Navigating with the Sage of Mountainview

Just finished a trip to DC with the family, stopping to see my father on the way for Christmas.  Traffic on I85 & I95 is always bad, and often worse this time of year.  So I tried a “new” toy out – google maps.  Having the near real-time traffic information and maps allowed us to cut around severe blockages on the way up and cut about an hour out on the way back.

It is something of a surprise to me to see how it improves the efficiency of the trip.  I guess companies like UPS have been doing this for a while – but now we can as well.

Written by Rob in: outdoors |

looking at the crown jewels

Had a chance to visit Washington and take the kids to see the Smithsonian.  In addition to walking from Alexandria to DC on the Mt. Vernon trail (8.25 miles from the hotel to the door of the American history museum by GPS  – sooner or later my family will relearn that I always underestimate distances ;-)  – the trail doesn’t go straight across the Potomac).  We saw some of the standard sights – like the star spangled banner, but for me one of the high lights are the Burgess Shale fossils.  These are some of the most important fossils of early multicellular life.

They are just off the main atrium in the natural history museum – near the dinosaurs.  So while we stared in amazement at them (Anomolocaris was really big – its feeder appendages were bigger than most of its prey), people went past us to see the (bog standard) dinosaurs.  But it is almost worth the trip on its own to see Wapita and other weird wonders.

I had been thinking that our local Alabama fossil site was Ordovician, but it appears to be earlier in the Cambrian (from the maps at the Smithsonian).  We need to find more variety of fossils, but I think we’re finding a decent assemblage of very early life.  Since the water was higher on our last trip, we looked at a different out crop and found some cryptic things – one looks like an egg – possibly a trilobite early in development. (they grew a segment every time they shedded) and some things that look like fossil algae.  Some of the first land plants were very tiny, and looked like these, but it’s probably much too early to find them here.

Written by Rob in: outdoors,pedagogy |

Pecan Pie

My wife (another professor) and I were invited to a Christmas party that (mostly) her students were hosting.  This was a real treat.  Anyway I’d made a pecan pie that was well appreciated, and by request here is the recipe.


  1. 2 cups flour
  2. 1/2 tsp salt
  3. (optional but good with a sweet filling) 1 tsp sugar
  4. 1 stick margarine (about 1/4 lb)

Mix these together until well homogenized.  An electric mixer works great as does a pastry knife, but a fork will do the job as well.  (I’m faster with a pastry knife than a mixer, but a mixer is easier on the arms).  When done it will be about the consistency of corn meal.  Place in the freezer for 10-15 minutes (or longer – it will freeze well at this stage) to chill and harden the margarine.  (prepare the filling during this time).

The simple way to prepare the crust is then to add cold water in small increments, followed by mixing to form a ball that holds all of the mixture together and is not sticky (you can add a little flour to dry it out if need be).  Do the mixing by hand with a fork or a spoon as it is important to be gentle with pie crusts.  Then roll it out on  a floured board and put in the pie pan.

To make a flaky pastry,  reserve about 1/3 of the mixture and add water to the rest.  This time you want the wetted mixture to be slightly sticky.  Roll the mixture out and place some of the dry mix on it (use about a tablespoon of the dry mix).  Fold over twice (once lengthwise then once across).  Repeat rolling out, adding mixture and folding until all of the dry mix is used up.  Then roll out all the way needed for the pie and put it in the pan.  (this is a bit more complicated than the first way, and the first way works fine if you’ve never made a pie crust before).

To make the filling (for a 9 inch deep dish pie crust):

  1. 3 eggs
  2. 1/2 cup sugar
  3. 1 cup corn syrup (I used “golden eagle” brand which is mixture of corn syrup, molasses and honey )
  4. 1 tsp vanilla extract
  5. 1/4 tsp salt
  6. 2 tbs margarine (melt if you’re doing this by hand otherwise just blend it in)
  7. 1 cup (or slightly more) Pecans

Beat the eggs, sugar & margarine.  Add the vanilla, syrup and salt.  Beat some more.  It should be slightly opaque and foamy.   Put the pecans in the prepared (unbaked)  pie crust and pour the mixture over it.  Bake in a preheated 325 F oven for about 50-55 minutes.  Remove and cool.

Written by Rob in: recipe |

More on the Asus 1000

I’ve had an intermittent bug on this otherwise very nice laptop, where one of the SSD disks would disappear and after a bit of fiddling could be resurrected.   It was never quite bad enough to send back – though I got very close once.

Intermittent electronic bugs are usually mechanical.  Solid state components tend to fry (or as we sometimes say let the smoke out of the circuitry) and fail for good when they go.

Well since it is now officially out of warranty, and the intermittent bug was appearing to be finally non-intermittent, I decided to take a look.  There is a panel on the back which is held in place by screws and snapping teeth.  I carefully removed it.  The SSD is right behind it and held in place with two small screws.  I removed that and found that some small piece of cr*p had gotten wedged behind it.  A quick cleaning and a re-partition latter (the bug tended to mess up the partition table but not the data) and it was up and running!

It looks like a small crumb or some similar bit of dirt had periodically shorted some of the connections on the SSD.  When it was damp, or in exactly the wrong place, it caused a failure.  But never for keeps.

Replacing the SSD board with a bigger one would be pretty easy provided the form factors and pin layouts were compatible.

Written by Rob in: engineering,science |

Drama Queens and Scouting.

I don’t know what it is, but everything involving adult volunteers and my son’s troop has the potential for being turned into a soap opera.  (the scouts themselves don’t do this).  Ranging from fights over whether scouts actually earned the merit badges that the counselors at summer camp signed off and why we should grill them about it (the National BSA answer is if a counselor signed off it is DONE period – I actually double checked this), and where the most upset principle hadn’t even bothered to check the current requirements (which would have shown there was no issue to begin with)  to the webelos leader who feels he needs to paint us all as evil villains to justify checking out other troops.  This is not an issue because it is part of the webelos den leaders responsibilities to do this – as the den leader would know if he had bothered to get the webelos leader training.   In fact, I suggested that given that he has several “sensitive” boys in his den, one of the other troops in the district in our sister parish might be a better for them while clearly many of his scouts have brothers and friends in our troop and it would be a good fit for them (being on the district committee I’m familiar with a fair number of units).

The webelos den leader is especially annoying because the troop in question has gone from a nearly abusive adult run monstrosity to a boy run happy (and rambunctious) troop, largely due to the efforts of the current scoutmaster, the previous committee chair and with the help of several assistant scoutmasters.   Going back to the bad old days of adult control is not on the books, but I’m actually worried about being fired because I want my son’s troop to run in a manner consistent with the methods and aims of scouting and their current best practices as described in the voluminous scoutmaster’s handbook and similar literature (and since I teach the adult leader training, I’m on pretty safe ground about this).

While there are still things to be done – we need to figure out how to get the patrols to really function as patrols and there is a great guide sheet on ask-andy that we will use this summer (I don’t want to reorganize, yet again (ARRGH – this is a bad practice but undoing it can be just as bad), patrols in the middle of the patrol leader’s tenure – but we can let the scouts self-associate at summer camp and suddenly have working patrols) – this troop works.   The SPL runs the meeting and the adults “fade into the background” – while keeping a weather eye on the activities.

Boy run, boy lead troops are always a bit disorganized and chaotic.  How else to the scouts learn?

Cub packs are adult run (have to be given the age of the scouts), and tend to be much more orderly.

The hardest thing, I think, for webelos parents to understand is that the chaos is the strength of the scout program.   Boy scouts is not “webelos III”.  I’ve seen first year scouts working in a patrol of their own, in the backcountry after backpacking 3 miles or so, set up camp, cook, clean up, and use leave no trace with very little adult involvement (I think I carried the stove or the fuel for them).  Webelos don’t do that.  Learning the self-discipline and self-reliance to be able to do these things is the fundamental result of the methods of scouting.  They really work.

Quoting Baydon Powell, “the scoutmasters most important job is to help the scouts to run their troop”.

Written by Rob in: scouting |

Re-Engineering Shelter

I’ve reached some conclusions on lowering the weight and improving my shelter/sleep options. I’m eventually aiming at trying an AT through-hike (or at least long-section hike), and haven’t been totally happy with my current approach. It’s slightly too heavy, reasonably water resistant, not warm enough and a bit small (though the six moons luna solo is not tiny).

Currently I use a luna solo (2. lbs +- (830 g) + stakes), and a nooksack (2.5 lbs) synthetic bag (too cold for late fall/early spring let alone winter) for the base system. My synthetic 15 degree bag is about 3.5-4 lbs and doesn’t compress as well as the nooksack.

My new system will be: Etowah 8×10 sylon tarp (13oz (390g) + lines + stakes), western mountaineering Apache MF bag (2.1 lbs, 15 degree), thin plastic drop sheet (1-2 oz). Possibly adding a bivy sack (1.2 lbs).


  • lighter weight -  even with a bivy sack it is lighter.
  • warmer – as long as down works.
  • more dry space. – especially important with extended rainy weeks.
  • versatility. Tarps can be put up in all sorts of configurations and to block shelter openings.


  • Is down going to work – even with highly water resistant microfiber shells?  Back in the old days I had nasty experiences with down.  But many people swear by the western mountaineering bags and few seem to swear at them.
  • Bugs.  No insect screen.
  • Really inclement weather?  Tarps work in almost any weather, but are harder to use in truely bad weather.

I’ll know this weekend if it works under less than lethal conditions – more after that.

How’d it work?

Didn’t try the tarp as we had access to an adirondack shelter.  The bag was very warm (to about -5C or 20F) and repelled snow nicely.  I had to move because it was waking me up by drifting onto my face.  My breath condensed on the outside – resulting in a layer of ice that could be brushed off – but did not seem to saturate the down in the first tube of the bag.   Down compresses more than synthetics, so one surprise to me was how much more of a pad is probably a good idea with this bag.  (my normal sleeping pad was less warm and comfortable than usual).

Written by Rob in: backpacking,engineering,outdoors |

Powered by WordPress | Aeros Theme | WordPress Themes