. As the water sloshes in and out of the cave, and the steam bellows and hisses, it is easy to imagine that there is actually a Dragon hiding just out of sight in that cave ...
  2. Churning Caldron, up at the top of the hill, was extremely active when we were there. The water was just frothing and roiling, with giant bubbles forcing a fountain of water several feet above the surface of the hot springs, giving you an instant image of the amazing power of the molten lava underground.
  3. And, of course, the Mud Volcano itself, which was belching and plopping and spritzing and generally making Big Muddy Spurts all over the place. Quite lively!
We never made it up to Norris, where the mighty Steamboat Geyser just erupted this summer after an 8 year hiatus.

And we never made it to Mammoth Hot Springs, to see the incredible travertine ledges.

But I definitely enjoyed my time visiting the strange and bizarre geothermal features found throughout Yellowstone National Park.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Great Wyoming Adventure: Bears

As I mentioned before, one of the nice things about staying at the Jackson Hole ski resort is that we were barely a mile from the entrance gate to Grand Teton National Park.

Just through the gate, the first region you enter is the Laurance Rockefeller Preserve.

We were hoping to fit one more hike in before we left for Yellowstone, and the Preserve's hiking trails are widely regarded as among the park's best, so we popped into the car and headed up the road.

Before we even pulled in to the parking lot, the happiest bear you'll ever see was perched eight feet up in the top of a berry tree, eating berries like there's no tomorrow (which, one imagines, is exactly how the bear feels).

During September and October, the Grand Teton black bears come down from the mountains, and gorge themselves on the various berries that grow near the Snake River:
  • Black Hawthorn
  • Chokecherry
  • Serviceberry
  • Bearberry
  • Snowberry
  • Mountain Ash

We stood with the group and admired the bear for 15 minutes or so, then decided to move on for our hike.

But we barely made it out from the trailhead, just past the visitor center, when we encountered another group of people standing on the trail. They told us that the bear was on the trail, just around the corner.

We stood, and waited, and watched, and then, sure enough, a beautiful big black bear strolled out from around the corner, took a quick glance at our group of people, and then walked into the bushes across the trail.

We barely blinked and there the bear was, 10 feet up a big aspen tree, leaning over to (you guessed it) eat some more berries.

Just then, another couple came walking down the path from the woods. Unknowing, they walked right under the bear!

The bear didn't care though; it just kept eating those berries.

We hung out with the group for a while, talking excitedly, snapping lots of pictures, watching the bear eat berries.

After a while, we decided that we really didn't want to take a hike on the Path Where The Bears Eat Berries Above Your Head, so we turned around and headed back to the Visitor Center.

Which was closed, due to budget cuts.

We looked in the window of the Visitor Center, which looks like it would be quite nice, and decided to walk out across a wide open meadow between the Visitor Center and the parking lot.

When what should we see but (can you guess?) a bear, standing on its hind legs, reaching up to pull down the branches of a yummy berry tree.

(You might want to click on this picture for a larger view, as it's a bit hard to see the bear at first.)

In the end, I can't tell you much about the trails that run through the Laurance Rockefeller Preserve.

And, I can't tell you much about Phelps Lake, to which those trails lead.

And, I can't tell you much about the Visitor Center.

But, one thing I can definitely tell you: in late September, when the berry bushes in the preserve are at their peak, and winter is just around the corner, there is no better place to see black bears eating berries than the Laurance Rockefeller Preserve in Grand Teton National Park.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Ross Ulbricht

We take a brief interlude from discussions of wildlife to discuss some wild life:

  • How the feds took down the Dread Pirate Roberts
    But investigations always have many threads to pull. The feds couldn't initially follow the money to Roberts, nor could they find the physical location of his cloaked servers. In the absence of usual digital clues, the feds fell back on a low-tech approach: keep going back in time until you find the first guy to ever talk about the Silk Road. Find that guy and you probably have a person of interest, if not Roberts himself.
  • Feds Take Down Online Fraud Bazaar ‘Silk Road’, Arrest Alleged Mastermind
    Finally, DPR tripped himself up when he ordered some fake IDs from an international Silk Road vendor and had them sent to his residence. The fraudulent IDs were intercepted at the border by customs agents working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which paid a visit to the address to which the documents were to be delivered. The agents noted that while Ulbricht refused to answer any questions about the alleged purchase, one of the identity documents was a California driver’s license bearing Ulbricht’s photo and true date of birth, but with a different name.
  • FBI's Case Against Silk Road Boss Is A Fascinating Read
    The complaint notes that Silk Road was first advertised on different forums by a user named "altoid," in a manner that indicated altoid was connected with the site. Months later, altoid also posted elsewhere that he was looking to hire an "IT pro in the Bitcoin community" for "a venture backed Bitcoin startup company" -- but then told interested people to contact him at his actual gmail address: And, voila, the FBI had a name.
  • The FBI and the legitimation of the bitcoinverse
    Bitcoin’s the same: newer, shinier virtual currencies will arrive, the techno-utopians will latch onto something else, and eventually the people holding bitcoins will understand that if an asset doesn’t throw off any cashflow, the only way to make money from it is to sell it at a higher price than you bought it. In other words, bitcoin is the ultimate speculative vehicle, one which you might be able to trade in and out of, but one which has no value at all as a buy-and-hold investment. Which is something to bear in mind when you read the next big Bloomberg article on bitcoins as an asset class.
  • BitCoin Plunges Following US Government Seizure Of Silk Road Website, "Dread Pirate Roberts" In Custody
    That the US government would crack down on BitCoin and all affiliated services should not be surprising and is happening just as we warned it would back in March when we first charted the initial ramp of BitCoin. This move was especially inevitable considering none other than the ECB "warned" in November of 2012 against virtual currency Ponzi schemes (though it has no problem with fiat equivalents).
  • The Silk Road To Federal Prosecution: The Charges Against Ross Ulbricht
    If I were a betting man, I'd bet it happened like this: New York started investigating Silk Road in 2012, taking its time. Someone in the investigation figured out that Dread Pirate Robers was thinking about having the Maryland witness whacked and Maryland agents and prosecutors got involved. Maryland indicted first, asserting jurisdiction based on a scheme to murder one of its inhabitants. But New York made its charges public first and arrested first — possibly by agreement, possibly by gamesmanship.
Wild stuff, start to finish.

The Great Wyoming Adventure: Jackson Hole Tram

One of the places we stayed during our trip was at the Jackson Hole Ski Resort. Not only was it a very nice place to stay, it was ideal for us because the ski resort is barely a mile from the entrance gate to Grand Teton National park on Moose-Wilson Road.

However, staying at a ski resort in the summer is a bit odd, because ski resorts, obviously, are focused on skiing, which doesn't happen in the summer. At Jackson Hole, during summer time, the snowboard equipment stores are closed, the chair lifts are idle, and nobody is wearing those cute multi-colored polarized goggles to protect against snow blindness.

And yet, there is one part of the ski resort that doesn't close down during the summer: the Jackson Hole Aerial Tram:

This is what flying feels like. In 15 minutes, the Aerial Tram glides 4,139 vertical feet from the base of Teton Village to the top of Rendezvous Mountain. The summit offers a staggering 360-degree view of the Snake River Valley, Grand Teton National Park and the Gros Ventre Range in the distance.

So, on a fine Tuesday in late September, we bought a deli lunch from nearby Aspens Market, packed our lunch, our warm clothes and hats, our cameras and binoculars, and took the tram.

The tram car is beautiful: luxurious, comfortable, quiet, and clean. We got seats right on the window, and armed our cameras and binoculars.

Initially, the tram glides calmly over the aspen and pine forest. After a little while, the trees are replaced by shrubs, and then by bare rock.

And then, just about the point where you look up the hill and think to yourself
Oh, my! That is an enormous sheer cliff, right in front of us!
the tram suddenly starts to go up, and up, and UP!

My hands were clammy, my knees were weak, and I was just about at the point where I had to close my eyes...

And then there we were. With the slightest of bumps, the tram docks neatly into the loading area at the top of Rendezvous Mountain, the doors slide open, and out we go!

Although we had been prepared for it, the conditions at the top still took us by surprise. It was 25 degrees colder, and, in addition, the wind was blowing at least 35 mph. Quickly we pulled on our fleeces, our jackets, our hats, and our gloves, and took our place in the line of people taking pictures in every direction.

After a few minutes of snapping wonderful shots, we were starting to be unsure if we could feel our fingers, so we ducked into Corbet's Cabin, home of the highest-elevation waffles in the country (in the world?).

We had just finished lunch, but the Irish Coffee was too tempting, so we rewarded ourselves with a warm and tasty drink.

Originally, I had this fantasy that we were going to hike around on the hiking trails on the top of the mountain, but it was just too cold, and we had other things we wanted to do, so after spending another half hour or so enjoying the views and photo opportunities, it was time to move on.

The ride down on the tram is at least as much fun as the ride up. Was I more relaxed? Was I able to enjoy the views and delight in the experience.

Well, no.

But it was a great trip, and I'm really glad I did it, and all I can say is: if you ever find yourself in Jackson Hole, looking for something to do for 2 hours, ride the tram up to the top and have some waffles at Corbet's.

You'll be glad you did.

The Great Wyoming Adventure: Teton Raptor Center

On a cool, quiet Tuesday morning in late September, we made our way down to tiny Wilson, Wyoming, for a visit to the Teton Raptor Center.

Our timing was perfect: the center was still on their summer schedule, delivering regular interpretive programs in the outdoor tent, but the crowds of summer were gone, and we were a group of only 6 guests, rather than the several dozen that regularly visit in July.

Raptors, of course, are those birds of prey which are specialized for hunting: owls, falcons, hawks, eagles, etc.

The Teton Raptor Center's primary efforts are in the areas of rehabilitation and return to the wild for sick or injured birds, and education and outreach programs to help educate laypeople about these beautiful but not often encountered birds.

Jason gave us a spectacular tour, taking his time, answering all our questions, letting us spend some time with these amazing birds just inches away.

We learned about the center's resident raptors:

  • Gus the Golden Eagle
  • Owly the Great Horned Owl
  • Ruby the Red-tailed Hawk

We also saw live exercise and falconry with two other birds:

  • A Harris's Hawk, a fascinating species which hunt cooperatively as a group.
  • A Lanner Falcon, a beautiful small bird that catches its prey in mid-air.

Also out on display were a Gyrfalcon, breath-taking in its size and power, and a pair of young Goshawks, part of an international captive breeding program for species genetic diversity.

Teton Raptor Center is a small organization, but they are great people: they are dedicated to saving and protecting the wild birds, and to helping people understand what we need to do to ensure that the birds have habitat and opportunity to survive.

For raptors to survive, the ecosystem must be healthy; we learned this when we almost lost the Bald Eagle in the 1960's. Organizations like Teton Raptor Center are special places, and we both really enjoyed visiting them and supporting their programs.

If you ever find yourself near Jackson, Wyoming, stop in at the Teton Raptor Center; I'm sure you'll enjoy your visit, and you'll come away with a fresh appreciation for these wonderful creatures.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Great Wyoming Adventure: Grand Teton Lakes

Grand Teton National Park is best known for the signature Teton Range of mountain peaks, among the most recognizable peaks in the country.

But the lakes in the park are as beautiful and worthy of note.

The largest and most obvious lake in Grand Teton National Park is Jackson Lake. Jackson Lake is a natural lake: the Snake River enters it from the north, then exits it to the southeast, becoming the Snake River again. In 1916, an artificial dam was constructed atop the Jackson Lake outlet, raising the water level 30 feet and greatly increasing the surface area of the lake. (Note that this was nearly 15 years before the national park was formed, and Jackson Lake actually didn't become part of the national park proper until 1950.) The larger, deeper lake is greatly enjoyed for its recreational opportunity.

This year, when we arrived in late September, the water level on Jackson Lake was down to its natural level: all the artificially retained water had been released during the summer by the Bureau of Reclamation. An interesting article from this summer's Jackson Hole Daily discusses this in more detail: Thirsty Idaho draining Jackson Lake

Tougher water standards in California equal a dairy industry move to Idaho, and that means a need for more of Jackson Lake’s water, he said.

"There’s just not as many small grains and beans in Idaho as we’re used to," Beus said. "The dairy industry is moving from California to southern Idaho."

Whatever the reason, by the time we got there, no boating was occurring on Jackson Lake. Colter Bay Marina was empty, and the marina docks were resting on mud flats, hundreds of yards from the nearest waterline. This also affected famous scenic locations such as the Jackson Lake Lookout, which no longer framed the Grand in a perfectly mirrored display, but rather showed it perched above a long and muddy valley floor.

All of that was, in the end, fine with us, as we weren't planning on spending much of our time on Jackson lake anyway.

Two lakes where we did spend much of our time were String Lake and Leigh Lake. After lunch on our first day in the park, we were both eager to get out and stretch our legs, and, well, I'd done all that research on various hikes, and so what were we waiting for?

The String Lake trailhead is in a small parking lot at the south end of the lake. The trail meanders around the shoreline of the lake. At its north end, String Lake joins with Leigh Lake, and we took a short side trip to view this beautiful lake, with Mt Moran in the distance. The end result was a delightful 4.2 mile hike, with great scenery throughout.
The most well-known lake in Grand Teton National Park is Jenny Lake, named for Jenny Leigh, a Shoshone Indian who married Richard "Beaver Dick" Leigh and settled in the area in the 1870's (and inspired books such as Jenny of the Tetons!).

Jenny Lake is the most popular destination in the park, often called "the heart of the park", and for good reason. I was determined to take advantage of the good weather while it lasted, so on our second day in the park we drove over to the Jenny Lake Visitor Center and caught the boat shuttle run by Jenny Lake Boating

The boat shuttle is great! Super comfortable, wonderful views, an entirely pleasant way to get across the lake.

On the other side of Jenny Lake, we hiked up to Hidden Falls, then over to Inspiration Point for the views. Even though these were short hikes, the combination of the elevation and the gain of several hundred feet during the hikes made them quite fatiguing, so although this hike was much shorter than the String Lake hike, it seemed that we were just as tired.

Lots of people said that you could see moose just off the Jenny Lake Trail near where it meets the Hidden Falls Trail.

We didn't see any moose there.

Other very well-known lakes in the park include Bradley Lake and Taggart Lake, which have some great trails that I was planning to take, but which were very busy with bear activity when we were there, and Phelps Lake, which had the same problem (but more about all of that on another day).

We had also considered taking the hike around Two Ocean Lake, but the road to the trailhead was closed due to budget cuts.

But on one of our last days in the park, with the weather greatly influencing our choices, we found perhaps our favorite lakes of all: Heron Pond and Swan Lake.

Leaving from the (silent, empty) Colter Bay Marina at about 9:00 AM, we had the Hermitage Point Trail completely to ourselves. Hiking quietly through the snow-covered woods, we reach first Heron Pond, then cross over to the Swan Lake shoreline for the return trip.

These are small lakes, mostly covered in lily pads, with multiple beaver lodges in each lake. We stood quietly on the shore of each lake, scanning the water with our binoculars, and were treated to a buffet of waterbirds: duck, goose, scaup, goldeneye, teal, and more.

As we were leaving, a pair of mule deer walked silently through the woods, startling us when they passed just 10 feet in front of us.

You can go to Grand Teton National Park for the mountains; you can go there for the wildlife; you can go there for the trails; you can go there for the lakes.

We did all of these, and the lakes were certainly one of the highlights!

The Great Wyoming Adventure: Grand Teton Ungulates

After the exhausting drive, we had a good night's sleep and woke up excited to explore Grand Teton National Park.

From our hotel, the most direct way to the park is to take the Moose-Wilson Road, but for whatever reason we didn't do that.

Rather, we drove through downtown Jackson and then up U.S. 89 past the National Fish Hatchery and into the park.

This was our first opportunity to see Grand Teton National Park, and so we were drinking it in, stopping at every turnout and overlook, taking pictures of everything we saw.

You're not surprised, are you? That's just who I am.

But the day was beautiful and the views were beautiful and we were enjoying the drive. Here's how the Teton Range looked from Glacier Overlook on the Snake River that morning:

That's the Grand itself in the middle, with Mt. Owen and Teewinot to the right, and Middle Teton to the left. Look how clearly Gunsight Notch shows up in that picture! Note how, aside from the glaciers, the mountains are completely dry (It's the end of the summer, after all, the driest time of the year). I'll, uhm, have more to say about that later on...

Then we came around a bend in the road, and dropped down into an area known as Elk Ranch Flats, and suddenly we encountered our first Wildlife Jam (a traffic jam caused by wildlife).

Spread out across the valley were as many as 1000 bison, some just 40 feet from the highway, others grazing farther away, as far as the eye could see, on both sides of the road, while nearly 50 people were milling around, with cameras and binoculars and viewing scopes, observing and taking pictures.

Various pack horses also grazed in the meadown, and there were pronghorn antelope, too, although they were farther back from the road and harder to see.

Approaching Moran Junction, at the bridge over the appropriately-named Buffalo Fork of the Snake, a small group of animals moved cautiously in the woods, just out of sight. We speculated that they were some exotic species, but I suspect they were Mule Deer. Here in the Grand Tetons, mule deer tended to be quite dark gray in color.

We stopped for a while at Oxbow Bend, said to be the best place to see moose, but what we saw were cormorants, geese, and ducks. The meadows and marshes were certainly beautiful, though!

After lunch, we took a lovely walk around String Lake, with a side trip to Leigh Lake. The Grand Teton lakes are just indescribably beautiful; I'll have more to say about them another day, though.

It was getting late, and we decided we needed to start heading back toward our lodge, when, out of the corner of her eye, Donna spotted a solitary, majestic bull elk! We stopped the car and admired as the animal marched proudly across the road and into the meadow across from us, looking carefully around itself as it went.

Those are the Gros Ventre mountains in the distance. At this point, we were on Teton Park Road, just south of Jenny Lake, looking east toward the Gros Ventre Wilderness in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Just south of those mountains is found the National Elk Refuge, where most of these elk head to spend the winter months. The National Elk Refuge actually pre-dates Grand Teton National Park: the refuge was formed in 1912, while the park itself wasn't established until 1929.

We had many other adventures that day, and we were destined to see many more animals on our trip, but truly our first day in Grand Teton National park was The Day of the Ungulates!