Pockets of Blue

musings of my mind

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Americans’ Dysfunctional Relationship With Food

It should be easy, right? You’re hungry, so you eat. A few hours pass. Repeat, et cetera.

But no. It hasn’t been this easy in decades. Probably right around when we were able to eat anything grown anywhere in the world, and all kinds of foods recently invented. If I want a banana, I can eat a banana, even if the nearest banana tree is in Jamaica. Pretty much anything I can imagine eating can be found in minutes in any decent-sized city in the US.

So why do between six and eleven million Americans suffer from an eating disorder? Why do we refuse to eat, habitually binge, or binge and purge? Why have up to half of all high schoolers practiced unhealthy weight control methods? How did 28 million Americans contract Diabetes, the vast majority being Type Two? It’s this country’s elephant in the room.


It must be the parents, right? I mean, kids learn eating habits from somewhere. Without boundaries, they’ll gobble up all the sugar in sight. Growing up, we had a bowl of salad every single day at dinnertime. I despised it. But if I didn’t eat it, I didn’t get dessert, so I resolved to the gambit more often than not. I don’t eat a whole lot of salad anymore. I remember lashing out as a freshman in college, buying Pizza Rolls for dinner and Lucky Charms for breakfast, gorging on all the things I wasn’t permitted growing up. It didn’t last long before I realized that Cocoa Puffs for breakfast were kinda gross, and ice cream every day gets old.

I consider myself lucky, both to have such strong boundaries growing up, and being exposed to so much gourmet food as a kid. My father would cook fairly extravagant dinners 3-4 times a week. I was eating capers and scalloped potatoes before most kids could pronounce them. Yet the sweet tooth is still exceptionally strong, and I have to be very disciplined to refrain from candy bars at the checkout aisle, ice cream for dessert, a whole pan of brownies for myself. Even after 18 years of fairly draconian food discipline, it’s really hard. I can’t imagine how it’d be for someone else.

What about the supermarkets? After all, they’re the ones displaying candy bars at perfect toddler eye height in the checkout aisles. Or dressing up pastries, cakes and donuts in fancy tins and 360-degree stands. Well, they sell. What sells, wins. It’s not their responsibility to mandate our nutritional choices. Or is it?

The industrialized food system! They’re the bad guys. Multinational corporations thriving on subsidized corn and tax breaks. Injecting corn or soy into every processed food item in the supermarket. Breeding chickens to have breasts so huge they can’t even walk without toppling over. Then turning the pristine, shrink-wrapped pieces over to us for three bucks a pound. How couldn’t you buy it at that price!

No, no, no…it’s not any of these things. It’s all of them, and then some. The system is really, really broken. And it’s slowly killing us.

I don’t have the answers. Others have explored this topic in much more detail. You should do the same. I posit that, like most things in life, keeping it simple is the way to go. Or if not simple, than perhaps old-fashioned. Food has not been much of a beneficiary of the modern technological world. Perhaps being a luddite is the way to go.

I Love Utah

I had a pretty awesome short jaunt up in the mountains today, which proved a couple well-known facts about Northern Utah: proximity and lengthy, overlapping seasons.

8:30 AM: Roll out of bed, make some coffee and breakfast, get on my laptop

9:15: A friend reminds me that I should be skiing right now. I concur, and pack up my ski gear for the first day of the season.


Dispersing clouds

9:40: Take off for the mountains.

10:30: Arrive at Brighton after a nice, snowy drive up Big Cottonwood Canyon. It’s not open yet, but all the Utah resorts don’t mind backcountry skiers walking around in-bounds. It’s lightly snowing and in the lower 20s; pretty nice. Put on boots, skis, etc.

10:40: Start skinning up the mountain from the base. I don’t really know where I’m going to go, but follow some snowmobile tracks up a run.

11:40: Arrive at the top of the Great Western Lift (10,400 ft), which isn’t running. It’s snowing the whole walk up, and as soon as I put my pack down to take the skins off, the sun breaks through the clouds, illuminating my surroundings. They’re magnificent. I look forward to skiing a wide open, untracked, deep powder run at mid-day, in-bounds, at one of the most popular ski resorts in the state.

11:45: Click back into my bindings and set off. The top part of the run is untracked light powder, six to twelve inches, and the bottom half is untouched, just-groomed corduroy. The turns are nice and smooth. I’m reminded that it’s November 9.

12:00: Ski right to my car’s trunk in the snowy parking lot. It’s still pretty quiet, but a few backcountry travelers are milling about.

12:50 PM: Return home, three hours after I left.

This was two days after returning from Indian Creek in the desert of Southern Utah, climbing steep cracks in the 70-degree sun. Utah kicks ass!

How to get in shape without being miserable

Let’s face it: Exercising usually sucks. Lifting weights in a gym is annoying. Running is downright boring. Swimming is about as fun as getting sprayed by a fire hose.

That’s the bad news. The good news is, there are unlimited other ways to stay in shape, some of which don’t suck! I, of course, climb a lot of rocks, so I might be a tad biased here, but I still think that climbing is the single best path toward an excellent all-over physique. Muscles you never knew existed will get stressed for the first time. I guarantee, after your first day climbing, you’ll be sore all over, and in places you didn’t expect. (“Why are my thighs sore? Isn’t climbing all upper body?” Hell, no!) Like any good workout, you’ll be sore for 3-5 days afterwards. Get over that first plateau and you’ll have already made major gains in strength and physique.

Little Cottonwood Canyon

Fall in Little Cottonwood Canyon, UT

“OK, so climbing sounds fun, but I live in Iowa! The nearest cliffs are three hundred miles away!” That’s OK, just go to one of the hundreds of climbing gyms nationwide. They’ll (hopefully) be friendly and accepting of newcomers, and unlike normal gyms, you won’t be surrounded by meatheads. If you’re lucky enough to have rocks or mountains nearby, find a guide and get after it!

If climbing isn’t your cup of tea, there are lots of other ways to get in shape and trim fat, that don’t suck! Find a yoga or pilates studio — both are excellent ways to build core strength — and often you can sit in on a class for free. Take your bike to work in the mornings — you might find the cool morning air to be quite invigorating, not to mention the extra boost of energy to start the day! Go cross-country skiing, hiking, or canoeing some weekend. Downhill skiing is actually a pretty poor workout, as it doesn’t do anything for you aerobically, and really only builds a couple large muscles in your upper legs. Now if you hike to the top instead of taking a lift, that’s a different story!

It’s not all easy and fun, though. If an activity isn’t at least a little difficult, it’s probably not doing much for you physically. Athletes swear by the maxim “no pain, no gain,” which is unfortunately often the case for upper-level workouts. But would you rather be a little sore from hiking in the hills when the leaves are changing, or dodging traffic running the local park loop? It’s all about the experience, and if you can find something that you enjoy enough to not even notice the difficulties involved, you’re set. So get out there!

The Great Democratization

It’s been creeping up on us for a while. You may not have even noticed it. It’s been eleven years since Napster changed the rules, forever. Nine since the most comprehensive encyclopedia the world has ever known changed the nature of research. You don’t even have to leave the house anymore to find out anything about anything.

The Information Age, it’s been called. It took a while for us to realize the power inherent. But I believe it’s enabling a sea change in transparency, accountability and communication. Sites like Yelp, GlassDoor, and countless others are giving us a voice. A really, really influential voice. For better or worse, many stores and restaurants live and die by their Yelp reviews, especially in tech-loving areas like San Francisco. Naturally, though, the best rise to the top, as in any efficient market. Sure, there are ways to game the system, but when aren’t there? (Just look at our political system. Yikes…) Offer a valued service, keep your customers happy, and you’ll thrive. And what’s a more valued influence on your day-to-day decisions, a radio ad or two hundred positive reviews by people just like you?

It’s gotten really easy to build software that connects people. All you need is some (OK, a lot of) programming expertise, a laptop and fast internet and you’re off to the races. We’re going to have more and more ways to express ourselves and our opinions, and I think this is a very good thing for our society. May the good guys win!

Retirement, Redefined

Imagine you’re a 44 year old male. You’ve spent the last 15 years consistently working 40-45 hours a week for your company. You have a nice, large 401k that you’ve been diligently adding to each paycheck, with help from your employer’s six percent match. You’ve even convinced your loving wife to be just as disciplined with hers. In as few as ten, perhaps nine, years, you calculate that you’ll finally hit that magic number and retire.

But things have changed of late. You haven’t taken a vacation in two years, instead cashing the days out to add to your retirement account. You used to enjoy the job, but the routine is getting old and you find yourself increasingly ornery and ill-tempered. Just a few more years, you think, and you will finally be able to break free.

Then, BAM! You’re hit by a bus.

I’m not suggesting cashing out your 401k and buying an Audi R8. First of all, a good chunk would be taken out by Uncle Sam in penalties, not to mention the even bigger chunk in taxes (assuming it’s not a Roth). It’s important to be disciplined with your finances, and a 401k helps with that.

As usual, this post was inspired by an article. I’d heard of Timothy Ferriss’ book The Four-Hour Workweek before, but only in the context of Virtual Assistance, which seemed a dubious concept at the least. However, this time it struck a very personal chord. A few years ago, with my roommates shortly before moving to Utah from Rochester, NY, I had proposed a similar idea:

“I think I’m just going to work for a year at a time, save some money, then quit and travel for a few months. When I get bored, I’ll come back and get another job, and repeat.”

Hmm. I didn’t really take myself seriously, as I was more concerned at the time with finding a job to pay rent next month. But this “mini-retirement” idea is very, very powerful, and could help answer some very deep questions about the nature of work, society, and their roles in personal happiness. Why squander the best years of your life at a job you’re not passionate about? Why put off all your hopes, dreams, and desires for thirty years until you’re too old to take advantage of them? (Ironically, my parents are excellent examples of having happy, fulfilling lifestyles funded through traditional retirement savings.)

Which brings me to my point. Saving for the future (or anything, really) is never a bad thing, unless it negatively impacts your happiness now. Live (and love) your life while you can. If you feel stuck, change something. There are always alternatives to the lifestyle you’re living; you just have to be brave enough to step outside of the societal norms.

Yosemite: Part Two

Continued from part one

Tuesday: Royal Arches

After the long day Monday, we decide to stay in the valley. Royal Arches is on the list of climbs and is selected. It has a ten-minute approach, fifteen pitches of climbing, and an excellent position looking over the valley. While waiting in the parking lot for Matt, we witness a tourist almost back over his duffel bag with his enormous SUV, roll forward again, turn a bit, then proceed to drive fully over the bag. Unpleasant crunching sounds emanate and we wince from the other end of parking lot. Rough start to the day.

We have our own rough start as it takes us over a half hour to find the climb. (My bad!) Soon enough, though, we are squeezing up the first pitch’s 5.6 chimney. The route mostly consists of 30-70 foot sections of crack climbing followed by some 3rd/4th class scrambling. We spend several hours working our way up the wall, gaining height and an amazing view of the valley. By 7pm or so we’re out of water and at the top. Twelve rappels, one pulled rope with the knot still in it, and an impressive jimmy-rigged stick contraption get us back to the ground around 9:30. We’re all pretty wiped as we stumble back to Camp Four well after dark. (This would be a common theme…)

Wednesday: Go USA!

Both Matt J and I are huge soccer fans, so we agreed that we couldn’t miss the US-Algeria World Cup game. It is well worth seeing, as the US scores in dramatic fashion in the 92nd minute for the win and advancement out of the group stage. We spend the rest of the day sight-seeing and swimming in the Merced below the gaze of El Cap. It is an excellent rest day.

Stately Pleasure Dome

Glenn on South Crack, a stellar 5.8 on Stately Pleasure Dome

Thursday: Back to Tuolomne

We have a vague plan to go “dome-hopping” back in Tuolomne, and by 11am or so we’re at the base of Stately Pleasure Dome, racking up right off the road. We split into two parties again; Glenn and I choose the highly-rated South Crack while the Matts do West Country, a 5.7 on the main face.

The first two pitches contain some of the best crack climbing I have ever done, clean fingerlocks on impeccable rock. I place almost solely nuts on this section as it is perfectly suited for them. On the third pitch the route leaves the crack, sadly, to venture directly up with rather run-out 5.7 slab climbing. I lead each pitch, and enjoy every one (except maybe the last one, which is 5.2 or something). We meet the other lads at the top, take some pictures, and scramble back down to the car. Tenaya Lake reflects the sky and I take in my surroundings contentedly.

Next up is Lembert Dome, a couple miles’ drive away. This is another Dome practically right off the road, and we decide to do a two-pitch 5.6 called Northwest Books. The first pitch contains some interesting friction climbing, leading to a traverse below a roof and then a thought-provoking corner system. Unknowingly, I take the 5.9 variation (which is, realistically, the natural line) up the corner which is quite enjoyable. Glenn takes the next pitch of easy 5th class to the ridge. We scramble up to the summit and relish another phenomenal view of Tuolomne.

Friday: Half Dome

None of us were quite ready to spend a few days climbing El Cap, so we opt for the just-as-famous Half Dome. There is a 5.7 that sneaks up its South shoulder called Snake Dike. Half Dome is a difficult mountain to get to, and the approach involves a six mile hike, most of it on well-maintained hiking trails. Most of the time I don’t enjoy long approaches, but this is a very notable exception as we pass by two immense waterfalls. We take the aptly-named “Mist Trail,” and I scoff at the other hikers donning ponchos. After all, there’s hardly a cloud in the sky, right?

Stately Pleasure Dome

Looking North from the summit of Half Dome

Well, forty minutes later I’m at the top of Vernal Falls and drenched to the bone. The trail winds within a few hundred feet of the water, turning the surroundings into a permanent tropical rainforest. We snap some pics (one of an amusing sign) and continue on so we can warm up a bit. The trail continues up to the base of Liberty Cap (one of dozens of massive shields of Granite in the area), where we then leave it to get onto a climber’s trail which traverses below and around the Cap. Some bushwhacking and a heinous, loose scramble up slabs brings us to the base of the climb.

Snake Dike is renowned for being both really long and really run out. By this time, we had ample experience with both types of climbing, so the route itself is pretty much a cruise. Even 5.4 can be thought-provoking, however, when you’re 50 feet above your last bolt, but we try not to let it get to us and continue on and on over the 7-8 pitches. A final scramble leads us to the top, and the best panorama of the entire week (which is saying something!) It is a fitting final climb. The nine miles of hiking back to the Valley aren’t too brutal, and we again roll back into Camp Four after dusk.

Saturday: Bouldering

Matt and I rescheduled things so we could catch the next US game on Saturday, which turned out to be a bit of a bummer. Ghana beat us handily to eliminate us from the World Cup. The silver lining was that I was still in Yosemite! The rest of the lads were still beat from the day before, but I managed to sneak out for an hour to do some bouldering with our two very friendly British campmates. The sheer quantity and quality of boulder problems just above Camp Four was, again, staggering, and we only did a few before sputtering out. It had been a long week, and we were all hurting a bit. By 8pm the four of us were back in the car and headed back to Utah.

My photos

Matt J’s Photo Trip Report (excellent photos!)

Yosemite at Last

I started climbing back in May 2007. I was 22, and had just moved to Utah to start a new, brighter, more outdoor-oriented life. I haven’t stopped since; in fact, the longest I went without climbing was the month in Nepal. I’ve probably consistently climbed 2-3 times a week for the past three years.

Thus, it was only a matter of time before I made The Pilgrimage. Yosemite Valley is the spiritual home of American climbing, where the first Stonemasters fashioned their own gear and made their way up the massive granite cliffs by whatever means necessary. I had heard and read so much about the Valley and surrounding climbing that a visit was inevitable.

Four of us packed into a Honda Element (a sweet ride!) to drive over the night of June 19. We diagonally bisected the utterly barren state of Nevada and were in California by dawn. Yosemite is split into two parts: the Valley, far and away the most touristy, populated, and spectacular area, and Tuolumne Meadows, a large expanse of alpine wilderness consisting of granite domes, peaks, lakes and streams. Both areas are beautiful in their own way, and we spent some time in each.


We drive on the Yosemite highway through the valley in awe. Massive granite cliffs are everywhere. A large river to our left reflects the massive Sequoias and Douglas Firs towering towards the sky. We are all rather groggy but excited, and split up to look at wilderness permits and get a campsite at historic Camp 4. After an hour of waiting we get a site for the four of us. Glenn and I are psyched to climb so we gear up while the other two catch up on sleep. We walk over to some cliffs near the campsite and tackle a nice 5.7 in the shade, then toprope an adjacent 5.9 and .10a. Right around then I realized I wouldn’t be doing many challenging routes that week, not because of the difficulty of the climbing but rather my partners’ inexperience on granite. Oh well.

We take a nap, then all regroup to go for a drive and take pictures. As the sun is setting, we reach Glacier Point, on the other side of the valley. We take in a stunning view of Half Dome, the Toulumne alpine, and Yosemite Valley, then make our way back to camp.

Yosemite Valley

Yosemite Valley. The granite cliff on the left is El Capitan, over 3,000 feet tall.


I must say, I was quite pleased with my partners’ willingnesss to get after it. We get up decently early, pack in the car, and make the hour plus drive up to Tuolomne. The objective is Cathedral Peak, a spiny mountain jutting out of the high alpine at 10,900 feet. There are several technical routes to the top, and we choose a 6-pitch 5.6 for the ascent. The approach is difficult — due to a series of late spring storms, the snow is still deep and all the suncups make for frustrating hiking. It takes us a couple hours to get to the base, where we promptly run into a party of four retreating from the route.

Huh? I think, then turn around and look at the sky. Storm clouds are brewing to the east. They don’t look too threatening, so we sack up, rack up and start climbing. The rock is impeccable, with fun cracks and low-angle friction climbing. We cruise up the first few pitches, including a fun, exposed, step-around 5.7 move four pitches up. The “crux” 5.7 crack is above, and proves fun and a bit spicy. (It’s funny how different partners can totally change your psych level. Sometimes I’m gung-ho about leading .10c trad yet at times scared of 5.7…)

There is discussion of retreat, and as the storm clouds billow higher and higher we realize we’re covered in metal trinkets attached to a granite lightning rod. Yet the storm still hasn’t moved any closer and we proceed. The last pitch is a relief, leading to an incredible view of Tuolumne from a pool-table sized summit. We don’t dally and expedite the rappels in hopes of descending before the weather starts getting hairy.

It never does. We get a sprinkle of hail on the hike out, but are delighted at the day’s accomplishment. I suggest a route with a shorter approach for the next day…


You’re doing <i>what</i>?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve met and caught up with a lot of people. Invariably, the topic of my quitting my job comes up, and it’s been interesting comparing people’s reactions. They fall into a few categories:

  • Fear/uncertainty. By far the most common response. I’ve heard things like “Oooh. Risky.” Or “You better have clients lined up before you quit.” (Yes.) As if not working for a couple weeks is a cardinal sin. These responses are always disappointing as they don’t drum up a lot of confidence. I think it might be a natural, almost motherly response though for certain personality types.
  • Indifference/confusion. This is the most surprising reaction. I can’t even think of any quotes as they seemed so foreign to me. I guess some people don’t understand that you don’t have to work for somebody else. A few people didn’t really understand what I was trying to do, and just gave me the ol’ furrowed eyebrow.
  • Enthusiasm. Naturally, my favorite reaction. At times the power of these responses have kept me from changing my mind. Things like “Yeah, sometimes you just have to set yourself up in a position where you have to succeed.” Hell yeah. Or, “you get to do whatever you want and dont have to deal with crap.” Haha, well, that’d be great, but probably not. 🙂 I can only think of a handful of people who have been genuinely supportive and enthusiastic of my decision, and, to those awesome few, thank you! (Curt, Katherine, Mom and Dad, et al)
  • Disappointment. I must have heard “Are you sure you still want to do this?” from my boss six or seven times, or every time the subject came up. This was the reaction from my boss and a few coworkers, but I guess that’s understandable. Workplaces have strange social dynamics, though, especially in fields where there’s typically high turnover (software companies for sure). I’ve felt the same thing before (usually tempered with excitement for them, though) when great colleagues move on.

I’m definitely not the only one, though, and that’s exciting. Ten more days of work, and it’s on.

A Programmer’s Role

As I was making my weekly rounds of the software blogging universe, I came across this fascinating post by John Cook. Besides having a delightfully alliterative title, it struck a chord with me due to my similar experiences.

I’ve been a student of programmer productivity for over three years now, especially as it relates to hiring, pay, and experience. The last two paragraphs of Mr. Cook’s post made me smile, as I can relate. The best (most productive in this sense) programmers aren’t necessarily the smartest or most technically skilled; they just have a special talent for recognizing and applying the best solution to a given problem. They recognize common problems and that existing, stable code exists to solve them. At a higher level, they realize when they’re building the wrong thing or applying a hack rather than a long-term solution, and call it out to the appropriate people. In fact, these skills aren’t endemic to the current definition of a “programmer” at all, but are often best applied at the managerial or director level. Often, developers (or even managers) don’t have the clout to interrupt an ill-designed project or feature, even when it’s clearly off-track.

I’m very excited to start putting on some more hats in my new business endeavor besides the old, crusty programmer one. Call me biased, but I’ve always considered developers the single most important link in the production of software. They are what connect the business idea to its implementation, and thus can have the biggest impact on not just performance and accuracy, but requirement satisfaction and usability. The best developer can not only implement a fast, clean, and elegant software solution, but prevent a poor user interface or inappropriate system from ever being realized. Those latter cases represent the lion’s share of wasted time and money in a software project as constant redesigns and reworks are required.

It would be interesting to extrapolate this concept to the productivity divide between large and small software companies or the necessity of software CEOs to have an excellent technical background. Perhaps in a future post.

New Beginning

At the end of June, I will no longer be employed.

This is my choice. From my employer’s perspective, I’m quitting; from mine, I’m just beginning. Over the past few years I’ve been putting together the pieces and gaining the requisite experience to make this decision. Not to mention enduring a growing dissatisfaction with my current job.

So what’s next? Well, it took a while to answer this question, but eventually all the signs pointed to the same place.

My next employer should be…me!

Yup, I’ll be striking out on my own, building websites from the ground up, using whatever technologies fit. Ruby and Rails, of course, are the preferred means of expression, but I can do PHP and all the client-side stuff, too. One project is nearing completion and another is in the works, and I must say, it’s really exciting. The opportunity to trade the nine-to-five for my own schedule is a huge draw, not to mention the freedom to use the beloved technologies of my own choice! Woohoo! Hopefully this will lead to a happier Alec, which will naturally yield a more satisfied, productive, and better Alec.

At least, that’s the vision. I’m willing to accept the risks; in fact, I feel obligated to try. But I can’t do it alone. I’ll need clients. Development work. Small businesses in need of a web presence. Entrepreneurs with the vision but not the programming chops. Perhaps there’s something I can offer for you?

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