Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Almost missed this one: John Derbyshire reviews a collection of nature writing, and gives a very nice tip of the hat to Steve, who is not included:
The [political] Left survives and flourishes because, as well as there being plenty of people whose satisfaction in life is to boss others around, there are even more who are willing to be bossed. Those who are not so willing — persons of a prickly-libertarian temperament — often head out to the wild places, to end up as lovers of the raw creation. There is, too, that aspect of the conservative temperament that abhors sentimentality and wishful thinking, and greets with happy recognition the cycles of death and mayhem that comprise most of the natural world's activity. I am thinking here, in both cases, of the Western writer Stephen J. Bodio, whose 1998 memoir On the Edge of the Wild offers an eloquent hunter's perspective on nature.

The Left undoubtedly has the best of it, though. They certainly have the best of this volume, which contains nothing of Stephen Bodio's at all — nothing at all sympathetic to hunting, except as carried out by American Indians.
The review finishes, unexpectedly, as a positive one. I note with amusement and approval that he prefers unknown writers, "writers I had never heard of, but whom I am glad to have encountered," among whom he numbers Ed Abbey. And though I agree with his assessment of two samples which he rightly mocks as purple prose, I disagree about his Eliot Porter quote:
In the winding canyon dark and light reflections replace one another in slow succession. The gentle wake of the boat breaks these images into undulating spots and patches, each wave for a moment holding a fragment of sky mixed with golden globules of sunlit rock.
I suppose Mr. Porter may be justly accused here of having failed to convey the moment to a distant audience, but the moments here described are a very large part of why I squandered years of time and set myself far behind my peers financially working as a ne'er-do-well river guide. Sunny canyon reflections on shaded water, broken by concentric ripples from my quietly dripping oars: it was worth everything for that alone.

Also worth noting is Mr. Derbyshire's mention of the decline in outdoor recreation:

While reading America's Earth I came upon a report just issued by the Nature Conservancy, telling us that people are spending less time in the Great Outdoors than ever before. Activity in this zone has been declining for twenty years, the researchers tell us. The annual per capita rates of decline have been from one percent to one and a quarter, depending on the type of activity measured — camping, backpacking, fishing, hiking, hunting, or trips to national and state parks and forests.
I hear this a lot, and it's probably true, but it's often hard to believe. It seems to be an instance of Yogi Berra's "No one goes there anymore. It's too crowded." So many places are positively infested with recreationists (as Mr. Derbyshire may recall from his hike to Inspiration Point in Grand Teton, where he missed the Peculiars by only a couple days). Even Nevada is becoming a destination, while REI, EMS and their ilk seemingly continue to flourish. I know people (assholes, I might add) who use Delicate Arch as a Frisbee golf hole. I suppose it's true though. Outdoor activities are now dominated by gearheads and destination vacationists, while locals who use their public land backyards on a regular basis do seem to be on the wane. The economic demographics of outdoor recreation are also unencouraging. My river company, which is actually a non-profit organization ostensibly dedicated to exposing the voting public to wilderness, recently raised prices on trips because people seemed to assume that our low cost reflected low quality. Bookings went up and honest working clientele continue to decline.

Still, though many places are overrun, a great many aren't. They can have Grand Teton and the Maroon Bells. There are areas right next door where I can still be confident of not seeing a soul.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

More Tibet

...without (much) commentary from me. It all gets increasingly convulted; judge for yourself.

Here's an interesting perspective from a mountaineer who's been in Lhasa (scroll down to post by Corax towards bottom). The poster is a serious Swedish climber, and his observations are not to be lightly dismissed. To be fair, though, I had not had the impression from the international media that the Tibet protests were peaceful or harmless.

Meanwhile, here's another assessment of the state of Chinese and international media. Here's an account of alleged Chinese cyber attacks on Tibet activists, Uighurs and Falun Gong. And here's a report that China may ban live broadcasts from Tiananmen square during the Olympics.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Today is the birthday of Benito Pablo Juárez García, about whom I'm ashamed to admit I knew nothing. On a whim, I looked him up on Wikipedia, and found him to be, at least on the surface, an admirable fellow.
Juárez was born in the small village of San Pablo Guelatao, Oaxaca, located in the mountain range now known as the "Sierra Juárez." His parents, Marcelino Juárez and Brígida García were peasants who died when he was three years old. He described his parents as "Amerindians of the primitive race of the country." He worked in the corn fields and as a shepherd until the age of 12. On December 17, 1818, he walked to the city of Oaxaca looking to educate himself and find a better life. At the time he was illiterate and could not speak Spanish, only Zapotec.

In the city he had a sister who worked as a cook and there, he took a job as a domestic servant and eagerly made up for his lack of education. A lay Franciscan, Antonio Salanueva, was impressed with young Benito's intelligence and thirst for learning, and arranged for his placement at the city's seminary. He studied there but decided to pursue law rather than the priesthood. He graduated from the seminary in 1827 and went on to gain a degree in law.
Aside from seizing Church properties, he seemed to have been industrious, honorable, and dedicated.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Chas found it first and the Atomic Nerds personalized it, so in the interest of continuing Barbie ethnography, I'll offer some more easily overlooked specimens. Santa Fe has any number of them, of course, but particularly noteably to this blog's readership is
St. John's College [Santa Fe] Barbie: Available in a wide variety of hairstyles and body types, this Barbie's accessories include a bong and hardcover copies of Plato's Republic and the Fagles Iliad. Optional conversion kit to Eastern Orthodoxy available.

Española Barbie, Alternative Model: Includes long flowing robes and turban. Most commonly used with Santa Fe Whole Foods Market playset. Ken includes a dagger and a security business.

Truchas Barbie: Commonly mistaken for Española Barbie, Trucheña Barbie's accessories include an elk rifle, several yard appliances, stray livestock, and a kit to sabotage Santa Fe and Taos Barbies' vehicles when parked at local trailheads.

Steve is hereby challenged to offer up Catron County Barbie. Anyone else? I'd say glaring omissions include Tierra Amarilla, Roswell and Gallup Barbies.
Things I did not know about Alcibiades, part one: he had a lisp.

Probably not the kind you are thinking of, but the kind that, when you bweak into somebody's pawty dwunk and stawt chatting up the guests and pwaising Socwates, make evewyone say, "Awwwww..."

The kind of thing that makes the most beautiful person in existence (and also the quickest thinker, and the best rhetorician, and the greatest general--undefeated for life on whatever side he chose--and the best charioteer and a triple-medalist in the Olympic Games and a seriously impious fellow one way or t'other) just that much cuter.

He reminds me of Zhuge Liang; they were both dicks.
Running post; you have been warned. I ran the Shamrock 8km on Sunday (bad Episcopalian!) in 35:07. Not bad, but not great either. Some thoughts: I can go faster. If I'd known the distance better I could have cut 2 minutes off my time by not starting too slowly. I ran the first mile in 8:41 and the last in 6:17--and had enough left for a really stupid 200 yard burst at the finish. Next time I won't save up like that. Also, running with a big group of people is a blast! There was always someone going my pace, and even when I got boxed in, the course was wide enough that it didn't last long. I'm going to do this sort of thing again.

Update for posterity, in case the link should ever die:
I want a bonny tardigrade to serve me for a steed.
I'd harness him with watercress and provend him with mead.
We'd leave the hillock for the plain, forth to the desert wend;
from each bright globule of his brow a dock leaf I'd prepend.
His limbs, gone leathery with thirst, would lose their lustrous sheen,
and then I would rehydrate him with pulls from my canteen.
His feet would clasp the dunes beneath, his snout survey the sky,
while I, upon his back, sought out our caravanserai.
Unendingly we'd course the earth, our fortune never fixed --
the West Wind gee, the East Wind haw, and him and me betwixt.
My Octopod Bucephalus, my ally and my charge!
I'd do it all, were he less small, or I less sodding large.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Chinese have closed Mt. Everest from the north until after the Olympic torch is carried up. The mountaineering community speculates that the Chi-Coms dread the appearance of a Free Tibet banner in propaganda photos. They have unsuccessfully lobbied the Nepalese government to impose a similar ban on south side expeditions. Interestingly, they have also closed Cho Oyu, which is not particularly close to Everest or the torch route, but was the sight of last year's shooting of Tibetans by the Chinese army. News of the atrocity was broken by a few mountaineers, a Brit, two Romanians and a Slovenian who provided photographic evidence. Most of the parties on the mountain said nothing at the time, no doubt fearing a reprisal just such as this season's ban. Given the narrow window of opportunity for climbing Everest, the need for extensive legwork and acclimatization, this effectively kills most expeditions from the north this year. The guiding companies will take a big hit, and I certainly feel bad for climbers who have already put massive sums towards their ambitions this season. A massive influx of climbers switching their plans to the Nepalese side may also make for a very interesting season.

I will not be watching the games this summer (not much of a boycott, since I don't even have a TV, but what else can I do?), since it is increasingly apparent that they will be mainly a massive PR stunt on behalf of the Chinese government. The only thing I worry I will miss out on is some daring act of protest, but no doubt that will be instantly available on Youtube. I do hope that something occurs to make the country's rulers exceedingly uncomfortable while every news agency on earth is covering them live. As inconvenient as the Everest closure is to mountaineers, we can only hope that it will be one more event to focus the world's attention on the deplorable behavior of the Chinese regime. I hope it makes the news, I hope it thereby brings the Nangpa La murders back on the news just in time for the torch relay. Romanian witness Alex Gavan put it in a nutshell:

”China, a country to host the Olympic Games in 2008, is slaughtering its citizens.”

Update, 3-16: Nepal succumbs. More here and here. I'll comment soon.

Update, 3-17: Also, lots of interest regarding the Lhasa protests/riots from Dave's Gone China, including translations of Chinese Internet chatter on Tibet (more), which provide an interesting window into how mainstream Chinese see the problem. Reactions are a mixed bag.

Alright, final update for now: The Nepalese deny closures, but the situation remains ambiguous. Meanwhile, here's some reporting from Lhasa. Welcome to interacting with China in the 21st Century, folks. The Everest closures of course pale in comparison with the situation in Lhasa, but I still think they deserve coverage inasmuch as they enlighten us to the realities of life in an unfree society. Your life's ambition, a large portion of your savings, your mountain guiding livelihood, even your subsistance as a sherpa or local purveyor can be demolished on a whim of your government, for the slenderest of PR justifications. The Chinese can also put substantial financial pressure on anyone who might see things differently, as with their 121 million Euro loan to Nepal. And yet we rush to make our economics ever more dependent on China's goodwill. The Taiwanese better not be counting on our protection; we have already been bought, we just don't seem to know it yet.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

On a lighter note, take a moment to read about Parachute-Gelenkhüü, the Mongolian Icarus, a sort of early 20th Century Mongol folk hero. His highly optimistic flight was fortuitously curtailed by sheep.

Mongolia's airport art has a much better sense of humour than ours.

Hat tip: The Regal Vizsla.

Also in Grand Canyon news, there's a new theory of its formation just out which deems its age much greater than previous estimates. While the structure of its constituent rock strata is pretty simple, explaining the formation of the Canyon itself has long been very contentious. "If you ever want to see geologists screaming at each other," an informed person once told me, "ask them to interpret the Grand Wash Cliffs Formation." We'll see how the new theory holds up long-term.
The brief Grand Canyon experimental "flood" is over.

I find that perhaps my previous comment on the flood was somewhat unclear. A longtime reader and friend writes:

With the caveat that I am a plant ecologist and not a geohydrologist, and am not familiar with the Salmon River, I think the problem with doing flooding experiments with the Salmon is that there is no dam and thus no large amount of water to use to mimic a flooding event with. Sure, someone could (and I hope is) studying the flood cycle of the Salmon River, but for controlled experiment's sake a damned [sic, indeed] river is better.
(Sorry it's taken me a while to reply, but, well, life gets in the way. And I'm not a geohydrologist either, but I've drunk some beers with them on river trips, so I'll try and do my best to answer.)

The problem with doing flooding experiments in the GC is that there is no large amount of water to use to mimic a flooding event, the dam notwithstanding. Releases from Glen Canyon are determined by a bewildering host of factors: agriculture in California; municipal water needs in Phoenix, Vegas and So-Cal; electricity needs in Arizona; our treaty obligations to provide Mexico with 2 million acre-feet yearly; balancing inflow (i.e., snow melt) with diversions in upper basin states while maintaining useful water levels in three major downstream reservoirs and three major and a host of minor upstream reservoirs. Powell Reservoir has been very low for years now, while water demands continue to increase; no water has reached the Gulf of Mexico since 1982. Under these conditions, sedimentation research in the Grand Canyon is very low on the totem pole.

Indeed, the current flood is really just a small bone thrown to conservationists by the Bureau of Reclamation. Other people besides me are unhappy about the experiment. For instance, the Executive Director of the Grand Canyon Trust:

We need high flows to rebuild habitats whenever we get significant sediment inputs from tributary streams, but instead we get rare, “historic” experiments. We need more natural steady flows through most of the remainder of the year to protect spawning and rearing habitat for humpback chub in the Colorado River, but what we get is continued erosion of backwaters and beaches through an almost unbroken regimen of fluctuating flows... if this high flow experiment is part of a package with no more floods for five years and just two months a year of steady flows, then the package will impair the resources in Grand Canyon.
Or the National Parks Conservation Association:
...the experimental plan fails to include follow-up floods, which are critical to ensuring that endangered fish and sandbars are preserved. Instead, it calls for steady releases during September and October over the next five years –essentially locking-in smaller flows from the dam in order to generate additional power – when larger flows might be more beneficial to the park’s ecosystem at other times of the year, particularly in the spring.
This "flood's" 41,500 cubic feet per second for 60 hours is a paltry flood in a drainage the size of the Colorado Basin. And we only get this every four years (the last such experiment was in 2004). I have no doubt that these events do provide a wealth of data for scientists, and are useful due to their closely controlled nature, one data set in four years is a pretty plodding pace of research.

The big thing that's missing in the science here is baseline data for the behavior of sediment in a natural river system of this size. No one thought to look at any of this before the dam went in in 1963. And there is precisely one river system in the same ballpark in the United States unaffected by dams: the Salmon. Lets look at some hydrographs (which I got here). Here is the Main Salmon's high water season (April-July) for the last two years

2006, a fairly average year:

2007, a low year:

(Note that the scales are not the same; 2007's peak was about 38,000 cfs, while 2006's was over 90,000. That's a ton of water, and the Salmon can go way bigger than that!) Observe how the high flows are spread out over a good three months. Low elevations melt first, it peaks when the weather really heats up, and lingering snow melt and groundwater keep feeding it, stretching out the right end of the graph. Note also the multiple small peaks.

Now lets look at the Colorado. Here's last week, encompassing the flood:

And here's the last 12 months of business as usual at Glen Canyon Dam, with the flood spike at the far right:

In the flood graph, obviously, we have a sharp rise, a steady plateau and a sharp fall, enormously different from a natural high-water episode. In the lower graph, note that the daily fluctuations are so extreme that they're represented by three separate lines; GC boaters have to be careful when setting up camp to avoid being flooded or having their boats beached. The many little spikes represent weekday vs. weekend flows: they don't need as much electricity Saturday and Sunday when Phoenix office buildings are closed. Note also the increase to power Phoenix A/C in the summer heat.

Is a four day peak long enough to really stir up the sand and put it where we want it? Does the steep right-hand tail of the flood actually do harm by causing beaches to erode into very steep banks, something I've observed non-scientifically in Idaho (Mark Schmeeckle is probably working on this question as we speak)? What would happen if we three one-day floods instead? Is 41,500 cfs at all adequate, or do we really need something closer to historic highs (estimated to have been something like 70,000 to 300,000 cfs on the Colorado pre-dam; again, the Salmon's the only river with at all comparable bed and gradient that gets anything like these flows)? These are the kind of questions which the Salmon's annual natural flood experiment could help answer, without being dependent on the vagaries of western water politics. No, it's not a controlled experiment, but natural scientists commonly use natural experiments to gather data on phenomena for which a deliberate experiment would be irresponsible or impossible. That's how we've gained almost all of our knowledge about things like debris flows, landslides, avalanches and forest fires, let alone earthquakes, volcanism and astronomy.

Also worthy of note is that baseline data for sediment behavior in a natural river system would not be useful only in the Grand Canyon. Lodore Canyon below Flaming Gorge Dam on the Green and the entire Dolores River in Colorado have very similar management issues. I ran Lodore on an experimental flood in 1999 (which was a blast), but there hasn't been another, and we're not likely to see one any time soon. McPhee Reservoir has rendered the Dolores virtually dead for two decades. The Yampa (the last significant undammed river in the Colorado Basin) is also threatened by headwaters diversions and a dam on the Little Snake which would cut off its major source of sediment. Solid baseline data on sediment behavior would greatly benefit conservation proposals for these rivers.

"But what's the point?", you ask. "If the Bureau is so loathe to release a piddling flood for research purposes, we'll never see a flow regime that even vaguely mimics the natural hydrograph." Good point, and alas, very probably true. But you never know: things change. Water issues are only likely to get worse in the Colorado Basin, and if the Colorado River Compact ever comes up for major renovation, conservationists need to have their ducks in a row, with specific proposals instead of just objections. Also, every dam in the Basin is silting up in a big hurry; whether they like it or not, the Bureau is going to have to come up with some new plans eventually, and it would be nice to know how all the silt in the reservoirs is going to behave. Or the drought might even break (hey, I can dream), the dams might someday be looking to release large volumes (as Glen Canyon Dam was forced to do in 1981 and 1983), in which case scientists should be able to tell them how to do it in an ecologically beneficial manner.

You can never have too much data these days, and the Main Salmon is a great place to get some. And there are any number of grad students looking to research their theses is beautiful surroundings*. Grad students, I'm available, I know the Salmon and I'm a good river cook. Science!!!!

*I talked once with a guy who was writing his thesis on box elder trees in Dinosaur National Monument. "So what got you so interested in box elders?" I asked. "They grow here," said he.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Y'all are reading Skin Horse, right? I wasn't sure it was going to be my bag until the quasi-Italian irradiated silverfish started singing opera....
From the Annals of the Grand Historian:
These, then, were the actions undertaken by the Duke of Qin after his victories. Without any check to his desires, he began to oppress the people, and, at the advice of Li Su, destroying the works of the scholars. At this time a popular song began to circulate amongst the peasantry, which I here record.
O such a bad Duke of Qin
I scarcely know where to begin
For he's a horrible, terrible
Wholly unbearable
Rascally mad Duke of Qin

His taxes are really quite fair--
At least if you get by on air
He drips jade and gold whilst we starve in the cold--
That miserly mad Duke of Qin

The scholars he takes from their books
And gives both their eyes to the rooks
He answers their learning with strangling and burning
That arrogant mad Duke of Qin

We pity the Confucianist
Whose name has appeared on his list
His pleas go unheard, so far down he's interred--
Such a rotten old mad Duke of Qin

With each of his neighbors he's made peace--
By killing them down to the least
Each federate state but a crumb on his plate,
Th'incontinent mad Duke of Qin

His justice is modelled on trust:
He trusts us to die when we must
"For virtue's the fruit of which torture's the root,"
So says the mad Duke of Qin

We'd love to move out of this state
But such simply is not our Fate
For he owns all the land from the sea to the sand
That cantankerous,
Disgustingly mad Duke of Qin!