Saturday, December 13, 2008

Perigee: The Big Full Moon

I took these two pictures outside the Googleplex this evening, thanks to the hint given by a colleague. As NASA explains, the full Moon of Dec 12 was the biggest and brightest because it's actually closest to Earth compared to all the other Moons we've seen and will see in 2008.

I like the Moon, especially when it is this shiny. However, Earth is my favorite planet because it's bigger and has a more interesting surface, and it's still superior at supporting life. Nevertheless, traveling to the moon might be entertaining: In addition to playing around in its low gravity I'd like to point my camera back at Earth to take a shot like this, but with a lot more blue and white.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Fun with ZDDs

I had a chance to attend Don Knuth's 14th annual Christmas Tree Lecture at nearby Stanford.

Great talk. Like most computer scientists, I was familiar with BDDs before, but I had never even heard of ZDDs - and yes, I didn't even know what it was prior to attending the talk. It turns out that ZDDs are a compact way to represent families of sets - for some problems more compact than any other technique, and there is a nice algebra with operations over them that can be implemented efficiently. The talk was easy to follow, full of examples, explanations, and even some good humor - but the best part is just how much Knuth himself is fascinated by the subject, which might very well be contagious in a good sense: he's made me a fan of ZDDs. When it becomes available online, I recommend watching this, and I'm planning on attending the lecture next year (and the following years). For now, most of the material covered in the talk is available as a preprint in Fascicle 1b of the Art of Computer Programming: Binary Decision Diagrams under the section "Zero-suppressed BDDs: A combinatorial alternative". Knuth said he will update this section soon and it will also appear in print.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Mammoth Mountain and Emerald Bay

On Thanksgiving weekend Stefan and I stayed in South Lake Tahoe for the first night, and then went on to Mammoth early in the morning. It was a lengthy drive, but the snow in Mammoth was worth it. Coming down the Kingsbury Grade into Carson Valley was especially scenic this time - houses were hiding under a blanket of fog.

Mammoth Mountain is a big resort, and it has interesting terrain. The snow earlier in the week mostly skipped Tahoe and went here, so they had a variety of terrain open, including a few double diamonds. This picture however is from a trail that wasn't open. There wasn't a "closed" sign either (I swear), but the lift (lift 14) sure was not running. Now that I had sailed into this, I did my best to enjoy it; but which path to take - left or right? Thinking that the only visible track in the snow must have been a local who knew what he/she was doing I went right. The first few turns were great (fresh snow!!!), but then I had to unstrap: not enough coverage - oops! - my run ended in a field of boulders...

The wind blew hard at the top of Mammoth Mountain, but the views made up for this. The picture below shows the sunny backside - which is not for skiing but just for looking. The upper, steeper section of the mountain is on the opposite side, mostly in shade, and as we dropped over the edge we were greeted by a lengthy sheet of ice. After this it was decent snow though, and the "Face Lift" which doesn't go all the way to the top made enough of this terrain accessible without the inconvenience of wind and ice.

The next day we went to Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe, so I had to take a shot of the island.

We hiked up the Eagle Lake trail and returned via the Bayview Trail. We did not find much snow on the trail - it was certainly easy to hike in regular hiking boots.

The sun set and we came by Granite Lake, which I really liked.

A bit later, Emerald Bay put on its post-sunset glow as well.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy turkey day, and thanks much for the powder cloud!

Ciabatta bread, roasted turkey, brie, avocado, pepperonici, lettuce, and dijon mustard is all it takes for me - what a delicious sandwich! And it's pretty big, too; in fact normally I'd say such a sandwich is perhaps a tad more than enough (the picture shows only half of it). But I look at it in context of Thanksgiving - most Americans will eat orders of magnitude more on this day (I have witnessed this personally), so this sandwich is really a relatively modest celebration.

In other news, a powder cloud is finally blessing California this week, and I'm very much looking forward to playing in the snow again. My favorite quote from this years Warren Miller movie says it all: It's frozen waves, dude!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Oceanic November Colors

Recently, I've become more aware that I live close to the edge of all the world and western civilization, that is, the Pacific Ocean. It's just 40 minutes away with the car. I had driven along the coast on Highway 1, taken pictures of the Golden Gate, walked along Gold Bluffs beach, and even taken a brief swim at China Beach near San Francisco at some point. But by far the best way to get to know the ocean is to surf!

The best picture is the one that I could not take since I did not have my camera with me. I was surfing near Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz on November 15. There was a wonderful sunset - red, orange, golden colors, which reflected on the waves. The sun set near the Santa Cruz lighthouse. The Big Sur mountains looked close. Against the sunlight, surfers in dark wetsuits were dancing on the waves. I had fun, too, but wouldn't claim it was dancing and the ocean washed my face thoroughly a few times, leaving behind a salty though not unpleasant taste. Perhaps that's what makes the perspective from a surfboard so much more intense than standing on the shore with a camera or binoculars.

Another day I wanted to experience a "stormy" sea, so I went to Point Lobos with rain and strong winds in the forecast, and rubber boots so at least my feet would remain dry as I'd hike around the rocky beach. Water, rain, rocks, and birds put on a nice spectacle.

Of course, the typical fall colors in California are much less gloomy - surely in this state, making black and white pictures takes effort. Here is a picture of the Santa Cruz lighthouse with the more authentic Californian sunshine. Unfortunately the waves had been too small for a fun surfing session, so I was rollerblading along Cliff Drive with my camera.

Last but not least some fall colors from Menlo Park, taken earlier today.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

One plastic bottle of water is equivalent to driving roughly half a mile.

Many people feel strongly about bottled water. They feel that bottled water is terrible for the environment, much too expensive, and perhaps unhealthy due to chemicals in the plastic.

The other camp believes that bottled water is convenient and much healthier than soft drinks. And bottled water sure is popular.

I think it's important to compare the environmental impact of bottled water to other human activities. For me, it's most intuitive to compare the impact with driving around in a car. So, let's suppose I drive with a few friends from Mountain View to Lake Tahoe on a weekend and back (450 miles) while consuming 20 plastic water bottles. It turns out that very roughly, the environmental impact of the water bottles makes up about 2% of the trip.

Here is my rough calculation:
  • The Pacific Institute says that "the total amount of energy embedded in our use of bottled water can be as high as the equivalent of filling a plastic bottle one quarter full with oil".
  • These water bottles are usually 500 ml (16.9 FL OZ), so that's 125 ml of oil per bottle.
  • Wikipedia says that "on average, about 19.5 US gallons (16.2 imp gal/74 L) of gasoline are available from a 42-US-gallon (35 imp gal/160 L) barrel of crude oil (about 46% by volume), varying due to quality of crude and grade of gasoline". This means that the bottle is equivalent to roughly 58 ml of gasoline, or 0.0153 US gallons.
  • My car gets about 30 miles per gallon on lengthy trips, so that's 0.460 miles of driving for the 0.0153 gallons of gasoline.
  • It's around 450 miles to Tahoe and back, so the 20 bottles are equivalent to an additional 9.2 miles of driving, which is 2% of 450+9.2.
This calculation of course is very rough and has multiple weak points; among them:
  • The estimate by the Pacific Institute may be inaccurate.
  • There is more environmental impact from the car than just burning the gasoline. Relatively speaking this would lower the relative impact of the water bottles.
  • The conversion from oil to gasoline may be more or less efficient. That is, one may need to invest additional energy to convert from oil to gas - this would lower the relative impact of the water bottles.
  • Perhaps we should compare with a diesel engine (since diesel fuel is closer to oil) or more efficient cars - this would make the relative impact of the water bottles greater.
  • The trip might involve other activities with environmental impact (e.g. sleeping at a hotel, eating ribs, etc.). This would lower the relative impact of the water bottles.
Despite all this I still think it's a valuable ballpark estimate for the order of magnitude of the environmental impact of plastic water bottles. Another, simpler comparison to make is that according to the Pacific Institute, roughly 17 million barrels of oil each year are used to make bottled water; and according to the US government, the US consumes 20.68 million barrels per day. So, very roughly, eliminating all use of water bottles with something that has no environmental impact is equivalent to the US consuming no oil for one day each year.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Twin Peaks, Blue Angels, and Cowells Beach.

There isn't really a grand story to tell about the pictures I'm about to post below - sorry about this. Basically, it was just a relaxed Sunday, and I ended up in San Francisco and noticed the clear sky. Went up to Twin Peaks, which is one of my favorite places in the city, and took this panoramic.

At the same time an air show was going on. The "Blue Angles" flew in interesting patterns over the bay.

Perhaps the coolest neighborhood of San Francisco is the Mission District. Here is a higher resolution shot of this area.

And now my story makes a jump to Santa Cruz, where I went for a little surfing in the late afternoon. Unfortunately I haven't found a good way to take surfing pictures yet, so this view of the Santa Cruz Wharf from the cliff above Cowells will have to do.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Cottonwood Lakes, Cirque Peak (12900ft), and Mt. Langley (14026 ft)

A few weeks ago, Stefan and I did a 3 day hike to Cirque Peak and Mt. Langley. This hike went the way a lengthy hike should go, in my opinion. While it started at a busy parking lot, the trail was surprisingly empty and it was also easy to find nice places for setting up the tent. After sleeping the night in the car on the parking lot, we started hiking on Saturday morning, taking the trail to Cottonwood Lakes, which follows the Cottonwood Creek. We arrived at the lakes around 11am. Most of these lakes are just a bit below the tree line at 11k ft, and the bare rock faces rising up behind and around the lakes have interesting patterns. This wilderness is so rich in beauty that people did not even bother to name the lake and the rock shown in this picture.

We setup the tent at Long Lake, and decided to hike up New Army Pass to Cirque Peak since the day was still young and we could nicely acclimatize to the high altitude this way. Not far from our tent, we crossed this little creek.

As we were climbing New Army pass, swiftly moving clouds appeared and we debated whether we might get wet. Luckily, the clouds ultimately remained east, north, and south of our trail. From the top of New Army pass, we took a first look at Mt. Langley. The clouds and the angle of the sun highlighted the rock faces on its south-eastern side.

Patches of little red flowers grow around 11800 ft.

As we hiked over to Cirque peak by following a lengthy ridge, we looked west into Sequoia National Park. For many miles, there are no roads or houses here, or any other signs of civilization - just wilderness, and plenty of fresh air.

We saw yellow flowers on the way to and at Cirque Peak at 12900 ft.

After a little discussion we decided to head down the north side of Cirque Peak, which does not have any trail. I ended up a tiny bit behind while messing around with my camera, ending up just in the right position to take this shot.

We were back at our camp site before sunset.

The next morning, we hiked up New Army Pass again, however this time we carried all our equipment because we were planning to come down Old Army Pass and camp at another lake that night. It was very windy throughout the day. This picture shows High Lake.

This picture is a panoramic shot from the top of New Army Pass. It starts north, with the lengthy bare mountain that has rock cliffs on its east side being Mt. Langley. Left (west) of that, one can see Mt. Whitney lurking. In the center, Long Lake and the South Fork Lakes are visible. The prominent peak behind the two boulders in the foreground is Cirque Peak - and there is the ridge line leading up to it which we had hiked the previous day.

While Langley was in plain sight the whole time, it still took us a while to get there. The wind was blowing hard, and as we took the switch backs and rock scrambles to the top, sometimes it blew in the right direction and sometimes not. Naturally, at the top of the 14er the wind was especially noticeable, though my attempts to take off were unsuccessful.

Looking north from Langley, the scenery is even more dramatic. Langley's north face is a cliff, and beyond that there are some lakes and more steep rock faces, and of course Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. Looking in this direction, it seems improbable how doable the hike up the south side of Langley is.

After lunch, we left the top of Langley and hiked towards Old Army Pass, which is in the same general direction as New Army Pass. The peak at the center of this panoramic is Cirque Peak.

Old Army Pass is a little steeper and the trail is narrower than New Army Pass. The rocks north of it are awesome looking.

We descended back below the tree line and set up camp between Lake 4 and an unnamed lake. This picture shows Langley just before we got to Lake 4.

The next morning was spectacular. The wind was gone, and the lakes were now perfect mirrors of the surrounding landscape.

After this gorgeous Monday morning, we hiked back to the parking lot and left the wilderness. Having been to the top of a 14er the day before, the first reaction upon reaching the valley floor near Lone Pine is to look back up the mountains and identify it.

For more pictures, check out my Picasa album of this hike.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Half Dome, Yosemite

I'm still not done with selecting the pictures from our Mt. Langley hike, but in the meantime I thought I'd put up some from a more recent trip to Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. That day (September 13th), I did not take a lot of pictures because Zbigniew also carried his camera and I was getting a bit lazy after the Langley hike.

In the spring, Vernal Falls is one of the most impressive waterfalls, and the "Misty Trail", which we took to get to Half Dome, pretty much soaks you because it traverses close by. But the main source of water is melted snow, so in the fall, there's no mist on the trail and the waterfall is small by Yosemite standards.

Getting to the top of Half Dome requires getting up this steep granite slope. The cables would make it quick and easy if it wasn't for the crowds of people waiting to make their next step. There are two options, basically. The first is to be very patient and make step after step between the two cables. I believe this takes hours but only tried it for twenty minutes or so. The second option is to go outside the cables, so that way there's just one cable to hold onto but you get to bypass the traffic jam. With that, the climb takes 15 minutes or so.

And sure enough, we made it! This is me celebrating by jumping around on the rock a bit, with Yosemite Valley in the background.

I think Half Dome is easily the most fantastic cliff I've been on. Here's a stitched image that covers a wider angle. Of course, being right next to such a cliff can't really be captured with photography.

While I enjoyed this hike due to this one-of-a-kind massive piece of awesome granite, I have to also mention that the trail is overcrowded to a point where it reduces the fun, at least for me. With this many people around, it seems difficult to get a sense of the surrounding wilderness; basically you hear voices and cellphones all the time. Undeniably it's a great hike, but it does not deliver the experience of being away from the crowds - which is one of the best things about hiking.

For more pics, check out Zbigniew's album and my album.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Best of the West Ribs Festival in Sparks, Nevada

From Best Of The West 2008

We had an offsite in Tahoe, so Sparks, Nevada was just a small hop away. A few folks from our team went there to taste the most delicious ribs ever. As a returning visitor (I had been there the year before, too) I must say even though ribs aren't usually my favorite food, these are easily worth 8 hours of driving. Apologies to the vegetarians, and thanks for missing out on this good stuff so there's more for the rest of us.

We climbed a 14er that weekend (Mt. Langley) - so even though we ate ribs all day Friday there was no lasting harm done. I'll have pictures later.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Snowboarding in Chile: El Arpa, Portillo, Valle Nevado, La Parva, and El Colorado

Last season I got into the habit of snowboarding a lot, and when the snow melted and the resorts closed I felt this was a major bummer. So, I decided to try out snowboarding in the Southern hemisphere, taking advantage of the fact that when it's summer up here, it's winter down there. In South America, the snow fun is in Chile and Argentina, so I picked Chile for starters. Chile is an awesome place geographically - I think of it as California compressed into half the width, with the mountains folded up a little higher and steeper in the process.

I booked my trip with CASA Tours, which meant that things were organized front to back by them except for the flight to Santiago. Their guides are bilingual, so I could have gotten by without a word of Spanish, but I picked up a couple language CDs prior to the trip and listened to them in the car and when rollberlading to work. This way, I'd know how to ask ¿Donde esta el baƱo? - not that it's particularly useful when you're out in the snow on some big mountain, but at least it gave a peace of mind. I was very happy with CASA tours - not only do the guides know Spanish but also they're good at finding powder on the mountain, pick good accomodations, organize transportation (in this case either a van or a 4wd suburban), and most importantly: helped us to safely explore off-piste / out of bounds terrain, with the van waiting at the bottom of the run where applicable.

The trip started in Santiago de Chile, which, coming from the US feels almost European. Here's a random shot from walking around the city; large pedestrian malls, friendly climate (note that it's winter!), lots of shops, museums, churches, and all the other things you'd expect from a city.

Musicians played for us while we had excellent Chilean seafood in a restaurant in the fish market.

For the first few nights, we stayed at a historic hacienda in San Esteban, the "Casa San Regis". It's a large, old house with a fireplace, wooden floors that make noises as you walk around, and excellent food. Marcela, the owner, told us the story of the house, which started out as a land grant by the king of Spain - who roughly said "whatever you can see from here in this direction is yours". She also gave us her perspective on more recent Chilean history (Allende, Pinochet).

For the first two days, we skied El Arpa. This place has 4000 skiable acres - all large, open bowls without trees. For comparison, Heavenly has 4900 acres, with lots of trees. But El Arpa has no lifts: except for hiking or skinning up, the only way to get to the top is a snowcat, which can carry around 20 people.

The place is amazing. Here is a panoramic view from the top, which features Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside of Asia.

The slopes we used started out with a fresh coat of powder in the morning. It was good! Typically we didn't reuse a slope, so from the bottom, we could look back up and identify individual lines. In North American resorts, this is definitely pretty rare.

Portillo was next. This is South America's oldest resort, and very famous. It's on the road to Argentina, which is an experience in itself. Just below the resort are some switchbacks which are tight like a bookshelf. The chairlift actually crosses some of these, so as you look down, you might spot a large truck underneath you.

The setting is a lake with the steep mountains rising on both sides, which have the lifts - to the point where the slope gets too steep and rocky to put lifts. Some slopes are only accessible via pomas, which supposedly were designed to scare snowboarders off the mountain. No big deal though, and much better than hiking up.

The remaining days, we went to Valle Nevado, La Parva, and El Colorado. These are three medium-sized resorts which are next to each other, all above the tree line, with views of Santiago de Chile. The evening shot looks from the Farellones (a skier village where we stayed) to Santiago.

The resorts have a few rocks to hike / play around, natural half pipes, and one high speed quad (in Valle Nevado) - the remaining lifts are slow, and often there's T-bars and poma lifts (though not the strange 5 parallel skier contraption as in Portillo). All had some groomed runs, with the one in La Parva being used as a race track. However, by far our best runs were the ones in the Santa Teresita area - this is a slope between the resorts and the road from Farellones to Valle Nevado. We accessed this once from Valle Nevado, and once from El Colorado, and both times it was a long run through fresh snow. I liked the run from El Colorado best - here's the lines we put down; pretty sure the one in the lower left corner of the picture was mine. Thanks a ton to Travis (our guide) for making this happen!

For more photos, check out my Snowboarding in Chile 2008 album.