Tuesday, April 30, 2013

These Boots Were Made For Walkin'

By Keith McDowell

Or maybe not! Much to my chagrin, my favorite well-broken-in hiking boots separated the sole from the upper boot near the heel during a three-mile walk this past Sunday.   And it happened on both boots at nearly the same moment. So much for glue versus stitching!

With all due respect to Nancy Sinatra and her hit tune of 1966, hiking boots have always been the bane of mountaineers or even those people who enjoy simple hikes. Whether it’s blisters, sore feet, black toe, jammed toes, or numbed nerve endings, boots have a way of bringing a halt to the heartiest of souls. I should know. After over 500 backpacks and summit attempts spanning some forty-five years, I’ve experienced it all.

I especially remember a moment back in the early 1970s when I realized that I had lost the feeling in my right foot when I touched it following a long week of hiking using my old-fashioned, leather winter boots – years of melting silicon “bear” grease into the leather had made them heavy beyond belief. I couldn’t afford the fancier double-lined boots of that era. I visited with a medical friend who was also a mountain climber and he told me: “Don’t worry. Do nothing. Your nerve endings will spring back into life one day.” Yeah, right! But he was correct. A year or so later, I woke up one morning with my foot on fire. Feeling had returned.

So, it is with regret that I toss a reasonably comfortable pair of boots into the trash bin and contemplate my next move. Should I purchase some inexpensive, soft, and light-weight hiking boots with cleated soles or go for the much more expensive, hard, and heavy mountaineering boots? And how about glued-on soles versus stitch? Of course, I could shoot the moon and go for the best of the best – a pair of Peter Limmer boots.

But time is of the essence and I need to get a new pair broken in. You see, at 69 years old, I’m headed for Colorado in July to join my son, my nephew, and my brother to climb Pikes Peak and a few other 14’ers. My brother has never climbed a mountain so this should be an interesting adventure.

Boots aside for the moment, the world of mountaineering and the gear used by mountaineers have changed significantly over the past fifty years. Innovations abound in just about every aspect of the sport – hmm, is mountaineering a sport or an extreme activity?

Take, for example, the use of electricity. We’ve gone from batteries used to power headlamps and radios to solar panels, whether the hard foldup variety or the flexible ones. What can I say? It’s essential that we power-up those laptops and connect to social media while chilling out in our tents in the Colorado back-country or the base camp on Mt. Everest. And for the truly bleeding edge – I’m not talking about the blisters on your foot, how about a flexible computer display that rolls up? Oh, and don’t forget to take along your favorite GPS device. It’s important to know your exact coordinates in case you get lost.

My old ripstop nylon tents with aluminum poles that are guaranteed to attract nearby lightning have been replaced with Sierra Designs free standing, ultralight tents featuring ExoFusion technology and DAC Featherlite® NSL poles. And my tent pegs that must be pounded into the ground with your boot – tough to do when there is only rock or snow around – have been replaced by a Jake's Feet™ corner anchor system. Shucks! If only I could afford all this new technology.

Fellow hikers whisper and point at me these days when I travel into the back-country with my old Kelty external frame pack from the 1960s as shown in the photo at the beginning taken in 2005 with my sons prior to a hike to the west side of the Grand Teton. I think it was called a BB4 pack and was one of the last of the so-called “green packs.” My sons as well as Kelty have moved on to the modern contoured frame systems that claim to provide enhanced stability. In my day, it was all about getting all the weight over your center of gravity. These days, I’m happy just to get my center of gravity moving. I think I’ll pass on this one since my backpacking adventures are just about over and the BB4 still works for me.

Speaking of packs, there is no end to the choice of day packs. Many people including my youngest son prefer to accessorize with a hydration bladder in order to drink fluid at any time during the hike through a tube hanging next to the mouth. Stopping to rest is optional. My daypack is an Alpine Designs pack purchased in the late 1960s. It’s been my constant companion ever since and is part of my ritual.

I particularly recall a day in 2002 while hiking back down the “road” from the microwave towers on Mt. Princeton after a training hike when I passed some folks going up. They purposely stopped me to “admire” the museum piece on my back and couldn’t believe that one was still in service or that the leather bottom and leather straps had not long since decayed.  Such is life when one is old and a cheapskate.

And then we have the clothing. Personally, I still like my old corduroy knickers and my navy blue Peter Storm wool sweater imported from England. I look just like a Swiss guide in that outfit. But wait, knickers no longer stop just below the knee. They’ve become convertible pants and a host of other marketing slogans. And Peter Storm sweaters – they’ve been replaced by fleece jackets, vests, anoraks, shirts and pants. I have to admit that I like my North Face fleece jacket, but I’ve always wondered whether fleece actually describes the nature of the material of which it is made or the effect on my pocketbook.

I still remember when Gore-Tex became the replacement for wool in the late 1970s. Now-a-days you can find all kinds of brand names and fabrics that claim active stretch fits to one’s body, anti-wicking, sun protection, and even sweat-activated. I have several different varieties and they do keep me warm and dry on 14’ers. All and all, the innovations in clothing and fabrics have been a real plus for mountain hiking.

Oxygen remains a serious issue on 8,000-meter peaks with POISK oxygen cylinders manufactured in St. Petersburg, Russia still the standard. One would think that innovators could come up with something new, but no such luck so far. But then entrepreneurs have perfected the concept of oxygen bars where one can go to get a snort and hang out with like-minded folks. My brother suggested we take an Oxygen Plus Elevate Pack along with us this summer. You get over 50 flavored breaths per “tank” for a mere $35.99 including system and three “tanks.” And it only weighs one-half pound! I’ll keep his suggestion in mind when I’m panting like a dog at 14,000 feet on Pikes Peak.

Innovation remains important for mountaineering as more and more people take up the sport. I have an extreme suggestion. Let’s invent a bio-nanostructured suit similar to the one on the TV show Continuum that is flexible, covers the entire body, and has a function not unlike body armor or powered exoskeleton suits. The skin could absorb light and convert it into electrons similar to photosynthesis. The electrons could flow through a fractal-like network that self-assembles into a complex circuit that moves the electrons to nanostructures that produce heat on the interior side when the temperature drops, but shut down when too hot, thereby regulating the person’s perceived warmth and avoiding frostbite. The extra electrons could flow to a collection point that recharges batteries used to provide power to all electronic systems including a heads-up display on one’s goggles showing oxygen supply and other vital body and systems parameters. The suit would come with all kinds of built-in communication systems. I’ll leave it to the reader to supply additional functionality. Trust me! Such a suit will eventually be created and marketed.

But then, as always, we must return to the issue of my feet and the procurement of a satisfactory pair of hiking boots. Let’s hope my choice doesn’t “walk all over me.”

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Private Eyes

By Keith McDowell

In 1981, Daryl Hall and John Oates released the now famous rock and roll tune “Private Eyes” whose lyrics begin with the line “I see you, you see me.” It’s one of my favorite songs, but it also hauntingly symbolizes a major theme of the horrific events that unfolded last week at the Boston marathon; namely, the exponentially growing presence of electronic surveillance and monitoring of our daily activities, whether by private or public sources, and no matter the intention, whether accidental or deliberate.

None of us doubt that the immense volume of electronic data collected and the subsequent use of crowdsourcing through all forms of social media including old-fashioned television led to the identification and capture of the perpetrators in a relatively short period of time. And none of us doubt that massive amounts of data are being generated and collected every second and every minute of every day about us.

We all applaud the successful outcome late Friday evening and thank the heroic efforts of all the first responders from the depths of our hearts. Like you, I was deeply affected by the obvious emotional trauma imposed on so many people who saw things no one should ever have to see or have to experience. And who can forget the stories of those who died and those who suffered grievous injury. President Obama eloquently captured my own feelings as a former graduate student at Harvard and a resident of greater Boston for five and a half years when he said: “This is personal!”

But like 78-year-old Bill Iffrig who was knocked down by the blast near the finish and who was helped to his feet by a first responder, we must travel the final fifteen feet and cross the finish line. And that means for one thing coming to terms with the flood tide of data about us accumulating on IT disks around the globe. Is our future going to be one where an all invasive computer system accesses all electronic nodes and watches over us à la the plot line in the TV program “Person of Interest?”

Who owns all that data and who should have access to it? Do your iPhone data and images belong to you? How about the content of your personal emails? And just what are the rules for accumulating and deleting data, if any exist? Furthermore, what do we mean by the term “data” or the term “access” when it comes to data?

I will never forget an experience I once had as a university administrator at a public university while attending a meeting of the faculty senate. I’ll leave the name of the university a mystery in order to protect the guilty. Several of the faculty were outraged that the university was requiring them to accept a new smart ID card that had a strip capable of opening locked doors when properly swiped, thereby controlling access to buildings and facilities. Such swipe cards are now routine in most hotels.

But the faculty members were absolutely certain that the smart cards contained a GPS tracking system capable of following their every move and reporting back to university administration. If only that were true! For several days thereafter, I had fun taking out my ID card at various meetings, holding it in front of my face, and speaking the following in a loud voice: “Scotty, you still there? Please beam me out of this meeting!”

Such nonsense aside, GPS tracking is a formidable tool and convenience. In 2011, I had a tire blowout on I-85 in northern Georgia. After attempting to change the tire on a slope and watching my poorly constructed car jack bend from the stress, I hopped into the car and dialed OnStar. They instantly knew my location, sent out road service, and followed up until I had a new set of tires on my car. Now that’s a great use for GPS.

But how about the GPS in my cell phone, or those surveillance cameras on every street corner, or the airborne drones – autonomous or not – flying overhead, or the satellites in orbit checking out babes on the beach, or the interception of all forms of electronic communication including juvenile tweets, or the cataloging of our medical conditions in health databases, or the data mining of our online activity and purchases, or whatever else it is that pushes your hot button when it comes to privacy? Of course, the National Rifle Association and Congress have made sure that we still don’t have taggants in gunpowder in order to track down the bad guys since that would be an invasion of privacy.

For me the principle is simple: there can be no expectation of privacy in public places or forums independent of the manner in which the surveillance is carried out or how the related data is accumulated. From that principle, our legal system should branch out in typical Talmudic fashion to parse the meanings of the words public, private, data, access, and all the other related terms in our vocabulary while maintaining the fundamental principles enumerated in our Constitution. Like many, I believe we have fallen far behind the legal curve in this arena.

We live in a new information and knowledge era exponentially changed and accelerated from previous experience. While social media and data have always been present in our lives and have always been used to solve crimes, nothing in our previous history really compares to what happened in Boston. Who could have guessed that crowdsourcing – including the peculiar and somewhat old-fashioned brand of shutting down Boston for a day by common consent – would help solve the marathon bombing in close to real time? Shades of the SETI@Home personal computer project!

Claire Cain Miller in a recent New York Times article entitled Data science: Tracking the numbers of our lives captures the essence of how society has changed. Data science, a subset of network science in some measure, has now become a full-blown discipline with academic curricula available to inquiring minds. And let there be no doubt, jobs aplenty are there for people trained and educated in data science.

Information in all its many manifestations pervades our daily experience in an unrelenting stream and drives much of our decision-making. Whatever the future holds for us as individuals and as a society, it is imperative that we embrace that future by taking the time to understand where we are as a civilized society and by learning from transformative events that occur, even tragedies.

We are all Boston.

EndNote: Credit for the amazing image of Bill Iffrig at the beginning of this blog goes to John Tlumacki of The Boston Globe. I recommend that you visit his website and peruse the many excellent photographs posted by him. He is truly a gifted and talented photographer. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

What the "nav.toc" is this?

By Keith McDowell

Am I angry, frustrated, flummoxed and depressed? You bet! And it’s all due to my self-publishing experience at Amazon with their Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform. I’ve been run over by an innovation engine driven by a pack of technology geeks who are directed by some apparently clueless managers lacking good business sense.

Harsh words? Undoubtedly! But you don’t kill the geese – namely, ebook authors – who lay the golden eggs simply to advance technology for profit under the guise of being more “end-user friendly.” Whatever happened to “content-creator friendly” and the important business concept of “self-publishing?”

Don’t get me wrong! I’m a strong proponent of end-user friendly for created electronic content across all devices whether a computer, a tablet, or a smart phone. But does it have to be so “nav.toc” complicated for the content creators, especially those who want to self-publish ebooks? Here’s my story.

Several years ago, I wrote and self-published with Amazon an ebook entitled Go Forth And Innovate! and followed that up last year with a genealogy ebook entitled Together  Forever. Initially, it took me several months in late 2010 to understand what kind of file was required for upload to Amazon and how to markup that file with appropriate HTML tags. I’ll get to the format of JPEG images in a minute.

You have to know that I cut my teeth writing machine language and Fortran II code beginning in 1964 and have produced probably a million lines of code in my lifetime including a very complicated web system that produced over 300 different types of freshman chemistry questions. It ran for over five years from 1997 to 2003 and was widely used by both college and high school students to practice for chemistry tests. Needless to say, I became a Javascript and HTML guru after spending about 600 hours writing approximately 30,000 lines of code. But then, I had to prove to my sons that the old man could still function as a programmer in the Internet age.

So, imagine my surprise in 2010 when I discovered that formatting the code for a Kindle ebook was primitive HTML at best and poorly documented on the Kindle website. Of course, the original Kindle reader itself was the leading edge in the market of ebook readers as a standalone device and one could forgive Amazon management for not seeing the future. Nevertheless, I accepted the situation and was pleased that producing ebook files in native HTML wasn’t very hard to do.

Fast forward to last Friday as I sat before my computer prepared for a login to KDP to begin the process of uploading my latest two ebooks. One is a novel set in the Civil War period that is based on the factual history of some of my ancestors from the Stoner and Morgan families of Rowan County, North Carolina. It’s my attempt to define what they were really like as people. The second book is a massive genealogy tomb on the Stoner family and intended as the non-fiction companion to the novel. It took me two years to produce the content in these books including a fastidious compliance with the primitive HTML rules imposed by the rendering software at Amazon circa 2010 and 2011.

Imagine my horror last Friday when I realized that the new Kindle Previewer which apparently uses something called KindleGen to render the ebook from an HTML file now requires HTML 5 and Cascading Style Sheets unless one wants a crap presentation format for your ebook’s contents. In one step, we go from the primitive to the bleeding edge of technology.

After walking a few miles in my shoes on Friday afternoon, I visited the local bookstore on Saturday and purchased a sufficiently thick and weighty HTML 5 bible to serve as a bookend for my previous collection of HTML and Javascript bibles documenting earlier versions. I’m now past page 100 on my way to page 1017.  Somewhere after page 200 I’ll hopefully learn about the new “nav” element that’s essential for making the table of contents functionality – that’s TOC to the heathens among us – in ebook readers work properly. I certainly want those who purchase my ebooks to “Go To” TOC when their hearts or minds so desire.

Am I right to be mad about this? Well, yes! And let me explain why by giving several examples.

Back in the good ole days of the early to mid 1970s, IBM produced a mainframe computer known as the 360-series. Like many practicing theoretical chemical physicists of that era, I wrote Fortran IV code and ran on those computers using their Job Control Language (JCL). Just for the fun of it one day, when several fellow graduate students and I were all bored with reviewing hexadecimal numbers from our core dumps, we attempted to communicate with each other using only JCL. That didn’t last very long, but here’s the point. Hypothetically, if you wanted to understand how the delimiter “blocksize” worked, you looked it up in manual number 87 which pointed you to two other manuals. After an hour of such navigation through the manuals, guess what? You were back at the original definition of “blocksize” having learned very little. IBM manuals of that era were a beautiful example of a self-referential system. I always suspected that there were precisely 128 manuals in the long row of them since that number equals the number 2 raised to the 7th power – 7 being a mystical number throughout history.

So what did Amazon do with their giant leap forward for ebooks? They created a Kindle Publishing Guidelines document that is mostly worthless, not really usable, and creates confusion. Of course, there is also a guide for the Previewer that is quite long and then, my favorite, hyperlinks to technical specifications and documents on the Web. Shades of the 128 IBM self-referential manuals! I went to the links about the navigation element and TOC. I can only assume that there is a sinister conspiracy going on between major publishing houses and Amazon to eliminate self-publishing if their best answer for help is to link one to these documents. Even a confirmed computer jock like me can only cry: what the “nav.toc?”

And how about JPEG images? Come on guys! Give us some simple information. I start with an image that has a fixed length-to-width ratio. I open it with Photoshop and increase the image size until either the length or the width hits the maximum permitted by the KindleGen rendering software. I save the image in the web format to reduce size and work to achieve maximum quality. At that point, either the image is worthy of publication or it looks too fuzzy or whatever. End of story. So, please tell me a maximum length and maximum width criterion along with maximum size permitted for the JPEG file and we’re done.

As all competent computer jocks know, less is almost always more. Simplicity is always the correct answer – unless you’re some creative artist who wants a finely tuned ebook. I’m happy for you if that’s the case, but how many people actually use all the bizzillion features in Microsoft Word? I’m absolutely sure that by the time I read all the new Amazon verbiage and get to page 1017 in my new HTML 5 bible, I’ll have constructed a simple template in which to imbed an ebook that will satisfy most circumstances with minimum tinkering required. It’s always that way. But I’ll put a “nav.toc” amount of effort into getting there and reformatting my two ebook files. So why can’t the folks at Amazon provide everyone with that simple bulletproof template to begin with?

I truly feel sorry for the average self-publishing ebook author. For now, you’re screwed. It doesn’t have to be this way. As a society and especially as one that has endured many technology transformations, we know how to do these things right. It’s not a mystery and we don’t have to invoke the mystical “seven” to get it done.

So stay tuned! You’ll soon be able to enjoy reading my salacious novel Never To Return on your iPhone but do you really want to plow through my genealogy ebook on that device?

Monday, April 8, 2013

Skip the Cheese Crackers?

By Keith McDowell

Travel is always the first to go. Whether due to another effectiveness and efficiency purge, budget reallocations, or the current game of sequestration, travel by our nation’s scientists and engineers is always viewed as a nonessential activity and one ripe for the budget ax. And true to form, the White House Office of Management and Budget last year on 11 May 2012 produced the latest incarnation of just such a travel restriction memorandum.

Not to be outdone or ignored, the pundits have opined, national laboratory leaders have rebuked, university presidents have scolded, and STEM trade journals have reported. Take, for example, the recent article by William G. Schulz entitled The Road Less and Less Traveled published in Chemical & Engineering News on 25 March 2013.

Schulz emphasizes the “unintended and negative results” of such travel restrictions including increased bureaucracy, frustration, falling behind the curve, and the ability to attract top talent to national and government laboratories. Do we really want the C-team managing the cradle-to-grave timeline for our nuclear weapons arsenal? Or quoting Sandia National Laboratories Nancy B. Jackson, a former American Chemical Society president, from the Schulz article: “How can scientists do their work without collaborating, brainstorming, hearing other views, and finding out how similar problems are solved?”

Jackson goes on to add: “I don’t understand why Congress is so intent upon doing all they can to drag us down from the number one global position in science and engineering research. … American exceptionalism cannot overcome a lack of support for science and collaboration among scientific peers.” True indeed! Jackson eloquently states the obvious.

But what’s the real story behind travel restrictions and life as a scientist facing the uncertainties of one’s chosen career path? Is it really a path paved with such “sturm and drang?” Well, yes and no! Here are some of my personal experiences.

It was the spring of 1979 and I was scheduled to be a speaker at the annual Sanibel Conference hosted as always by the Quantum Theory Project at the University of Florida. Of course, the conference was no longer being held on Sanibel Island, but at a luxury hotel on Florida’s Palm Coast. I didn’t have any travel funds to attend the meeting, so I did what any self-respecting scientist would do. I conned my wife into believing that the meeting would be a fabulous vacation for her and our newly born son, then about eight months old. She agreed, packed our gear for a beach trip, and off we drove from Clemson, South Carolina, to the Florida coastline north of Daytona Beach. But alas, Mother Nature didn’t cooperate. It was a cold and windy week with no opportunity for sunbathing or even a walk on the beach. So much for that junket!

Of course, there were other Sanibel Conferences. I especially remember the year that I drove to the Palm Coast but stayed at a really cheap and rundown motel on the mainland about a twenty minute drive from the expensive conference hotel. The many motorcycles in the parking lot accompanied by their potbellied and leathered owners should have been a clue for me, but what the heck? It was an experience, especially the breakfast conversion at the adjoining diner over a meal of greasy eggs, burnt bacon, and congealed grits. Who could have guessed that the Hell’s Angels or their clones were interested in theoretical chemical physics?

And then there was the travel office at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) during the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Upon filing a travel request and getting it approved, one visited the travel office and received a generous travel advance, typically in the form of a fistful of $100-dollar bills. The game, of course, was to best one’s personal record for minimizing travel expenses and hence maximize one’s financial return against the guaranteed daily expense rate. And the secret: cheese crackers!

That’s right. LANL scientists were known for their ability to survive for extended periods of time on a diet consisting principally of cheese crackers and water. I’ve always wondered what the KGB personnel who inspected the luggage of LANL scientists visiting Russian nuclear sites in the Ukraine thought about those boxes filled with cheese cracker packages – not to mention custom agents at the more exotic locations where physicists typically host their conferences.

And then there was the infamous “skyjacking” memorandum of the 1980’s related to travel restrictions. Unfortunately, I no longer have the memo but it was basically a list of “do’s and don’ts” for LANL personnel travelling around the world and how to avoid being singled out for torment or torture by a skyjacker should such a skyjacking occur. Prominent on the list was a comment about travelling and eating cheese crackers or other such unusual activities that singled one out as a scientist. But, of course, my wife claimed she could always immediately spot a scientist or engineer and she was right.

The list also contained such items as wearing mismatched socks, reading technical journals on the airplane, engaging one’s fellow passengers in the mysteries of quantum mechanics, or discussing other technical matters related to the safety of the airplane. It was also strongly suggested that one not remind fellow passengers about life in the City of Los Alamos. At the time, laboratory employees had a lot of fun coming up with possible fake identities we could assume for the purpose of international travel.

“Surely you jest” is likely your response, but, yes, the memorandum really did exist pretty much as I’ve characterized it. And the cheese crackers? You bet! I still eat them when I travel.

Travel restrictions have always been with us during times of budgetary austerity and national security. It’s a cycle that endlessly repeats and never ends. And for each and every scientist or engineer, it’s a story that plays out in its own unique and sometimes humorous manner.

But for our nation, such shortsightedness is a prescription for failure in the game of global competitiveness. As Shirley Ann Jackson, the President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, recently said, we must “invest in serendipity, because without it, there is no vitality in the innovation ecosystem. Indeed, there is no innovation.” And that means travel to conferences by our nation’s scientists and engineers.

Or as Alivisatos, Isaacs, and Mason stated in a recent article about sequestration in The Atlantic: “This sudden halt on new starts will freeze American science in place while the rest of the world races forward, and it will knock a generation of young scientists off their stride, ultimately costing billions in missed future opportunities. New ideas, new insights, new discoveries – these are the lifeblood of science and the foundation of America’s historic culture of innovation and ingenuity.”

Should we skip the cheese crackers and stay at home? I think not.