Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Roofalanche Warning!

The average person who doesn't ski, or skis/boards/recreates only inbounds at ski resorts, doesn't need to know a whole lot about avalanche safety.  However, a glaring exception comes with roof avalanches, or "roofalanches".  These can strike anywhere that gets a fair amount of snow, and can injure or kill anyone hanging out near a structure.

Our conditions here in Girdwood are ripe now for roofalanches.  It has been very cold for very long, with about a two foot compacted snowload on the roof.  Our temperatures in December have averaged 10.7F below normal, and we've only been above freezing for a few hours, and that wasn't enough to shed the snowload.  

Roofalanches can occur in any conditions just like any avalanche, but are especially prone to happen when temperatures rise above freezing for the first time in a long time.  Not all roofs have enough of a slope to avalanche, but in Girdwood it snows so much that you need a sloped metal roof (or else you need to shovel it).  Our roof is metal and sloped, but not sloped enough to shed the snow after each storm, so we need the above freezing temperatures for it to shed.

Above freezing temperatures are on the way over the next few days, along with some rain.  Roofalanche warning!  Our worst roofalanches came our first winter here, the winter of '06-'07, when roughly 4-5 ft of snowpack roofalanched.  As the snow freefell about 10 ft off of the roof and onto the awning out back, it snapped some of the beams and we had to have the awning replaced, and with stronger beams this time.  That could be your bones snapping!  The whole house shakes when we get a roofalanche, probably about like during a 4.0 earthquake.  It freaks the animals out (and us too), and wakes me up from sleep every time.

Not only is there the risk of trauma from the freefalling snow, but you can easily be buried (just like in a real avalanche) and die.  An avalanche forecaster at the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Center, Jeff Nissman, was killed by a roofalanche just down the road in Portage back in 2004.  What can you do to protect yourself from roofalanches?  Basically, look upward at your surroundings when around a structure.  When we're under the threat of roofalanches, I don't walk near the side of the house.  It happens fast and you won't have time to avoid it!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Falling in Love with Cross Country Skiing

I've toyed around with cross country skiing in winters prior to this one, fitting in maybe 10 cross country days per winter and 40 downhill days.  But this winter, I've become addicted to cross country skiing, with 17 cross country days under my belt so far, compared to 8 downhill days.

My parents used to tell me that cross country skiing was a great idea, that supposedly it was peaceful skiing through the beautiful woods, but in reality, it was a terrifying and difficult experience.  I will certainly attest to it being terrifying at first (how do you stop?!).  I broke a pole my first time out!  However, this year I've begun using metal-edged cross country skis on the more difficult cross country trails and off-trail through the woods.  It's made a huge difference.  I still use the regular cross country skis on easier trails, or if conditions are too bad to go off-trail, but the new metal-edged skis eliminate the terror of tough hills.  The metal-edged skis are only a little heavier so you don't lose that much speed on flat ground, but you can turn or snowplow in them when going downhill, or even do "telemark" turns if you please (where you drop your knee to turn), though I haven't tried that yet.  They're also better in sidehill areas thanks to the metal edges.

I should mention that both my pairs of cross country skis are "classic" style rather than "skate" style, and waxless (ie low maintenance, so I get out more).  I've never tried skate style skiing, but it's much faster and more of a workout than classic style, not that classic style isn't a decent workout.  However, the big downside of skate skiing in my mind is that you're stuck on-trail.  I enjoy getting off-trail when I see something that catches my eye, and don't mind the slow pace to enjoy the scenery.  Plus, going slow I have less of a chance of startling a moose, or falling and further hurting my bad back.

The Anchorage area really does have some of best cross country skiing of any major city in the world.  There are endless places to ski and you never have to repeat routes day-after-day.  The main thoroughfares are the greenways, such as the Chester Creek Trail, Coastal Trail, and Campbell Creek Trail: great for super-long distance skis, but not necessarily my cup of tea.  Then there are tons of groomed trails within "parks" around the city, though these "parks" are really more like wilderness areas.  Endless exploring is available off-trail through the woods in these "parks".  So far this winter, the snowpack in Kincaid Park on the west side of the city isn't enough for off-trail exploring (~1 foot), but in East Anchorage in Far North Bicentennial Park and on the Hillside, the snowpack is deep enough (~2 feet).  In East Anchorage and on the Hillside, there are also many singletrack mountain bike trails which are also used for skiing.  I love these trails because they are really just have to watch for the narrow curvy hills at times and not be ashamed to take off your skis if needed.

Another great thing about the Anchorage area is the abundance of multi-use trails.  I love sharing the trails with happy dogs and bikers.  I'd say the culture here is more dog friendly than most places, and off-leash dogs are generally not frowned upon even in the technically on-leash areas, as long as the dogs are fairly well behaved.  Plus, we need the dogs here to protect us from the moose and grizzlies!

Night cross country skiing is also popular around Anchorage.  There's an abundance of lit trails, but I have a great headlamp and prefer venturing off the lit trails at night for the solitude.  I am amazed at how few people use a headlamp to take advantage of the unlit trails.  I think it's because only a few of the headlamps on the market are bright enough.

I've been talking about "Anchorage", but there are tons of trails northeast of Anchorage toward Palmer/Wasilla that I have yet to be able to check out.  Girdwood (where I live) also has about 6-km of groomed trails, and a new 5-km loop coming in a month or so.  I have helped to groom these trails.  Unfortunately, skiing through the woods is kind of tough in Girdwood due to the thick canopy, so we need about a 4 ft snowpack for tree-skiing to be practical; we're only about halfway there.  Also, the frequent rain events in the winter makes the cross country skiing less reliable than colder/drier Anchorage.  We may get one of those rain events later this week.

Jenevra and Nimbo Skiing in Girdwood (last winter)

East Anchorage/Lower Hillside Skiing

Has all the talk of cross country skiing made you want to get out and hit the trails?  If so, you need a good map, as signage for trail names and travel direction is pretty poor.  Get the Anchorage Nordic Ski Club's map for $8 at their office at 203 W. 15th Ave (between A and C St.).  There are some maps on their website (, but they different and not as detailed as the official Anchorage Nordic Ski Club Map, which is waterproof by the way.  I used to always get lost before I got this map, and I am a map nerd.  Just keep in mind that there are other nice places to ski that are not on this map.  One of my favorite little-utilized areas is Ruth Arcand Park: lots of nice, ungroomed trails and paths.

Favorite Trails
I am still kind of in my infancy exploring Anchorage trails, but if I had to pick my favorite trail(s), it would be Spencer Loop on the Hillside for skate/classic, Lake Loop in Kincaid Park for classic-only, and East Anchorage east of Campbell Airstrip Rd for nice off-trail tree skiing.  The woods in this latter area are aesthetically pleasing and absolutely dreamy.  Toughest trail if you want a challenge: Lekisch Loop in Kincaid Park.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Geospatial Revolution: Are You Ready?

With smartphones becoming part of the everyday life for a big portion of the population, geospatial technology is booming and becoming more mainstream.  Our smartphones can do all sorts of whiz-bang stuff that only handheld GPS units, or PNDs (personal navigation devices), could do before.  Your iPhone or Android shows where you are on the map, which way you're pointing the phone, and tells you how to get to your desired destination.  Not only that, but smartphones have a "geosocial" function that GPSs/PNDs can't do, like show where on the map all your friends and family are located (and describe step-by-step how to get to them).  But with this so-called "geospatial revolution", here are some words of caution.

Most smartphones do not have the accuracy of true GPS units.  At least not yet, anyway.  Smartphones generally rely on cell towers for navigation rather than satellites.  In areas of good 3G/4G coverage, they work reasonably well, though I've still observed a delay of 10 seconds even with a good "lock" when driving down a road.  That's enough to make you miss your turn if you're relying on voice navigation from your smartphone.  Things fall apart in "edge network" coverage (that includes where I live in Girdwood and even parts of Anchorage), where you're lucky to get your position within a mile.  And guess what happens when there's no cell phone coverage?  No location at all!  I really hope people aren't using their smartphones to navigate through the wilderness.  The results could be disastrous.  Handheld GPS units are the smarter choice because they rely on satellites rather than cell towers, though even they can have issues when it's cloudy or in areas of steep terrain.

Battery life.  The battery life of smartphones, frankly, sucks.  And the battery life is way worse when you're in navigation mode or one of your apps is using navigation in the background.  And if you're in the wilderness, you can't just recharge your smartphone at any time.  The battery life of handheld GPS units is a little better, but it's always smart to have spare batteries. And most importantly, have a paper map as a backup and know how to use it!  Smartphones simply must get much better battery life, and fast, to take advantage of the geospatial technology boom, or else consumers will be turned off all-together to the new technology.  Apple, Google, are you listening?

Getting down to the core of the issue, I worry that the whole rapid integration of technology into geography is not going to work nearly as well as it could because of the geographic ignorance of our society.  To illustrate this geographic ignorance, did you know that many people think that the satellite imagery in Google Earth is real-time?  I wish!  I fear people will blindly rely on their device's commands to tell them where to go, so much so that people will drive their vehicles off a cliff because their device told them to do it.  I also fear people will get lost more and more in the wilderness because of the "false comfort" that the device provides them, and their inability to truly "read the terrain".  Bottom line, people must have a basic core geographic knowledge and instinct to take advantage of new amazing technology.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Eliminating Sleep

I recently listened to a podcast talking about how science is trying to phase out sleep.  So far, science has been pretty unsuccessful.  The hosts of the podcast (and I imagine lots of you) think that trying to lessen the amount of sleep required is idiotic.  However, sleep itself hasn't been shown to have a lot of benefits, other than the fact that we function terribly without it.  As a popular broadcast meteorologist in Alabama says, "Sleep is for sissies".

There are a very small amount of people (<1%) who naturally need less sleep than the rest of us to be fully restored and energized.  What if science could use whatever this gene is and implement it in the rest of us?  Then there's people like me who need a freaking 10 hours of sleep to be restored.  What if I could get by perfectly well with just five hours of sleep per night?  How much more productive could I be?

I don't want to get into the science in this post, but rather explain what I see as potentially huge benefits to society getting by with less sleep.   I mainly want to point out that a society who needs less sleep would much more productive.  I would even venture to say that needing less sleep could solve most of society's problems, at least economic problems.  Not only could a 24/7 society result (of which I explained the benefits in a previous blog post), but each person could be infinitely more productive, perhaps working 60 or 80 hours a week instead of 40 hours and be paid the same amount, but still have the same amount of free time.  Now I know you all are laughing at this point and thinking how ridiculous and undesirable this sounds.  But look at it this way: don't you often feel like when you wake up in the morning, you just went to bed?  If we can get these restorative effects through some other means than sleep, what does it matter the method of this restoration?  Lessening or eliminating the amount of "traditional" sleep needed would be like discovering the fountain of youth.  Seriously.  

I know this all sounds crazy, and I have doubts that science could actually lessen the sleep needed with there not being serious side effects.  And there's the concept of dreams: do dreams make our brain "grow" more than being awake?  Are people who have many dreams smarter than those who don't?  Can this magic drug make you dream a lot during your two hours of sleep?  I am merely trying to get you thinking about how incredibly powerful a discovery it would be to phase out sleep, and that there are certainly benefits.  I predict this will become a real hot button and controversial issue 10 or 20 years down the line.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

FTC "Do Not Track List": Great or Stupid Idea?

You may have heard of the "do not track list" for the internet that the FTC is considering.  Basically, any internet user would be able to opt not to be "tracked", with this functionality ideally being built into the browser with an easy option not to be tracked.  They're modeling it after the famous "do not call" list.

The proposal of the "do not track list" gave me chills, and not in a good way.  On the surface, this proposal sounds great.  After all, why not protect consumers' privacy?

First off, can you imagine how costly and difficult (if not impossible) this would be to implement and enforce?  If you can't fathom how difficult this would be, then you obviously have no concept of how the internet works these days!  And with the transition of the internet from browsers to apps and other things we probably can't fathom at this point, it'll get even more difficult to enforce.  Plus, the economy sucks, and government (taxpayers) would have to foot the bill for this effort.

Do you like using Facebook for free?  How about Google?  So much wonderful stuff on the internet is free because these companies know what we like/don't like based on our surfing habits, and can offer us targeted advertising.  This allows these websites to make money because the advertisers are happy, hence the websites give us a free service.  I actually enjoy getting targeted advertising occasionally.  There are even sites out there such as whose main purpose is to join products/services with the consumer, based on the consumer answering a bunch of questions about himself.  A lot of people really enjoy getting targeted advertising, which often results in special deals (Foursquare being a classic example).

Unfortunately, we are way too far along with the internet to go back and have the government set some privacy rules.  The U.S. Government was too slow.  Privacy is dead.  I do think there should obviously be some ground rules...that certain things online should be illegal, such as stealing credit card information.  However, is it really so wrong for companies to try to target folks who most want their products/services?  The consumer is the ultimate winner when this occurs.

So what do you think?  Am I totally off-base?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Changing Role of Twitter

I didn't begin using Twitter until recently, but my perception had always been that it was a bunch of people saying nonsense such as what they are eating at the moment.  I also had the perception that you had to "tweet" a lot to get any value out of Twitter.  Boy, was I wrong.  Twitter has changed.

Sure, the old Twitter had a bunch of nonsense, but in the last year or two, there are an increasing number of "tweeters" who tweet useful information, in particular links to interesting blog posts or news stories.  And since you can "follow" only who you choose, Twitter can be used as a great source of news, but with only the news you care about.  For example, a lot of people (especially men) only read the sports section of the newspaper.  With Twitter, these people could follow various sport columnists, athletes, and sports media outlets, getting the news that they care about in near-real time.  This is how I use Twitter: I follow a bunch of technology, geography, and science folks/businesses, and I often know about breaking news in these fields a day or more before the masses.  Plus, I get valuable information in one spot without having to poke around dozens of different websites looking for the articles that interest me.  The 140 character limit really helps make for fast, concise reading.

So how should you use Twitter?  I advise against using it to communicate with friends and to say what you are doing.  For the average person, that is what Facebook is for (and where most of your friends are anyway, rather than on Twitter).  Instead, unless you are a business with customers, just use Twitter as a way of keeping track of the stuff you care about.  Another great function of Twitter is the ability to search everyone's tweets (not just people you follow or people who follow you).  This is a great way to "plug-in" to a significant current event, getting the latest information before nearly everyone else, and perhaps contributing information of your own.  Doing twitter searches by location to "plug-in" is an incredible way to gain valuable real-time information during significant weather events, such as winter storms, hurricanes, or tornado outbreaks.  You can also search twitter to see what people might be saying about a topic of interest to you.  For example, you're wondering if it's worth going to see the new Harry Potter movie; search for tweets related to the movie to get opinions.

In summary, don't dismiss Twitter as a bunch of banter about nothing like I did.  Use it to keep in touch with the latest in subjects you care about.