The Casual Blog

Tag: skiing

Skiing in Utah, and Knausgaard’s radical honesty project

Snow at Snowbird, February 16, 2019

Last week Sally, Gabe, and I went to Utah for six days of skiing at Snowbird and Alta.  They had four or five feet of snow in the week before we came, and around four feet while we were there.  The locals said the snow was a bit on the heavy side, but even by local standards, at the snowiest ski area in North America, it was an amazing powder skiing experience.

In recent years we’ve had one week of skiing a year, and only a few deep powder days.  We weren’t completely unprepared for the powder challenge, but we were far from experienced.  Powder is a different ball game. The techniques that work on groomed snow have to be modified, and the modifications have to be further modified according to constantly varying snow conditions.  It involves trial and error; there’s no settled, reliable recipe for success. Facing down the steep terrain into snow where no one has gone takes gumption. But by day three, we were getting a level of confidence, which increased in days four through six.  It’s a wonderful feeling, flying on clouds of snow.

We rented skis at our hotel, Cliff Lodge (see photograph below), and they set us up with good tools.  I was very impressed with my Volkyl 100eights (173cm), which were versatile and reliable. They floated beautifully, were highly maneuverable on moguls, and could carve at medium-high speeds on packed snow.  

Skiing the challenging (black and double black diamond) terrain at Snowbird and Alta clears the mind.  There is, of course, the possibility of falling. Pointing the skis downward takes commitment and focus, and being in the moment.  It has a meditative dimension.

There is also a lovely social aspect.  Our little trio enjoyed exploring for new (to us) ways down the mountain, and savoring little victories together.  Gabe, by far the strongest skier, gave me a tip on poling technique that was transformative. He recommended I quit poling with my wrists, and envision turning the steering wheel of a car.   Almost immediately, my turns got stronger. He later reported that he’d focused more on the idea after he taught it to me, and found it helped him lift his game.

On day three, we skied at Alta with Sally’s cousin, Chip, and his wife, Judy, who live there.  They were great companions, full of good fun and local knowledge. They took us on a climb up Devil’s Castle in search of an expanse of untracked powder.  My legs and my lungs both gave out short of the top, and I headed down into a lesser powder field. I was really impressed and inspired by their good skiing and fitness, and resolved to get more fit for skiing next year.

Happy skiers at Alta: me, Judy, Gabe, Sally, and Chip

As it was, after three days of skiing I felt like I’d been mugged by a gang of toughs, aching and sore all over.  On day four, I felt much better. Along with the exhilaration, we had some tough conditions — very limited visibility in places, cold in the teens, and high winds.  I heard reports of gusts of over 50 MPH, and could easily believe that our sustained winds were 40 MPH in places. There were a couple of moments on the lift when I wondered if the wind could pull a person off.  

At the end of our ski days, we enjoyed some time in the hot tub.  I read more of Knausgaard’s magnum opus, My Struggle, book two. I’ll say one thing about it that I haven’t seen in the reviews:  it is radically honest. Knausgaard seems want to say as truthfully as possible exactly what he thought and felt in the process of ordinary life.  It turns out to be absorbing, and at times shocking, when someone sets aside, or at least tries to set aside, all pretense, all the layers of self protection, and all the small lies of social convention.  What’s left isn’t necessarily pretty, but it is fascinating, and makes the reader consider the consequences of extreme truthfulness.

At Snowbird: Peruvian lift and Cliff Lodge

Our ski trip to Switzerland and Italy

Sally and the Matterhorn

Skiing in Switzerland and Italy last week was really fun, though I had one tough fall (described below), and getting back to Raleigh was pretty brutal.  We underestimated the time it would take the train to get us to the airport, and when we got there the gate was closed (though the plane was still there).  The flight was jointly branded by United and Lufthansa, and each claimed that only the other could help us.  Surely one or both of them were wrong, but I eventually figured out that arguing was getting me nowhere.  

The online  outfit that sold us tickets, Justairtickets, also initially declined to assist us, but after I made clear that we needed reasonable customer service or we would never be doing business with them again, they stepped up to the plate.  Just kidding!  They shamelessly disclaimed all responsibility.  In the end, we had to buy new tickets from an agent in Milan (a big ouch), and it took 30 hours (including last row inside seats and a night trying to sleep on the hard floor of JFK) to get home.

But otherwise, we had a great trip.  We skied for five days in Zermatt/Cervinia, where they’ve had epic snow this winter, and had plenty when we got there.  The views of the Alps were just spectacular.  The iconic Matterhorn was really and truly there, and there were jagged snowy peaks in every direction.  

There’s a lot to ski around Zermatt.  The highest point of the resort is 12,791 feet.  There are 7,477 feet of vertical — which is big!  There are  224 miles of trails, and the longest run is 16 miles. There are lots of restaurants on the mountain, in a range of formats.  There are lifts of every description, including a funicular, various types of high-speed chairs, and enormous gondolas that hold more than 100 people.  For the most part the slopes were uncrowded while we were there, and we never had to wait in a significant lift line.  

Zermatt is mainly about marked, groomed runs.  Most of the skiers we saw were quite good, but very few ventured off piste.  This could be a function of the Swiss love of orderliness:  if a piste is marked for skiing, then that’s where you’re supposed to ski.  This is a different mind-set from the American west, where good skiers view the groomed runs as passages to the main event — the ungroomed, untracked, adventure stuff.  

Early in the week, we found the groomed runs had good snow and lots of variety, while the off-piste snow was crusty.  We found the steeper groomers lots of fun, and worked on refining our cruising skills.  We skied on the Italian side (Cervinia) on day three, where the scenery was just as beautiful, though the lifts were not as modern and the slopes were mellower.  On day four, it snowed, and visibility at times was close to nil.  That day was also cold (in the low teens) and windy.  At times we started runs in the clear above the snow clouds, then descended into the dense fog.  It cleared up for our last day, and there was some super fun off piste skiing on the soft fresh snow.  

My rented skis were Dynastar Cham 97s, 178 cm.  It was a true all mountain ski, very versatile — easy to turn, stable at speed, good in the light powder.  A little shorter might have suited me better, but still, I really liked them.  

 

We stayed at the Phoenix, a small, pleasant hotel with good breakfasts and a convenient ski gear room, which was within walking distance of both lifts and restaurants.  I’d heard that Zermatt was the model for Vail, and saw similarities in the architecture.  The village had a lot of charm, and a lot of life.  Private vehicles are not allowed, though there were many taxis, which were electric vehicles shaped like tiny UPS trucks.  The main restaurant street had many dining options, along with a lot of luxury shops:  watches, clothing, perfume, chocolate.  We had no trouble getting tables for dinner, and ate well.  

My one bad fall came on the last run of our last day.  It was late in the day, and more crowded than we’d seen for most of the week, with skiers of varying abilities winding things up.  We were coming down a steep, narrow, icy passage, with a lot of people waiting at the top.  I was making my way downward, not prettily, but under control.  

Then, near the bottom a young skier suddenly stopped, leaving me no room to get through and effectively running me into the dense snow bank on the side of the piste.  I make it a rule to give a lot of leeway to inexperienced skiers, who sometimes veer unexpectedly, but unfortunately I broke my rule.  I fell backwards and felt a snap and sharp pain in my right calf.  

As I regained my footing, my back started to spasm.  It took an act of will to get to the bottom of the mountain, and to get to the hotel I had to take baby steps.  My leg was hurting!  Sally initially diagnosed a calf muscle tear, and predicted it would take some weeks to heal.  But it turned out to be less severe —  probably a sprain.  I was significantly better by the next day, and continued to improve as we continued our trip.  

After dinner on the top floor of the Rinascente department store, near the Duomo

On Saturday, we had a pleasant train trip through the Alps and along Lake Maggiore to Milan, where we made our way to our Airbnb apartment.  The place was extremely small, but very convenient to the Duomo and other points of interest.  We had dinner in the Canal District (Naviglio Grande), where there were a lot of people promenading and a lot of moderately priced restaurants.  We enjoyed risotto Milanese and local pasta specialities.  

Milan’s cathedral, the Duomo, is magnificent — an enormous white marble structure with flourishes everywhere.  The surrounding area has lots of stores and museums.  We were particularly interested in looking at Renaissance and early Baroque art, and there was lots of it to see.  We particularly enjoyed the Pinocoteca Ambrosiana (which had a gorgeous Caravaggio still life), the Brera (had to wait an hour to get in, but it was worth it), and the paintings at the Sforza Castle.  We couldn’t get tickets to see the Last Supper, so we’ll need to come back for that.  

Our last full day we took the train for an hour up to Lake Como, where we started by walking around Varenna and then took ferry rides to visit Menaggio and Bellagio.  There was mist and fog, but it was still very beautiful, with the enormous calm lake, charming villages and the Alps rising above.  

On the trip back, I made substantial progress in Elena Ferrante’s second Neapolitan novel, The Story of a New Name.  I’m liking it even more than the first one.  Things that initially seemed uncomplicated turn out to be quite complicated, but in a believable, human way.  I haven’t gotten pleasantly immersed in a novel this much for a very long time.  

 

Skiing at Chamonix

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As I write this, Sally and I are on our flight back from Geneva, after a week of skiing at Chamonix, France.  The Alps in that area are spectacularly beautiful — craggy, jagged, and huge.  

The week we were there, the snow was not so great — icy in places, getting thin in places, with rocks showing through, crusty in places, and mushy at times.  That said, all the 56 lifts were operating, and for stretches the snow was perfect.  Most of the time the skies were blue.

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We skied mostly on the black (advanced) runs, and didn’t encounter anything terrifyingly beyond our ability level.  Mostly we felt challenged in a good way, absorbed.  Our skiing was happy — relaxed and free. There were, however, two difficult episodes.

On day two, we skied at Les Grands Montets, and late in the morning decided to go all the way up to the top to try Point de Vue, a long black run down the side of a glacier.  On the way up, the sky changed from clear and blue to gray pea soup.  Soon we were working our way slowly down very steep, icy, moguls, barely able to see where the next bump was.  I fell and lost a ski, and with the ice and the steeps, it was really difficult to get the ski back on.

After numerous tries of various approaches, I finally dug a level platform for the ski, which worked. This all took perhaps 20 minutes.  The combination of exertion, thin air, and stress hormones left me shaky, and at the bottom I proposed we take a break for some hot chocolate.

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On Friday, the conditions were snowy, windy, and with very poor visibility.  We skied at Le Tour, where (as elsewhere), the trails (or pistes) were marked with colored poles on either side.  In places we could see only one pole — not the next down the hill, and not the one across the slope.  Then there were no poles anywhere, and we realized we were off the piste.  

We went for a while to the left, then to the right, and saw no piste markers.  It was quiet, except for the wind.  I was starting to wonder if we were going to have to make our way on down off piste, almost blind, on difficult terrain — or worse.  Just then, a snow boarder came by above us, and we realized we just needed to climb back up 30 meters. Which was challenging, but whew!  

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Very few skiers were out that Friday, but there were a lot of them most of the other days, including the two days we skied Brevent Flegere.  It was a school holiday week, and there were lots of families skiing with young children.  I enjoyed watching the little kids, though there were times on narrow slopes when there were just too many people.

At the end of each day, we found a place at a sidewalk cafe in the charming ski village and had a beer.  It was pleasant to be surrounded by the French language.  My student French was pretty rusty, but it got better as the week went on, and people mostly understood what I was trying to say.  If they or I had no clue, no problem — most people in the hospitality line spoke serviceable English.

We stayed at a small hotel called La Vallee Blanche, which was located within an easy walk of lots of restaurants and bars, and about 4 blocks from the bus to the slopes.  Our concierges, Maria and Margo, helped us get reservations at enjoyable restaurants.  Our favorite was an Italian place called L’Impossible, which had home-made cannelloni to die for.

At dinner, we talked about family, politics, and skiing.  Sally and I were pretty much on the same level, and both still working to get better, so we talked about things we’d learned from our various teachers or were trying to figure out.  At one point I asked Sally what she wanted to improve, expecting her to say something like moguls, trees, or maybe carving.  

But her reply was more interesting:  she said she was hoping to overcome more fear.  And on reflection, that’s fundamental.  At some point, on some steep, all skiers find there’s a thing that says, don’t go, don’t point the skis downhill.  And then you’ve got to find courage.  So we try to cultivate a bit more courage, and face down fear.  

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Our Austrian adventure, including some good ski tips

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Last week we had a skiing adventure in the Arlberg region of Austria. This was our first ski experience in the European Alps, after quite a few trips to the U.S. and Canadian West. We were curious to experience the birthplace of alpine skiing and taste a different culture. It exceeded our expectations. If you love skiing, you should go.

We arrived in Lech on Sunday afternoon to find it had snowed a lot the previous day, but the snow had just changed to rain. As we got our bearings and rented equipment, hiking the roads with slush on top of ice, we managed not to fall, but our feet got wetter and wetter. We made a note to bring some water proof boots for the next trip. But some good news: with the weak Euro, the prices for lift tickets, equipment rentals, and hotels was substantially cheaper than out West.
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The next morning it cleared up, and we took our first runs at Lech (“leck,” more or less). It was beautiful. There are spots in the Rockies that rival it for magnificence, but here the craggy peaks were everywhere, towering above us and extending on and on. The slopes weren’t cut out of the mountain forest, as in the Rockies, but rather marked with posts on the mountain as nature made it. Snow coverage was good, though the snow was a bit heavy. We quickly adjusted and had many good runs on several different slopes.
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Early on we figured out that the official ski map gives only the most general idea of the lifts and slopes. The total Arlberg ski area is huge, with 97 lifts, and we discovered that the large maps near certain lifts were essential for navigation. There seemed to be an assumption that everyone could read a map and exercise good sense; we saw no greeters or patrollers looking to help the confused. But the slopes and lifts had a kind of logic, and almost without fail we ended up where we were aiming.
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The lifts were mostly modern, high-speed, highly automated, high-capacity marvels. They had little gates, like at horse races, that let skiers onto conveyor belts, which generally deposited the skiers in the ideal spot to get gently swept onto the seat. Many of the lifts had a plastic bubble that could be lowered to protect against wind and snow, and some of the seats were heated. There were some exceptions, ranging from old school T-bars to enclosed gondolas. But over all the system was amazing. And unlike in our experience in the U.S., the lifts almost never stopped. Most of our time there, we had no lift lines, and many times had 4 or 6 chair lifts to ourselves.
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My rented skis were Atomic Vantage 90s, with wide rocker tips, some center camber, and 90 cms under foot. I found them not too stiff and not too loose — a Goldilocks all mountain ski. They performed well in both hard and soft snow, though I did not really figure out how to work them in very deep powder. I brought my own Dalbello boots, which performed well, though I got a blister on my left shin (driving those shins forward!) and a very bruised left ankle bone.

We stayed in Hotel Knappaboda, a 22-room family-run hotel that felt cozy and friendly, like the ideal bed-and-breakfast. The manager/owner, Gertrude Walch, also served as our concierge, recommending a new restaurant each night, securing reservations, and giving directions. It was not quite, as advertised, ski-in ski-out — the lift was about an 8-minute walk — but no matter. Our room had all the modern conveniences, including free and fast wi-fi, and was pretty and comfortable. It was also quiet. Especially after it started snowing again, at night we heard nothing from the street, nothing from neighbors, and practically nothing from the building itself. So peaceful!

Ready for breakfast at the Knappaboda

Ready for breakfast at the Knappaboda

We hired a teacher-guide for Wednesday, when it started to snow again (and continued to snow until mid-Friday). Our ski guru was Walter Goggelmann. He turned out to be quite an accomplished person: a 20-year professional instructor who also worked in the off-season as a critic for a Berlin magazine, who spoke German, English, French, Spanish, Russian, Dutch, some Italian, and some Turkish. He also was an experienced scuba diver with good knowledge of Indonesia.

Walter watched us ski briefly, and identified three things we needed to work on. 1. Press into the snow with the downhill big toe. 2. Turn the uphill knee out. 3. Turn the head 45 degrees toward the next turn. The toe trick works to get your weight forward and the front edge better engaged. You should try it! We also learned that on the flats, you go faster if you press down with all ten toes. After a few hundred more turns, our skiing was both stronger and more relaxed.
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Walter took us on der Weisse Ring, a signature tour route which started at Lech and ended a couple of hours later with a very long run at Zurs. Walter stopped at one point at did a bit of yodeling where there was a long echo. At the end of the day, Walter suggested we check with him the next day, since he suspected his afternoon client might cancel, and he’d enjoy skiing with us at no charge. It was a nice compliment — hey, we must be pretty good! — though in the end he couldn’t make it.

We also skied two days at St. Anton. It was gorgeous there on Tuesday, and though the snow was hard (not quite ice) in the morning, we liked the steep long runs. When we returned on Friday, it was snowing hard, and visibility was very limited — we really couldn’t see the snow underneath us, and could barely see the next piste markers. With no beautiful views to distract us, we concentrated on polishing our technique. At midday we went over to the Steuben area for lunch. The lifts there were old-school, slow fellows, but the visibility got better, and the snow was good.
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I felt a certain reverence for Arlberg, like a golfer might for St. Andrews. The people looked a lot like us, but there was a different culture, which we enjoyed observing. There was a certain formality, and less extrovertedness — not much apparent interest in engaging strangers. There was a certain pushiness in the few lift lines we had. At the same time, people laughed a lot, and quickly responded when a skier fell or had problems. People seemed to particularly love little kids.

The restaurants we tried all had carved wooden ceilings, interesting fabrics, figurines, and a dramatic crucifix in one corner. We’d worried a bit about finding vegetarian food, but this generally worked out fine, though with more pasta and other carbs than I’d want to eat all the time. Our favorites were the Kroner and the Omesberg.

People speak German. I note this, because, before we went, several people said to me, well, everyone speaks English. Not exactly. Of those in the hospitality business, most speak some English, but there’s a wide range of skill levels. We could have gotten along with English only, but I was glad to have a little very basic German. We enjoyed being surrounded by the language, which made it very clear we were somewhere different.

One thing that was the same: pop music. At the apres skis bars, we heard almost all U.S. rock from various eras, and in the restaurants there was classic jazz. Since we seldom listen to this music at home, this was a change for us. We also noted that fewer Austrians are overweight. Unfortunately, more people smoke.
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I had only one real fall all week. On Thursday near Warth, after perhaps two feet of new snow had fallen, and with visibility still quite limited, I felt moved to test the deep powder. A few turns later I went down, and my face ended up under the snow. Nothing was hurt, but getting out was a problem. At first I tried hiking, but this was not possible, since the snow was almost up to my waist. Eventually I used a ski to pound the snow into a little platform that would hold the skis while I got remounted.

Anyhow, we got a taste of the culture, and a taste of the skiing — enough to want to come back. Early Saturday morning, we sadly bid Gertrude auf wiedersehn (she waved as our taxi pulled off), and took the bus to the Zürich airport. From there we took the train to the main station in Zürich and explored the winding cobblestone streets of the old part of the city.
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Zürich was quite charming. The high point for us was the Kunsthaus art museum, which has an excellent Impressionist and Post Impressionist collection, as well as some interesting old masters and current exhibits. We walked along Bahnhofstrasse and went into the Teuscher chocolate store, and after some looking, purchased their smallest box of truffles (two for each). We sat by the river and had cappacinos, and watched the gulls, ducks, and swans. Then we had a look at the famous Marc Chagall stained glass in Fraumunster church. After more strolling, we ate at a nice Mediterranean restaurant called Mere Catharine.

Older athletes, my 5K race, working out with audio books, CRISPR, and Uber

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I like stories of successful athletes who have passed the normal age for athletic achievement, for obvious reasons. There was a good one this week in the WSJ, which featured Klaus Obermayer, founder of an outdoor clothing company. At 95, he lives in Aspen, skis whenever there’s snow, does Akido, and swims, along with getting gym workouts, and eats a mostly vegan diet. I’ve previously challenged myself to still be skiing the big mountains at 85, but it looks like I may need to raise the bar.

On Saturday morning I ran a 5K race in downtown Raleigh – the Jingle Bell Run, a charity event for the Arthritis Foundation. It was a beautiful fall day, clear and chilly, and a lot of my Red Hat colleagues showed up at Saint Mary’s School. Jonathan C, an accomplished runner, let me tag along as he did his warm up routine. Sally came along with Stuart and lent moral support.

The route was up and back on Hillsborough Street, which is a long climb going out, but it went OK. On the home stretch, as I passed the International House of Pancakes, I had a shot of pain in my left hamstring, and struggled to the finish. But I still ended up with an official time of 25:12. That’s average miles of 8:10, which was close to my planned best case scenario. Jonathan came in third, at 18:02 (5:49/mile). Sally said Stuart had a nice time: lots of people petted him, and asked his name and how old he was (13).

At the gym lately, I’ve been dividing my time among the various cardio machines – treadmill, elliptical, stationary bike, rowing, and stairs – putting in about 45 minutes of total sweat time, plus core work, resistance training, and stretching. Listening to audiobooks and podcasts makes this a lot more fun. This week I discovered News in Slow Spanish, which is exactly what it sounds like – a podcast for intermediate Spanish learners who like to listen to the news. My comprehension went way up when the announcers slowed way down.

I’ve also been listening to Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science, by Steven Gimbel. Gimbel has really helped me with the last 100 years of physics. I’m not prepared to claim deep understanding, but I’m getting more comfortable with, for example, the idea of gravity as a bend in space-time, and matter as just an expression of energy.

We like magazines, but it’s hard to keep up with them. In the last couple of weekends I made good progress in dealing with the pile of New Yorkers, Economists, Atlantics, Opera Newses, and Scientific Americans (but didn’t get to the pile of golfing, photography, and scuba magazines). I finally got a fix on what CRISPR is from a New Yorker piece by Michael Specter, and realized this is a technology that is going to change the world as we know it. The CRISPR tools allow biologists to edit DNA relatively simply and cheaply. This holds the potential for understanding and treating various serious diseases, and also improving food and industrial products. And, of course, there’s the possibility of creating Frankenstein monsters. Anyhow, for better or worse, or both, the genie is out of the bottle.

Last week came the end of driving as we know it – the beginning, for us, of the age of Uber. We scheduled a trip to our old favorite, Caffe Luna, and with a view to avoiding post-wine driving, I downloaded the Uber app. Our first experience was entirely friction free – no telephone call, no waiting, no tipping, and automatic payment, at an entirely reasonable rate. We gave our drivers high ratings, and hoped they did the same for us. I’ve been tracking the progress of driverless cars closely, but had sort of ignored Uber. Now I get it – it’s fantastic.
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Bad ski luck, good paintings, and amazing atoms

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Our ski trip to Whistler was a mixed success. The alpine vistas were out-of-this-world beautiful. The runs were long, and the terrain was varied and challenging. The skies were mostly blue, and the temps were moderately cold. The village was bustling with lots of shops and restaurants, and people speaking many different languages. The free bus system got us around, though we sometimes had to wait a while. We had exciting adventures, good meals, and laughs with family and friends.

The snow, though, was disappointing. We arrived right after two exceptionally good snow years, and in the middle of what’s normally the snowiest time of year, but found it hadn’t snowed for weeks. Bad luck! There was still snow on the upper part of the mountains, but for most of our stay, its texture ranged from fairly hard to super hard.
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The sound of skis on fairly hard snow is sort of like the sound of an ice scraper on an icey car windshield, or a snowplow scraping a street. We learned to listen for that sound as we went up the lifts and watched skiers descending the steeps, and pondered the least noisy way down. At speed on hard snow, you get bounced and buffeted, and you make those awful scraping sounds. You need to watch out for rocks. It’s hard to relax and let it flow.

But we did find some areas of non-punishing snow, and had a certain share of joyous turns. We particularly enjoyed some areas on Blackcomb mountain that had dramatic rolling ups and downs. There were pitches with non-icey moguls that were fun. And at the top, as I mentioned, spectacular alpine views.

I skied on rented Volkyl Kendos, which I found to be versatile and reliable, stable at speed and quick from edge to edge. I was also happy with my new Dalbello Panterra 100 boots, which were easy to get on and stayed in good communication with my edges.
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We had an afternoon in Vancouver before heading home, and checked out the Vancouver Art Gallery, a fine old building in the classical style. There was a exhibition featuring some fine works of Cezanne, Degas, Pissaro, Van Gogh, Modigliani, and Soutine collected by Henry and Rose Pearlman. I enjoyed the paintings, and was particularly glad that Gabe could see this well-chosen collection, while his own artistic eye is developing so quickly.

We also checked out an exhibit of contemporary Chinese art, where I saw two pieces that blew me away: a giant sculpture by Ai Weiwei made of hundreds of antique three-legged stools (shown in this video) and installation involving ceramics by Liu Jianhua that seemed to hover both in space and time. We also stopped in the Coastal Peoples Fine Arts Gallery, which had interesting masks, totem poles, and graceful stone sculptures of bears and other creatures.

On the trip back, I finished reading Your Atomic Self: The Invisible Elements that Connect You to Everything Else in the Universe, by Curt Stager. Its main point is to explain how our bodies are built and operate from an atomic perspective. We all know, sort of, that we’re essentially atoms, but it’s challenging to grasp and accept what that really means. Stager traces our oldest bodily elements back to their origin in exploded stars, and explains how our constituent atoms have been recycled through minerals, vegetables, and animals prior to arriving in us. The idea that we’re connected to everything around us turns out to be true! I found it challenging, and inspiring.

Whistler skiing, Invisibilia, and Oliver Sacks’s farewell

The new boots, after day one at Whistler

The new boots, after day one at Whistler

Early Friday morning we flew to Dallas, where we changed planes and continued on to Vancouver, where we got a car and drove to Whistler to do some skiing. The flying part of the trip was uneventful, though sitting in an economy seat for seven hours takes its toll. It’s good to have some uninterrupted time to read, listen, and think, but in the last couple of hours my bottom started to ache and my legs wanted to move.

The traffic getting out of Vancouver was terrible. With only brief prior exposure, I’d thought of Vancouver as a friendly and modern mid-size city, all of which it may be, but the traffic was more like Sao Paulo. We watched traffic lights change two and three times to progress one block. It took an hour and a half to get clear of the city, which was especially frustrating after a long flight.

The coastal road north to Whistler was curvaceous and lovely, wooded with evergreens and islands to the east. It would have been an excellent stretch of road to drive with Clara. We finally made it to Whistler Village in late afternoon, and checked in and got the key code to our condo in the upper village. We dropped our gear, picked our bunks, and went out to rent necessary equipment. I’d bought my own boots, newly purchased, but needed to rent skis and poles. By the time this got done, we were very tired and hungry, and ate at the first place we could find.

Skiing on Saturday was, ultimately, fun, though I was disappointed at first. It hadn’t snowed for some weeks, and the coverage was not good — almost nonexistent at the lower lower elevations. Higher up, there was snow, but a lot of it was very hard. Still, we found areas of good snow, and enjoyed the long runs and varied terrain. Gabe led the way, and I raised my game just by trying to keep up. The vistas were stunningly beautiful.
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During the trip out, I listened more to a marvelous podcast called Invisibilia. It’s an NPR-based show with a style that resembles Serial in tone and mindset, anchored by Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller, two very smart, funny, curious women. Each episode takes on a question or oddity of human psychology or behavior. Without seeming either overly technical or overly simplistic, it manages the neat trick of being at once entertaining and thought-provoking.

The episode I listened to en route was about categories. We all have to have lots of them, and usually give them no thought. But as the show pointed out, it would be a huge problem if every time we saw a couch, we had to figure out what it was for, whether it was potentially dangerous, etc. It’s a very good thing that we recognize couches, not to mention other categories of furniture.

Much of the show concerned gender categories, and specifically a transgender person who reported the experience of switching between male and female orientations often. It focused mainly on the challenges this presented to the individual in terms of relationships and emotions, but it also pointed up how the male-female categorization affects the way we interact with the world.

I was also thinking about Oliver Sacks, who revealed in an op-ed piece in the NY Times this week that he will soon die of liver cancer. Sacks, a distinguished neurologist, has written many fascinating books and articles about psychological oddities. Now 81, he noted that he’s written 5 books since he turned 65. I was saddened to hear he wouldn’t be with us much longer, but also inspired by the courage and calmness with which he addressed the subject of dying.

He wrote:

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

I’m hoping I’ll be able to say the same when the time comes.

A down home ski trip

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Last weekend I drove up to Massanutten, Virginia for a down home ski trip. Brother Paul is in his twenty-sixth year as a volunteer ski patroller there, and we’ve had many happy times on this unfancy mountain. This trip was especially happy, in that his three kids, my niece and nephews, were all there, with spouses and a spouse-to-be, little ones, and friends.

My nephews Josh and Adam are strong boarders/skiers (turns out both can do both). (Niece Lauren is also a good skier, but is expecting and so sat this one out.) We had a blast shooting down the steep places. It was sunny and cold, and the snow was good.
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We also spent some time helping a couple of beginners in the group. Paul has helped a lot of people learn to ski or improve (including me, come to think of it), and has a really kind, encouraging way of getting across the basic concepts.
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There’s no getting around the fact that being a beginner is hard. There are various specialized physical skills that you’ve got to grasp. Then there’s the fear of falling. And a certain amount of actual falling. It takes some gumption. It was great to see our newbies progressing quickly. When hanging with them on the gentler slopes, I practiced skiing on one ski (trying to work the counterintuitive outside edge) and skiing backwards.
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On the drive back, I listened to podcasts. I’m a recent convert to this technology/medium, which I got started loving after Jocelyn recommended Serial (now the most popular podcast in the history of – podcasts). I listened to several episodes of a BBC production called A History of the World in 100 Objects. Each show discusses an object from the British Museum, and uses it as a jumping off place for probing the society in which it was created. Some are very ancient (a hand ax 1.6 million years old) and some are just ancient (Clovis points 13,000 years old). I got up to 700 B.C., found most of it fascinating.

Bluebird skiing in Telluride, a brief briefing, and reading The Second Machine Age

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Last week Sally and I joined Gabe and several friends in Telluride, Colorado, for a few days of skiing, eating, and talking. When I describe Telluride, I always mention how beautiful it is, but when I got there, I realized I’d forgotten how massive and magnificent the mountains are. The craggy alpine vistas surround you, regal and timeless. And the town itself has a friendly, unassuming charm. I tried to capture some of these feelings, but was uncomfortable taking my D7100 onto the slopes, and so used my little Canon point-and-shoot up there.
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Telluride has a lot of challenging terrain, and the question always is, can you handle it? Gabe Tiller has been living here five years, and he can answer that question with a yes. On our first day, he took me down a double black diamond mogul run called spiral stairs, which, once we were committed, he told me was “really steep.” He wasn’t kidding! He also led me into a tree run called Log Pile. These were pressing the outer edge of the envelope for me. Getting through in one piece was a great happiness!
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Moguls — aka bumps, or areas of irregular snow that form in steep areas — are terrifying for beginners, frustrating for intermediates, and challenging in varying degrees for those more advanced. If you want to ski the steep wild places, you just need to figure out moguls, and there’s no simple solution. It’s like three-dimensional chess – or make that speed chess. We complimented Gabe on how smooth and strong he looked in the tough mogul runs, and he noted, with admirably humility, that it only took him five years of work.

There is no way I’ll ever reach Gabe’s level, but I got a bit stronger and more stylish this week. I averaged three falls a day, which I take as an indicator that I’m still pushing my limits and improving. I also found new joy in the gladed runs – basically moguls with trees. These require creativity and intense concentration. We did on called Captain Jack’s, which Gabe told me would get “kind of loggy.” Indeed. I had only one scary crash, after I saw Gabe flash by doing hyperspeed turns, and was inspired to give chase. I made the first three turns, but missed the fourth and ran into a tree. I did some minor damage to my left shoulder, but I think it will heal up OK. My worst injury was sunburn on my lips. I got everything except the lips protected with sunblock – a rookie mistake.
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Our four ski days were all remarkably clear and sunny, with pleasant ski temperatures in the mid-30s. The snow was generally good – not too hard and not too soft – Goldilocks snow. Of course, it’s always a treat to get fresh light powder, but if it doesn’t happen, I’ll take bluebird days and Goldilocks. We were on the lifts almost as soon as they opened at nine and went at it hard until 3:30 or so. Then hot tub, relaxing, cocktails, and dinner. We particularly enjoyed eating at the Telluride Bistro, Siam, 221, and Hongas.
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I had one important work project: an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank. The case involves a patent concerning financial intermediation, and presents the question of when software is patent eligible under 35 U.S.C. Section 101. I’ve thought about the paradox of software patents for a long time: how a system meant to foster innovation ends up hindering it. I was happy to take on the out-of-ordinary-course assignment of writing the brief myself, but the due date fell in the middle of the ski trip. With hard work, I got most of the writing done before the trip, and while my colleagues took care of cite checking and filing mechanics, I took responsibility for the needless worrying. In the end, I was reasonably happy with the brief, which I hope will help move the debate in the right direction. It can be downloaded here.
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For leisure reading, I made it most of the way through Brynjolfsson & McAfee’s new book , The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. Their subject is how robots and automation are dramatically changing the world. Technology tends to provide more and more extraordinary wealth for the lucky few and the risk of redundancy for the rest. It’s a good introduction to the subject. They explain with clarity and verve why technological change is accelerating, point up examples of the disruptive technologies just starting to take over human work, and play out some of the economic implications.

They seem determined to be optimistic about the future, with examples of how humans and machines can each complement the other. I didn’t think some of their policy prescriptions (e.g. improved education, improve infrastructure, immigration reform, IP reform ) matched up very well with the long-term risks they identified (that is, machines becoming better than humans at almost everything and destroying the labor market). They give some weight to the idea of a guaranteed basic income, which would serve the purpose of preventing mass starvation, but they worry that it might result in dysfunctional communities. The identify employment as a social good, and like the idea of a negative income tax, because it would subsidize and encourage employment. This seems worth thinking about.

Skiing in Virginia, and considering, has the NSA ended privacy as we know it?

My nephews Josh and Adam, humoring me with a short pause on Sunday

My nephews Josh and Adam, humoring me with a short pause on Sunday

Last weekend I went skiing at Massanutten Resort, near Harrisonburg,l Virginia. I thought it would be good to see my brother and nephews, and have a little ski tune up before our Colorado trip in February. The drive up on Friday night was five and a half hours through fog and rain, and the ski conditions were far from optimal, but it was still well worth it.

On Saturday the weather report was for rain, and it did rain a bit, but the snow was pretty good. It was fun skiing with my nephews, both in their twenties and fast. They decided at lunch time to go to the movies, but my brother had ski patrol duty, and I decided to keep skiing with him on the advanced slope (number 6).

He had to leave for a period, and it got very foggy, with perhaps 50 feet of visibility. It rained a little. On the first run on my own, I noted that I didn’t see a single skier on the mountain. The same was true on the second, third – and fifth. It was the better part of an hour before a few other hardy souls ventured out.

Despite the fog, I enjoyed the skiing. I focused on sensing more of the ski edges, and making smooth, graceful turns. And I enjoyed the solitude of the trips up the mountain in the chair lift.

It occurred to later, though, that my smartphone was still sending out signals of my movements. My perception of privacy has been changing with the Snowden revelations, and I suspect I’m not alone. (LOL) Is it real so bad? I think it is, and have a concrete example.

A few weeks back, I wrote an email letter to the President. The gist of it was to commend him for commuting the sentences of some non-violent drug offenders, and to recommend that he expand that effort to help more of the thousands serving lengthy prison terms for minor drug crimes. As I prepared to send the email, I paused, thinking that this communication could easily mean a new NSA or other agency file would be opened on me, with unpredictable consequences.

Paranoid? Maybe. I sent the email anyway. But I expect that many citizens, now knowing how easily they can be monitored and how committed the spy bureaucracy is to expansive monitoring, might decide that expressing a political view just isn’t worth the risk of becoming a target.

There was a good piece in the New Yorker of a few weeks back by Ryan Lizza on the history of the NSA’s domestic metadata collection program, including efforts to establish a legal basis for it. It wasn’t surprising that a spy agency would tend to conceal its work, but it was surprising that agency representatives repeatedly lied to Congress and the FISA (special secret programs) court.

It raises the question, is this agency unconstrained by law? I expect most people involved in massive electronic surveillance are patriotic and well-intentioned, and not personally seeking world domination. But what if an agency with effectively unlimited resources and powers came within the control of a megalomaniac sociopath?Impossible? Remember J. Edgar Hoover?

If we’re lucky, we won’t become a police state in the Big Brother sense. But just knowing we’re subject to constant surveillance will probably change us. The interesting question is how much.

If the government forbade curtains on windows, we’d quit doing certain things within sight lines of the street. Maybe, without much discussion, we’ll get more guarded or stop discussing controversial topics using our electronic devices. Once that habit develops, it could extend to our face-to-face exchanges, or even our interior monologues. It wouldn’t happen all at once, but little by little. We might not even notice the change.

The justification for the government’s massive technology surveillance programs, of course, is prevention of terrorism. It’s hard to argue with that, since anything that grows the database of human activity could also increase information about terrorism. But is it possible that we’ve gone a little overboard with this fear-of-terrorism thing? Does it remind you a little of people preparing to end the world as we know with a nuclear conflagration it to prevent a takeover by communism?

There was a very interesting piece in Slate last week on the national hysteria over alleged sexual abuse and Satanic rituals in preschools back in the 80s. There were several of these cases in which little children testified that their preschool teachers molested them and also engaged in ritual murders and other bizarre and horrifying conduct.

Based almost exclusively on the testimony of the children, juries sent a number of these teachers to jail for lengthy terms. It slowly emerged that the abuse stories were fabrications produced by so-called therapists who essentially planted false memories in the children’s heads. Most of the teacher-victims eventually were freed.

In retrospect, the children’s stories seem way too bizarre to be believed – yet most of us believed. It’s a reminder of how our powers of reason and critical thinking are limited, and how they can be overwhelmed and defeated by sensational media and groupthink.

P.S. Needless to say, I paused again before publishing this post. But I think the danger of silence and retreat from dialog is even greater than the danger of surveillance run amok.