Baxter State Park: Reloaded

This is almost a week old, but some people might still be interested. Accompanying pictures are here.

On Wednesday (August 20, not August 27) Cindy and I drove up to Baxter State Park in Maine. We had originally intended to drive up to Millinocket and get dinner before entering the park, but the drive took less time than expected so we ended up getting to Millinocket well before dinner time. We should always have such problems. :-) Millinocket is a neat little town, but has been hit hard by the closing of the paper mill that formed the cornerstone of the local economy and there are lots of abandoned businesses even on the main street. Oddly, there still seemed to be a plethora of insurance companies. After going from one end to the other of that main street without finding anything terribly interesting (the pool hall looked interesting until we realized it was closed) we went back to a little picnic area we’d observed on the way in and sat down to read for a while. Actually we went back to a drugstore first because I realized I didn’t have any reading material at all and we hadn’t noticed any bookstores. I ended up reading Jennifer Crusie’s Faking It; it looks and sounds like a book no real man would ever admit to reading, but it was actually quite hilarious in a style that reminds me of Christopher Moore.

After a while we figured dinner was a reasonable option, so we got some sandwiches at the Appalachian Trail Cafe downtown, then headed into the park. Instead of going straight to our campsite, we went to Sandy Stream Pond first to see if we could spot a moose. Sure enough, there was an adult female moose at the far end of the pond, grazing contentedly – too far away to take pictures, unfortunately, and this was the only moose we saw the whole time we were there. There were also lots of cedar waxwings, flying overhead so close at times that we could hear their wings beating. By the time we got to the campsite after that it was getting a bit dark, so we quickly set up the tent and then conversed with the other members of the group (eleven in all) in the dark before turning in.

On Thursday, we climbed both peaks on Doubletop. It was a moderate climb (about seven miles and 2500 vertical feet, I think) that gave us all a good chance to get acquainted and gauge the party’s abilities. We also saw an amazing variety of mushrooms, as you can tell from the pictures. Afterward we went for a swim near camp, and also enjoyed a chips-and-salsa happy hour. That night, we had our first nocturnal visitors…owls. One was easily identifiable as a barred owl, with its distinctive “who cooks for you” call. The other one seemed to be responding to the first, and it was much closer, but the call – a weaker rising trill – was unfamiliar. In the morning we were able to determine that it was probably a juvenile barred owl.

On Friday the weather report looked kind of gloomy with a high chance of rain, so we used it as an “off day” instead of climbing Katahdin. We hiked around Kidney Pond to Daicey Pond, where there are some lodges and also canoes that some members of the group used. I mellowed out on the porch of the camp library, reading a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book version of La Balsa about a raft expedition that did Kon-Tiki one better by sailing all the way from South America to Australia. I did step out for a while to look at a loon, though. He (I assume) was behaving a little strangely, flapping quite a bit and skimming rapidly across the surface of the water but never quite taking off. It’s a little late in the year for learning to fly, and way too late for mating displays, so it’s possible he was injured somehow…or maybe he was just having fun. After that we hiked to the local version of Niagara Falls, which were quite beautiful, and back to camp. As it turned out, Friday was probably the best day of the trip weather-wise, and we hiked further (though with less vertical) on our “off day” than we had the day before.

That night, we had another nocturnal visitor. At first we thought it might be a bear, until the crunching of small branches told us the visitor’s true identity. It was a moose. We weren’t able to get a really good look at it – Cindy says she managed to see a light reflected in its eyes at one point – but we certainly had a good listen. We could hear it snapping off twigs and chewing for a while, then heavily clomping to the next tree or bush, for quite a while. In the morning, we could clearly see where it had been by looking at the snapped-off ends of branches – no more than ten feet from the tent at one point.

Saturday was the biggest day, hiking-wise. We went up the Abol Slide trail to the Katahdin “tableland” (plateau) and from there up to the summit of Baxter Peak. I was feeling unusually energetic, and this is exactly the kind of terrain where I excel; I ended up reaching the plateau quarter of an hour before anyone else in the group and nearly an hour before the stragglers, having passed about ten other groups on the way. After having lunch at the top, we headed down via the Hunt trail, which is where we ran into a spot of trouble. It seems that some fool has double-blazed part of the trail, so that it forks and rejoins without any indication of any kind. As luck would have it, the people in front decided to wait for the others while we were on one of the forks, and the last three people took the other fork. After having waited for a while some of us went back to look for the missing three, eventually going as much as a half-mile uphill to a point where we knew all eleven of us had been together. It was a little bit frightening, actually. After a while you start to imagine all sorts of terrible scenarios for what might have happened. I’m pleased to say, though, that nobody lost their head and I personally was able to contribute to the effort in a positive way by making sure everybody knew what everybody else was doing (which involved a couple of extra trips up and down to convey information).

Eventually we determined that the three missing party members were not still on the trail behind us, so the focus changed from searching for them to getting the remainder of the group to the bottom and enlisting more skilled help if necessary. Five of the members had been sent on ahead, so the three of us who had been searching just headed down the trail to catch up to them. We immediately found ourselves on a part of the trail that we didn’t recognize, even though both this part and the other had been quite clearly blazed. This allowed us to figure out that there had been a fork in the trail, but it still seemed very unlikely that the three from the back had gotten in front of the other eight; the whole reason the group had become separated was because those three had been moving very slowly. We eventually caught up to the five who had gone ahead and reported what we’d found, and then the eight of us kept going. When we reached the trail register at the end, we found that the other three had been there about fifteen minutes before, after having overtaken us (while we were searching) and then stayed ahead. Had the trail been just a little longer, we might have caught up before reaching its end. Needless to say, we were very relieved, and ultimately had a pretty good talk about it back at camp. There were a few things we realized we could have done better, but overall the system worked. Nobody did anything to make the situation worse, and everything turned out well. In the end it was a positive experience, that probably left everyone involved a little better prepared should they ever find themselves in a real lost-hiker situation.

After an uneventful night (for once) the group pretty much broke up on Sunday morning. Cindy and I went to do a short casual hike to Blueberry Ledges via the Abol Pond trail. The blueberries were so large, and so plentiful, that we were completely ignoring berries we’d normally be delighted to find, as we picked and ate the largest berries by the handful. We also found a beaver pond, and got a very brief look at the beaver himself – a first for me. It was a nice mellow end to what had been a very satisfying trip.

Next SARS?

This is really scary.

Poor Baby

Looks like our old friend Steven Den Beste is struggling with the concept of hierarchical nesting in a computer language. That’s odd, for someone who claims to have been a programmer once.

Baxter State Park

I cropped, adjusted and uploaded the pictures from this past weekend’s trip to Baxter State Park; you can view the result here. I’ll write up a textual account later.

DSL woes

Everyone has a DSL horror story. Here’s mine.

Last Tuesday I started noticing that my DSL connection was really slow. When I looked into it a little, I noticed a cyclic pattern:

  1. Ping times to the router at the other end of the DSL line would start out OK, at around 20ms.
  2. The times would slowly increase, sometimes getting as high as three seconds (that’s forever where I come from) with increasing levels of packet loss.
  3. Times would then decrease sharply to their original levels, and the process would start over.

Experience has taught me to associate this behavior with an overloaded router. The queues get longer and longer, until they reach a high-water mark where the router starts dumping packets until it gets back down to a low-water mark. If the router is persistently swamped, this will result in exactly the sort of cyclic pattern seen above.

Because this was the same time SoBig.F was going around, I figured this was just virus-related and would clear up after a few days. I was going to be in Baxter State Park in Maine for five days anyway (I’ll post about that soon) so I decided not to worry about it. When I got back Sunday night, though, I noticed that the DSL line was completely down. Something different must have happened.

Yesterday I called Verizon…from work. Naturally, the guy I talked to tried to punt because I wasn’t actually sitting in front of the machine, but I assured them that I had done everything that would be in their little script so maybe if he’d play along I could give him the answers from the morning’s tests and we could find the problem. He grudgingly went along, and it turned out to be true that I had anticipated the entire script. Then he said that it looked like a problem that was known to be affecting customers with static IP addresses, but they weren’t doing anything about it until people called in. My first reaction, naturally, was outrage that they’d sit on a known problem like that, but I kept my cool and had my account added to the existing ticket for the problem.

Last night I tried again. The lights on the DSL modem had changed, but still no ping. This morning, same thing. When I called in, the automated system said my problem had been resolved. Yeah, right. The first real person I spoke to basically didn’t get anywhere. We checked some cables, power-cycled some things, etc. and then he referred me to someone on the business-customer side (even though I’m a residential customer) who might know more about my particular situation. She quickly determined that my account had been changed from a static IP address to PPPoE. That didn’t seem like something they should have done without letting me know, but I really didn’t care much. I have a hosting service to deal with inbound traffic, so everything I do at home is outbound anyway; it doesn’t really matter to me if my home IP address (which is just the router/AP/firewall anyway) is static or dynamic. So I set up PPPoE and everything worked.

So it’s all resolved now. I find it slightly amazing that Verizon would sit on a problem until customers called in, or switch their service from static to dynamic without so much as a notice, but things work now. Pretty soon I’ll be back to my usual posting habits both here and elsewhere.

Happy Birthday to Me

Apparently I’m 14000 days old today. Yippee.

Night Hiking

Last night Cindy and I went on our first night-time hike, an AMC trip to the top of Mt. Monadnock to see the fireworks in Jaffrey. Apparently one of the big fireworks manufacturers is in Jaffrey, so it’s quite a show.

Our original plan was to come in on the Pumpelly trail, which comes in along a ridge from the north. It’s one of our favorites because it avoids most of the crowds who come in from the south and east, but it’s also the longest way to the summit and the weather was kind of questionable (climbing along ridges when there are thunderstorms in the area is not recommended) so we decided to try the Dublin trail instead. After a couple of hours of steady hiking, we reached the top about an hour early. There were a couple of other groups there, but we didn’t interact with them much. Mostly we just ate our dinners and then hung out in a little nook away from the wind until the show started.

The fireworks themselves were pretty neat, though a bit small from our distance. I did bring my binoculars, so I was able to switch between a nearer but slightly shaky view and a more distant but steady view. There were several interesting types – rings, hearts, and even a few spirals that I hadn’t seen before. The show lasted a little over half an hour, and then we headed down.

Hiking in the dark is quite a different experience, and life got even more interesting where there was water or mud. We all had headlamps, of course, in most cases the newer white-LED type that cast a very bright though slightly bluish light. The light’s kind of flat, though, so depth perception is a bit off and it’s slightly more difficult than usual to judge the angle or texture of the rocks you’re stepping on. Mud is the worst; in that light you just can’t really tell the difference between normal ground and a mud-puddle. I gooshed pretty badly a couple of times. We all got down pretty well, though, so the trip can be considered a success.

I think I actually like hiking at night. It’s cooler, with no danger of sunburn (important for a freakishly pale person like me) and fewer bugs. For long-distance hiking reduced competition for lodging/campsites would be another plus. Sure, it’s not as scenic the whole time, but mornings and evenings often provide the best views anyway. I think climbing mountains in time for a good sunset, and then down in the dark, could be a pretty good modus operandi.

Power and Networks

The big power outage seems to be a good example of bad network design. I’ve heard that the New York area was nominally capable of drawing power from other sources (the mid-Atlantic area has been mentioned specifically) but that capability was lost when many circuit breakers tripped and had to be manually reset. In other words, the initial response caused those circuits to be overloaded, precluding a later response. In my opinion this is indicative of a bad design.

To see how this could happen, even in a system where the affected area as a whole is connected to alternate sources of power, let’s consider a very simple abstract example. An infinite number of more complex examples could be devised to add realism, but the illustrative value would be lost. Imagine for a moment that New York is divided into two zones, A and B. Zone A can draw power directly from suppliers X, Y, and Z. Zone B can also draw power directly from X, but can only get power from Y and Z through A. Both zones prefer to get their power from X, but what happens when X fails? All of the power for both A and B has to flow through A, which becomes overloaded and fails; now A and B are both cut off from their remaining sources of power (Y and Z).

A much better design would be for B to have its own path – not through A – to either Y or Z. When X fails, then, B can switch to its second power source without overloading A (which has problems of its own). To do so requires some coordination, so that B doesn’t switch to the source that still requires it to go through A, but that’s a well-understood and solvable problem.

Without knowing the specifics of what happened to cause the current power outage, I’ll bet that at some level Mohawk/Niagara corresponds to X in our example. When it failed, in the absence of a properly designed power grid and/or the coordination mentioned in the previous paragraph, that caused an inappropriate response which made the problem much worse than it really needed to be.

No Experts Allowed

In case any of my geek friends haven’t been following this one, here’s some information about the state of the world in electronic voting. About a month ago, I came across a story about some security researchers’ findings regarding the stunningly poor security of Diebold electronic voting systems (links 1 2). I used this as the seed for a thread on America’s Debate which led to several more good links on the subject (look there if you’re interested ’cause I’m lazy).

The latest development is this: Rebecca Mercuri, an internationally recognized expert whose website even appears first in a Google search for “electronic voting”, had her credentials revoked when she tried to attend a conference on voting systems. A similar fate befell David Chaum, whose name should be familiar to some of my readers as a prominent figure in the field of anonymity and security. Here’s the source for that info. In my opinion, when the opinions of people like Mercuri and Chaum and David Dill (of Murphi fame) about the security of a system are deliberately and pointedly ignored, it seems likely that somebody has something to hide. Any responsible vendor of systems intended to preserve the principle of “one person, one vote” would welcome the interest of such luminaries.

Free speech for…?

In the past I’ve sung the praises of America’s Debate in this space. Today the news is not so good. While the front page explains “free speech for everyone” apparently it’s not quite really everyone they’re talking about. Here’s a brief version of the events that lead me to this conclusion.

  1. A few days ago I got caught maintaining a “troll of the week” list in my personal profile information. Even though there’s nothing in the rules about policing profile content, there’s nothing to preclude it either. I got caught breaking the rules, fair enough, I don’t deny it. I even congratulated the administrator (“Jaime”) who caught me on her vigilance, and thought that would be the end of it.
  2. Today, the other administrator (“Mike”) started a thread about updating the rules. This is a reasonable and even laudable thing to do. The rules are widely known and admitted to be inadequate. The administrators could just write new ones without consulting anybody, but they decided to solicit suggestions. Pretty cool so far.
  3. I responded on the thread, suggesting some new rules to address common abuses. I also suggested defining more clearly the scope of the rules – i.e. whether they apply to profiles, private messages, comments on personal websites linked from one’s profile (like this), etc. – and defining a mechanism for appeal or redress if anyone felt a moderator had acted unfairly. Without getting into details, I mentioned a couple of examples – including the incident above – where I felt the lack of such things had indicated a potential for trouble. That’s what I’m trained to do; instead of just identifying a problem or proposing a fix, I wrap both together along with proof that the problem is truly worth worrying about.
  4. Mike responded, getting extremely defensive about some of the examples (not likely to help) and lying through his teeth about what happened in the previous incident (guaranteed not to help).
  5. I responded, calling him on the lie and backing up my claim with the copy of my own message sent to Jaime at the time. I also addressed some of the other misrepresentations, and threw in a couple of other suggestions for good measure. Just to be on the safe side, I sent copies to a couple of other members to make sure there was a record.
  6. Mike went ballistic. He not only closed but actually deleted the thread – an action without precedent as far as I know. He sent me a private message all but saying outright that I would be subjected to extra-special scrutiny from now on, citing a rule (which does not exist) about posting information about administrative action. This is all pretty ironic, since the issue we started with was the arbitrary and often discriminatory way in which rules were being enforced.

Obviously, I have my own strong opinions on this matter. It’s awfully convenient for Mike that the evidence of his own lie and ensuing hissy-fit has been deleted from public view but I’m quite sure that if I had behaved as he did – not even counting the actions specific to his role as administrator – I’d be banned from the site forthwith. Fortunately, I still have ways of getting the truth out, although by posting it here on my own private website I risk being banned back at AD. Too $#@! bad; if the proprietors are that disinterested in free speech or building a community, treating it as their own personal blog site where the only real rule is “what the admins like”, then it’s not worth staying and other members will realize that soon enough.

I can already tell that some of the resident trolls from AD are likely to follow me here, telling me that I’m the one who’s wrong. They can go jump too, for all I care. Unlike Mike and Jaime, though, and the nature of this as a private personal site (unlike AD which claims to be a community) notwithstanding, I promise not to censor their comments. That alone should be sufficient for anyone to see who the real jackass is in this picture.