Thursday, June 26, 2008

Diversity in reading

It would be difficult to come up with a set of books that have less in common than this set of four, which is currently my Goodreads feed on Facebook.

Introductory Econometrics with Applications by Ramanathan
An Army at Dawn: The War in Africa by Atkinson
Breakfast at Tiffany's by Capote
Furies of Calderon by Butcher

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Rachel Carson Challenge 2008

Rachel Carson trail sign
Every year, the Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy puts on the Rachel Carson Challenge ("The Challenge), ~34 mile hike from Harrison Hills Park to North Park, along whatever trail the conservancy has been able to stitch together with a myriad of agreements with private landowners, from Sunrise to Sunset on the Saturday closest to the Summer Solstice. In a world that is used to thinking in terms of digital precision, there is something gratifying about an event whose time and dimensions are based on physical reality instead of arbitrary human will. But there is nothing comforting about The Challenge itself. In fact it is brutal. By the time you are done you feel someone massaged your legs with a baseball bat. And it is deep pain, deep into the muscles of the thighs and calves.

Mary Reed in her article at says from her experience in the challenge last year

I ask my fellow participants why they are doing this. The answers fall into three general categories: for the challenge; because I’m crazy and/or stupid; I was drunk when I signed up.

I got to the North Hills parking area where I was ushered in by Mark, whom I know as a Red Cross volunteer. I made my way to the start with two people who I met on one of the training hikes. One of them was dressed in colonial era dress, reflecting this year's theme of General Forbes march across Pennsylvania, along with Pittsburgh's 250th anniversary.

When we told some Revoluntionary reenactors what we were doing (34 miles, one day), they said that if a horse did that we would have to put it down.

Colonial reenactor

We got to the start area and waited for sunrise. I met Steve there, setting up the tag scanning and radio. He remembered me from a computer donation a year ago.

My friends arrived soon after, and we waited for the beginning of the challenge along with the gathering crowd.

Five of us

Start area for the challenge

M to me: "Oh, then you are normal"
T: "No, his fiancee would describe him as anything but normal"

The challenge itself began with the sunrise, with the moon still lit. In Harrison Hills park we were soon greeted by mist over a pond.

Misty pond with moon in Harrison Hills Park

And so it was, 34 miles of trails, some roads, fields of wildflowers to cross,

wildflowers on the trail

utility lines to follow,


hills to descend,

Going down hills in the Rachel Carson Challenge

which always seemed to be followed by hills to climb.

The hills of Allegheny county

And along the way were the checkpoints, where volunteers checked us in, fed us, and encouraged us.

Volunteers at checkpoint 2

This year, also in keeping with the Pittsburgh 250th, the checkpoints also had names, after colonial era forts, like Fort Bedford.

Welcome to Fort Bedford

Along the way we had many random conversations. Encouraging other hikers, joking around with how crazy this was. Untangling just who recruited or hoodwinked, whom to do The Challenge. And giving aid, carrying packs of people who just could not get further and needed to get somewhere to be picked up. Wrapping knees or treating blisters. Giving directions and advice. Encouraging people to push further, letting those who could not go further know just how well they did. And talking about life, of service in Iraq and Afghanistan, a WWII vet who gave out water, the neighbor on the trail who gave out water, talking about married life and kids (letting a soon-to-be-married type some hints on what is to come).

I'm a believer that when I go hiking, I am usually doing something else as well, be it photography, birding, cooking and eating, or socializing. Of course, The Challenge is big enough that it can certainly be its own reason. But I used this as a test to my ability to carry radio equipment to last through the day. The Challenge has ham radio support at all the checkpoints and accompanying key volunteer staff throughout the day, some of whom are recruited off of the Allegheny County Public Service Net/ARES/RACES, which I am a part. So I carried a handheld radio, several batteries, and listened in throughout the day.

Ham at checkpoint one

As the day went on, the many things that go on were discussed over the radio net set up for The Challenge. From setting up the checkpoints, ensuring porta-potties were at all locations, to checking on supplies of food, water and ice. All the things that those of us on events are so thankful to see when we get to the checkpoints.

Radio at checkpoint 4

And the not so welcome messages. The tag numbers of the people dropping out. The questions about hikers not accounted for. Arranging for pickups of those who need help. And the warnings of the thunderstorm that was coming that evening.

As the miles went on and the knees were battered, I heard the warning coming of the thunderstorms for Ohio over the radio net, and that gave a sense of urgency to the last few miles. And on the trails of North Park the lightening and thunder started. My little group realized we were less than a mile from the finish, but took the better part of valor and jumped trail to the Sharon shelter to call for pickup. Not long after, we saw the sweep hikers shepherding other hikers off the trail and they brought us to the finish at Beaver shelter for food and rest for our battered legs.

Many thinks to all the volunteers, the training hike leaders (hi Bob and Donna), trail maintainers (hi Mark), everyone who manned checkpoints, logistics and management (hi Steve). And thanks to the radio support, for passing on their frequencies and letting me listen in, giving a bit of an education on the running of a net during an event. And for all the company on The Challenge. I'd welcome seeing you again on trails anywhere, anytime.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Gearing up for the Rachel Carson

Well, the Rachel Carson Challenge is this Saturday. Some things are not resolved just yet, like who will I be hiking with and when we are starting out, but there are options out there. But I'm a firm believer in I don't hike just for the sake of covering ground, I am always doing something else along the way. And that affects what I bring along.

Let's see, I am definitely bringing my VHF/UHF Handheld radio with me. I have a Yaesu FT-60R 2M/70cm radio. There are a few people on the Allegheny ARES/RACES who are assisting the Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy with radio support (whose members are busy obtaining their own licenses because this is so useful). So they will also let me know their frequencies, and I will be testing my ability to operate all day on foot, through forest and valley. I'm taking two extra batteries and I'm using a 1/4 wave antenna for the 2M band (Smiley 270A) I used a smaller MFJ-1717S on the practice hike, so I'll see if there is a difference. I've figured out my earpiece does not work so well on the move, so I'll use a handheld speaker mic. I'm using a Camelbak Maximal HAWG, so the FT-60 will be clipped to the MOLLE webbing on the side (and the side straps will help keep the whole thing stable).

Electrolytes became a problem on the last trip, so I got Camelbak elixir electrolyte tablets for use with the Camelbak. These are formulated without sugar, so they supposedly can be cleaned out of the bladder at the end of the day. We'll see how that works.

I'll have a Leatherman Micra as a multi-tool, and probably another knife. Last time I brought my CRKT M1. It and my Benchmade fixed Griptilian did yeoman's work on a camping trip this past weekend, cooking, cutting and even some batoning to break up some logs we were going to use for firewood. But the M1 is probably too heavy for this trip. And I could bring a Becker Necker, but a fixed blade is also probably too much, especially since I don't really need it. But I have a busted Kershaw Ken Onion Scallion sitting around (I took out a broken assist spring) that is probably not too much overkill. And it probably is big enough for anything that I may reasonably need.

Let's see, LED flashlight. A couple bandannas. I have an ankle reflecter that I'm putting on my camelbak for the early morning/early evening hours. A compass/whistle/thermometer. A cap with brim to keep the sun off my head. I'm bringing a single trekking pole. It is pretty much a necessity because of the hills. I usually only use one, because I like having one hand free to do things like eat, drink and take pictures.

Oh, and a new camera. A Pentax Optio W10, purchased because, well, it is small, and it is waterproof (and dustproof and sort of shock resistant). Because me and water go together. :-)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Rachel Carson Challenge 2008: Challenge training hike 3 of 4

I'm getting ready for the Rachel Carson Challenge, which is a 34 mile, one-day hike through trails across the northern part of Allegheny County, PA (Pittsburgh). Mary Reed in her article at says:

I ask my fellow participants why they are doing this. The answers fall into three general categories: for the challenge; because I’m crazy and/or stupid; I was drunk when I signed up.

No points for guessng which category I fall into.

Last weekend was the last of the challenge training hikes. An ambitious 19.3 mile trek. And, in accordance to the plan for the actual challenge itself, I went in the slow group. With me were J (who I met on the last challenge training hike I did), S (friend of S. When S asked her to sign up for the challenge, it turned out that some details were left out. Like the actual challenge was 34 miles), and D (training hike organizer, and sweep, to make sure that no bodies were left on the trail when the training hike was over). (T, who is the guy who is getting me to do this thing, was a no show, some excuse about being out of the state) The plan was to start off of Bull Creek Road and Ridge Road by Tarantum (map link) and end up in Dorseyville (map link). And do this in 97F (!) heat.

Well, the most obvious thing about the day was, it was hot. D had made the comment that she has never seen it so hot on a challenge (or training hike) before. Along the way we made a stop at Sheetz, and I wolfed down a whole bottle of gatorade. The areas that were forested or in parks were nice. But things like Murray Hill (steepest hill on the Rachel Carson Trail) and the various power line cuts like the infamous Roller Coaster were out in the open, in the blazing sun. About four hours into the hike D started getting calls from people who were ahead, letting us know they were dropping out of the hike and were making pickup arrangements (because D was the organizer, just polite to let her know that your body is not on the trail somewhere needing to be picked up).

The heat was getting to us too. I was fighting off heat cramps (the gatorade I picked up at Sheets did wonders for that). And everyone was showing some signs of heat exaustion. At around 6 miles, one person was suffering from nausea, and on spotting a side trail that went to the road (we were on the Roller Coaster at the time), made the decision to quit while the getting was good. It turned out we were in Springdale, and close to the Rachel Carson Homestead. This made for a good pickup point and D's husband graciously came out to pick us up and bring us to our cars.

So, what did we get out of strenuous hiking in 97F weather for 6 hours. Well, there is definitely the workout. But these things are more then physical. There is the testing of mental preparation, both the amourphous mentally preparing oneself for a test, but also the practical aspects of being intelligent about doing something challenging. And the decision making. D had said she had never before bailed on a hike. But the mental capacity to recognize when a course of action should not be continued is vitally important, because it can mean the difference between an experience to remember, and a fatality. Because the backcountry (and nature) deals with physical realities, that do not bend to what you may want to believe, or what you wish was true, or mental will. And something like this, which is a test to the point of failure, makes you know exactly where you stand in the world.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Introductory Econometrics with Applications by Ramu Ramanathan

Introductory Econometrics with Applications Introductory Econometrics with Applications by Ramu Ramanathan

My review at Goodreads
I've been realizing that most of the data I work with are observational as opposed to the experimental data that most statistics that I know are designed for. So I've been working through this econometrics text. By way of background, I've taken Statistics as undergrad using books and tables, as a master's, which was essentially using SAS, and as a grad student, in a very mathematical sense. Working through Intro. Econometrics with Applications was learning what all the math based stats in grad school, but actually understanding it. And the computer package Gretl makes the learning interactive.

Ramanathan's biggest strength is he does not stop at teaching definitions, formula and methods. And his example applications do not stop at working through methodology. He uses the computer output to build intuition, asking the question of why this variable is what it is, or why two models are different. The use of Gretl enhances this. The scripts and data sets make it easy to see the examples at work, but also make it very easy to explore. I found myself running the scripts, then exploring the data sets in Gretl to further analysis, and building my understanding. The mathematical derivations are there, but having both the theory and the computer outputs for discussion make for a good match.

The book datasets and examples are bundled into the econometrics package Gretl, which is an open source program (available for Windows, Mac, Linux). In addition to correctness (it passes completely the NIST datasets, which is something even SAS and SPSS don't do) the scripts let you see what is happening (as opposed to SAS which often seems like black boxes inside the PROC statement). And more flexible then the menu based packages like Minitab (or Excel based statistical packages). Compared to R/S-Plus there is a shorter learning curve, as Gretl displays more of the output immediately, while allowing various statistics to be exposed for later use if needed (the reverse of R, which exposes statistics, but makes you work to display them. Great for programming, but harder for exploring data to the neophyte.)

I think that texts like this that are integrated with a full fledged statistics package (as opposed to purely math or a demo version) make the learning and applying of statistics different. (other texts that have Gretl datasets available are listed at Data for gretl) The focus of the learning is not on the memorization of equations or definitions, but on the learning of methods and techniques. The chapter summaries become short forms of methodology (as opposed to formula) with the assumptions that the various methods repeated as well. I found this to be a particularly effective format for a first book on a subject (assumes a first sequence in undergrad statistics has been completed).

As of now, I've gone through 5 chapters of the book, working through the examples. As I do this, I am learning a lot about analysis, that is going to inform a project I am starting up. That is probably the best testimony for a book of this type.

View all my reviews.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher

[Originally written at Goodreads]

A story of a boy Tavi, who is exceptional in his lack of identifyable talents. Where everyone has a semi-magical bond, he does not, and he survives on wits. And he does not have much of those either.

The story is in the backdrop of a insurrection, where one of the principles is one of the reigning governments greatest agents, who is set against a very talented protoge. What worked well was this sense of a insurgency raised by tribes along the frontier of civilization, where the wealthy center is mostly ignorant, and in the end the fight depends on the loyalties and goals of those who live on the frontier and not on the military who come from the center.

The characters are not as well developed as Jim Butcher's Dresden series. Of course, this is the first one. All of them have a tendency to slip into single-mindedness to the point of self-destruction (which is something that Jim seems to like). Maybe, like Dresden, they will learn as their characters become richer.