Wednesday, December 03, 2014

The Lone Star Hiking Trail


I've lived in the Texas for over 5 years and only recently have I heard about the Lone Star Hiking Trail. I asked around for first hand experiences and not even the people who grew up in Austin or Houston have ever heard of it. I decided to extend my annual back-to-nature / anti-materialism Black Friday hike into a multi-day backpacking trip to test out the trail.

I took with me two friends who were wanting to give a longer backpacking trip a try. I decided to create a loop out of the Lone Star Hiking Trail and Little Lake Creek Loop Trail to keep things interesting for the group. According to the trail website, we were going to be out during hunting season which put restrictions on where we camped.




Thursday

Day 1: 6 Miles
We met up early in the morning, loaded up the car, and headed out to Trail Head #1. The drive out to the trail head was pretty straight forward. I had brought fresh apples for us to eat before heading out but we forgot about them.

Without much fanfare, we headed out in the trail. Not far along the Lone Star Hiking Trail was the turn off for the Little Lake Creek Loop Trail. We soon came across a quaint little stagnant pond. We continued hiking on what was a fairly easy going trail. We hit the turn off for Sand Branch Trail right at another small pond and followed that up to the turn off for the campsite.

Sand Branch Camp

The campsite was small but sufficient for our needs.

There were some downsides to the campsite.

First, we had a terrible water source.  After setting up camp, I went to pump us cooking water for dinner.  The only water source I had found was the pond at the turn off for Sand Branch Trail which was unfortunately stagnate.  I've never pumped such dirty water.  I had to clean my filter every 16 oz or so and, despite having a 2 micron filter, the water came out yellow.

Second, throughout the afternoon and evening, we heard gunfire from the hunters which isn't the most appealing interruption for a relaxing day in the woods.  We also had howling in the distance from coyotes, we presume.  There was some rustling in the brush around us but we never determine the cause.
Preparing a fire at Sand Branch

Backpacking Thanksgiving Dinner

We had a pleasant imitation of a Thanksgiving dinner.  Our main course was stuffing.  We mixed boiling water with chicken-flavored Stove Top stuffing, added a couple cans of chicken, and then tossed in some craisins.  We then mixed boiling water with two different flavors of Idahoan potato flakes and gravy for some delicious mashed potatoes.  We also baked a sweet potato per person in the camp fire.  We topped all this off with pumpkin pie flavored Larabars.

Overall a delicious, satisfying, thanksgiving dinner without being gluttonous like we would have back home.

Friday

Day 2: 12 Miles
It was a bit chilly in the morning.  Unfortunately, I overestimated the effectiveness of the sleeping bag and bivvy combination I had loaned to one of my friends. I was the only one who was warm last night.  The cold had me delay pumping water for our hike as long as possible.

Today's hike was pretty rough.  The trail was less travelled with more spider webs with ginormous spiders, more logs crossing the path, bridges that were out, rough terrain, etc.

On the plus side, we crossed several different types of areas.  Some areas were full of pines, deciduous, brush, ferns, or even bamboo.  We also had the combinations thereof and the mossy tree areas.

I had forgotten the importance of pacing ourselves and so we didn't have any breaks until we found we needed them.  One was up at the Pole Creek Campsite.  I'm glad we didn't plan to camp there because there wasn't even a stagnate lake to get water from.
The ferns were reminiscent of Jurassic Park

Caney Creek Camp

The camp marker
Unlike the previous campsites, Caney Creek didn't have any built-up wooden trail signs marking it but instead all we had was a tiny little marker on a tree.  Everyone setup camp while I took care of our water situation.

I had expected Caney Creek to be a great water source for us but it was stagnant and shallow, not worth pumping unless I absolutely had to, so I went exploring.  I decided to see if Caney Creek was better further upstream.  On the walk to the Lone Star Hiking trail I came across a flowing creek that at first glance seemed too shallow and muddy.  I then came across a stagnant creek.  Eventually I arrived at roughly where the Lone Star Hiking Trail crosses Caney Creek and it was all dried up.  I went back down to that flowing creek and found that the water was actually perfectly clear, I was just seeing the sand on the bottom.  I also found some deeper parts to pump from.  The main downside left was that it had fairly steep and high banks which made pumping uncomfortable.

Tonight we ate more traditional backpacking food.

The noises at this campsite were worse than Caney Creek.  We had no rustling bushes and fewer gunshots but we had more howling and there was some unfamiliar sound that most closely matches with what I'd expect an animal growling while mauling its prey would sound like.

Saturday

Day 3: 12 Miles
We pumped, ate, packed up, and headed off.

We went north to finish off Little Creek Loop Trail and took the turn off on the Lone Star Hiking Trail to head back to Trailhead #1.  The trail was in good condition with no spider webs across the trail, few logs to step over, and had very few creek beds for us to go down and back up from.  There were decent bridges in different sections.

After yesterday, we had considered taking North Wilderness Trail as a shortcut but the hike was so much easier today that we had decided to stick to the long way.  We took breaks at Trail Head #3, a log on a service road on the edge of the Little Lake Creek Wilderness which is also the turn off for a primitive campsite, and at Trail Head #2.  Tired and sore, we eventually reached Trail Head #1 where the car was.

I tend to end hikes with cans of fruit to refresh us but instead we ate into the fresh apples that we had forgotten about when we left

We used a McDonalds in Navasota as our opportunity to use a real bathroom.  We then didn't eat until we got back home.

Postmortem

Lone Star Hiking Trail: At least the first 11 miles of it make an enjoyable hike but past that it looked like it got a little rough.

Little Lake Creek Loop Trail: The first 6 miles were smooth and it got very rough afterwards.

Sand Branch Camp: Cozy little camp with a terrible water source

Caney Creek Camp: Pleasant camp with a really good water source 5 minutes north on the trail

Pole Creek Camp: Decent camp with no water sources that I could find.

The overall area: Compared to the other options in Texas, this is a great hike.  The variety of flora was great.  This is Texas, so you can't expect sweeping views.  I prefer my hikes to remove me from civilization which this trail doesn't provide.  We saw houses, heard gun shots, and crossed roads.  The upside is that if someone gets injure, you can get them out more quickly.

The drive: Depending on your carrier, you might not have reception once there.  Be sure to be prepared with maps for the drive back.

Equipment: I mostly used the same equipment as I did in the past.  My boots died on a smaller trip since then and I replaced them with Hi-Tec boots and they worked great.  I'm disappointed that my friend was cold in the Uber Bivvy but my expectations might have been a little too high.  I've still not tried it myself to see how it is first hand.  The weight was great though.  Since the hike was local, I got to use my traditional hiking pack (an 15+ year old Kelty with an external frame) and I continue to love that pack.  I will be sad when it finally gives out on me.  My friend borrowing my new Thermarest Z-Lite SOL reported that it was warm and comfortable.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Buying a Home

Should I Buy?

Buying a home is not for everyone.  Its easy to lose track of the value you are getting back for the rent you pay and instead see rent as just a money pit.  Your money goes to property tax regardless of whether you are renting or buying.  When you rent, you are paying for mobility (easier to move areas), your time (repairs, being at home instead of work for repair people), and the reduction in emergencies (water line to the house broken? stop everything you are doing in your personal or work life and take care of it).

It is also easy to forget about some of the expenses that come along with a house.  The "buy or rent" calculators do not take into account upkeep, repairs, and replacements nor the upfront costs of stocking your home (from essentials like major appliances that it didn't come with or home and garden tools to less pressing items like furniture).

If you are looking for the benefits of a house (wanting to garden, a workshop, garage to work on your car) then renting a room in one is an alternative to consider.

Why I've been renting: I have too many interests for the time I have and I felt it important to streamline my life to minimize distractions.  As an example, one of the important criteria for choosing an apartment complex was whether they did proper auto-bill pay (some will regularly pull out a fixed amount of money and not handle the variable amount for utilities).  I found that the benefits of a house were far enough down my interests list that it was not worth the time and money overhead to attain them.  I do not expect a house to be worth it in this regards until I have a wife (if she wants it) and a kid (if she'd rather wait on a house like me).

Added to that is the recognition that a one-day wife's care abouts would probably be more important than mine.  I wanted to defer the decision until I had a wife so we could make the decision together.  We would also then be equally emotionally invested in it (I remember a friend talking about how her mother never really felt like their house in Austin was a home and my friend could sense it).

So why did I buy a house?  Back when Google Fiber was announced for Austin I started to consider the problems of property values going up in Austin, especially in the areas I wanted to live in.  I started browsing Zillow to get a feel for the market.  A week or so later I found a house that looked perfect for me.  That day it went on contract to be bought.  I didn't want to have that happen again so I decided to be more proactive and retain a real estate agent and buy a right house when it came up.

Searching For a House

My friend used a real estate agent to find the rental home I lived in with him.  He then used her again when he decided to buy a house.  So when I started my house search I went with his agent, Joleen at Pacesetter Properties.

Things that stood out about Joleen
  • She did not rush me (we started working together in May and it wasn't until the following January that I closed)
  • She was not pushy about loosening up my search limits
  • She had a lot of helpful comments when looking at houses
  • She put me first when it came to negotiating the price rather than her share.  She was upfront about her thoughts on people asking for too much, encouraged me to low ball for a house that had been on the market a while, and gave me a heads up that a seller was going to give her a bonus for me paying asking price (which was one of the asking prices she scoffed at).
When looking at houses, I broke down my criteria as follows
  • Requirements:
    • Affordabiliy
    • 1980s or newer
    • No HOA (most houses built in the 1990s or later will have one)
    • Ease of biking / walking to work
    • Not to change the congregation I attend.  In the LDS Church, congregations are defined geographically and we have a lay ministry.  I will probably only be in my current responsibility for another year or so but I felt a sense of responsibility to not be released from the responsibility early by moving.
  • Nice-to-haves
    • Open floor plan
    • Plenty of counter space in the kitchen
    • Decent sized bedrooms for roommates
    • A neighbourhood or nearby park I would enjoy running in
    • Single story
  • Nice to haves that could be upgraded
    • Four-side brick
    • No carpet (carpet is much harder to clean)
    • Maintainable fence material
When looking at houses, I made sure to check:
  • How old the hvac unit is
  • Is the water heater in good shape, etc
  • Does the foundation have any cracks that you can see
  • Are there trees touching the house (you'll want to get them trimmed or have owner do it before selling, it's a termite risk condition)
  • How old is the roof (a lot of times the roof will have been replaced on older houses)
  • Do the plumbing fixtures work (toilets, sinks, etc).
  • Tax rate
  • Quality of school
This is the time to decide at the high level that it is a house you want and what might affect the offer you give.  Texas has a really neat feature called an Option Period.   When you sign the contract, instead of immediately putting down the non-refundable Earnest Money (a couple thousand), you put down the refundable Earnest Money and the non-refundable Option Fee (about a hundred).  You then have ten days or so to get the house inspected and start a second round of negotiations to determine how much the seller or the buyer will be responsible for and this is added to the contract as an addendum.  You can either have the seller do the work and provide receipts or have them pay you to compensate for the work needing to be done.  Once the Option Period is over, the Earnest Money becomes non-refundable.  Just like the Earnest Money, the Option Fee counts towards the cost of the house and just like the Earnest Money, if you decide to back down you lose it.

I had both Zillow and my agent sending me notifications about houses coming on the market.  My agent had a wider geographical search area but Zillow was configured for a higher price.  My agent's site usually had listings first but it was clunky and Zillow had a lot more stats.  I had a good idea of what I wanted and so I had the freedom to be picky about what houses I went to look at.

One of the things I found is I started to prefer houses that haven't been upgraded for selling.  Some sellers did a good job with the upgrades.  It seemed like most did not and I disliked the idea that I might pay a premium for the upgrade that I wanted to tear out.

When I decided to make my first offer, Joleen had me come into the office to sign the papers in person so she could step me through them (subsequently we did it all electronically).   This is when I learned just how hot Austin's real estate market is.  Houses were being sold like a silent auction style.  The sellers wanted highest and best offers within a 24-48 hour of the house going on the market from which they'd pick.  No negotiating.  I even offered asking price + sellers costs a time or two and lost.

The hot real estate market made some people arrogant.  On one house I put in an offer and they considered it so low they wouldn't even counter it.  We ended up in a stalemate for a few days because I refused to come up if they weren't willing to show they would work with me.  Eventually I relented and went up.  They did counter it but I walked away not wanting to pay that and not wanting to deal with the drama (on the other end was a divorced couple).  I noticed on Zillow that they eventually lowered the asking price to close to my original offer.  Their loss.

One of the things that surprised me about the process was the fact that I never saw the sellers or even their agent face-to-face.  I can see it being good for keeping negotiations cool but it slows things down with the back and forth.

Buying a House

I had gone several months without looking at any houses.  The market had slowed down but it more so because I had gotten busier and was questioning whether I should take on the time commitment of home ownership as well.  Also I was starting to not get comfortable about the growth around here especially with the drought.

At one point I saw a house on Zillow that looked interesting.  It was right in the middle of some walking trails maintained by the city and near a large forested park.  The house was too large for my needs and the price was out of my range.  With how hot summer's market was, I was not used to thinking about the potential price from negotiating (which would still be higher than my preferred range).  On a Saturday during a holiday weekend I got an email from my agent pointing the house out and asking for my thoughts while recognizing the size and price were outside of my search criteria.  The following Monday we looked at it and the next day I made a low ball offer (it had been on the market for a while so there was a chance and Joleen encouraged it).  The family countered and then took my counter to their counter
Note: The bank will want an appraisal to verify if they are loaning you too much money. My appraisal came out $5k+ more than I am paying

When putting out an offer, you generally need pre-approval from a bank.  I had gotten one from a bank for the sake of having one and not because I intended to get a loan with them but by this point it had expired.  So I went with the first mortgage broker my agent had recommended who had to pass me on to Matt Spinn, a coworker of hers at Gold Financial Services.  The only competitive pricing I did was with ING Direct (well, now Capital One 360 but I'm living in denial).  ING had better rates and points (percentage of house paid upfront) but we had asked for closing in 30 days and the banks are making that tougher.  Matt had experience getting everything taken care of in the 30 days and I did not want to risk a faceless internet entity slowing things down in this case.

Things to note about loans
  • If you put less than 20% down, you have to pay a fee called PMI until you hit the 20% (unless its FHA loan which might always require PMI I think)
  • Unless you put down some undefined amount above 20% (Matt said 25% was fine for me), you will have to pay your property taxes to the mortgage company throughout the year and they'll then pay the county (one connotation of the word "escrow").  They charge a monthly fee for this
  • Some banks are nice to work with but don't necessarily pick your mortgage company based on that.  Banks sell mortgages to each other multiple times over.
In parallel to that was my Option Period (described above in "Searching For a House").  For my inspection, Joleen had recommended Steve Cannon at Apex Home Inspections with Chris Nowling as a backup in case Steve was too busy.  My old roommate also used Apex but Steve was unavailable and he was pleased with Chris.  The reviews on yelp were good for both.  So I went with whichever was available when I made the appointment (Steve).  He performed the inspection and had me come over at the end to go over it with me.  He had a lot of great tips for what to do with the house.  I just wish I had recorded him because they were not included with the report.  I would have even paid extra for a repair recommendations report if they offered it.

I went with a house as old as me so I expected there to be issues.   So I started researching the various issues found (most maintenance is completely new to me).  I do have to say my internet research contradicts one of Steve's recommendations.  He points out that brick facade's need weep holes to let moisture out according to modern code.  He had recommended I just drill some.  From the research I did, it sounds like most inspectors give that tip and it is garbage.  Weep holes need to be made at the time of the facade so they don't clog it up and mess things up.

I made a report of the items that were surprises from our walk through (since the price negotiated so far in theory took them into account).  I ran them by my agent who gave some recommendations and we sent the contract addendum to the seller.  It came back with some items were crossed out which I was fine with.

Then came the waiting as the seller took care of repairs and I wrapped up financing.  In the mean time I was starting to collect tools on sale that I would need and ordered my fridge (appliance shopping I'll save for another post).  Towards the end things started to get crazy but I'll save that for another post.

In the end I went into the Title company's office, signed my money and life away, waited several hours for the seller to sign for accepting my money and life and receive the keys.

I am now a home owner.

Wait, what?

Saturday, August 17, 2013

On Top of Utah: Hiking to Kings Peak


After more than ten years of no camping, this last spring I finally got back into it with trips out to Pedernalles Falls, Lost Maples, and Lake Georgetown (car camping and backpacking).  I've been itching to get back into real mountains though.  This week I had the opportunity to fly out to Utah and go camping with Brian up in the Uintas.

I flew most of my gear out with me.  I did pick up some Mountain House meals at Emergecy Essentials and stove fuel at Sports Authority.  In Austin it was hard to fathom how cold the mountains will be so I ended up borrowing some cold weather clothes from my brother-in-law as well as a pack (mine didn't fit in my luggage) and a flashlight (either I forgot it or the TSA took it).

Monday 

I dropped off my rental car and got picked up by Brian (Altitude: 4,226 feet).  The guy at the car rental place saw my camping gear and checked an obscure place for damage to the car common to driving out to national parks.  I haven't heard word yet if they will charge me for it or not.

The drive out was about three hours.  We had to drive out to Wyoming, through some road construction, and finally too many miles on dirt roads.  We arrived at Henry's Fork Trailhead a little past noon (Altitude: 9,430 feet).  There is a composting toilet and no running water.  The trailhead listed fire bans for Dollar and Henry Lake so we decided on stopping at Bear Lake and Blanchard Lake (with Island as our backup) along the way to King's Peak.

The hike out was beautiful.  We started off climbing up a ridge above a creek and passed through several meadows.  We didn't notice the turnoff to Alligator Lake.  There was no sign for it and I assumed the log was meant for trail reclamation when its really meant to reduce erosion   At Elkhorn Crossing we took the fork to Henry Lake.  Those uphills were rough.  We also had rain off and on through our hike out.  Eventually we came around to Bear Lake.

I had a headache during the hike and at camp but I was a bit dehydrated from the less humid air of Utah (never thought I'd claim Utah is dry, oh how Austin has changed me).  Also around camp Brian and I got a little lightheaded which we assumed is from adjusting to the altitude.

Our spot along the lake was gorgeous and most of the time the lake was a mirror.  I pulled out and setup my hammock and used it to hold gear like a table as I finished unloading.  I ate my Chicken Alfredo Mountain House meal in my hammock overlooking Bear Lake.  We then cleaned up camp, hung our bear/critter bag, talked over a campfire Brian made thanks to his backpacking saw, and went to bed.

Tuesday

Brian took my pump to get himself water for the day and it was going terribly slow.  This is only my second time using my pump and didn't pay attention to the field servicing or post-trip servicing instructions.  After some examining of the pump I hypothesized that the filter needed cleaning and luckily Brian had a scrub pad I could use.  That did the trick.  Overall we found we liked my MSR Miniworks EX Microfilter due to the side pump action (works great as a Thighmaster!), the serviceable filter, and the easy separation between contaminated and clean parts.

After breakfast and water pumping, we broke camp and headed for our next stop, either Blanchard Lake or Island Lake.  We passed through some wooded areas, some meadows, and saw ponds and lakes along the way.  Eventually we came to the no-fire map/sign for Henry Lake.  We were confused because we didn't see Grass Lake but upon looking back we could see it through the meadow.   This map showed the tree lines which made us rule out Blanchard Lake (since we were aiming to have fires) which is good because on Wednesday we saw Blanchard from the hike to Gunsight Pass and it would have been a long, rough, cross-country hike to it.

We used the sign as a guide for us to find Island Lake which turned out pretty easy.  Right before the sign was a meadow and we just followed the tree line out.  We first came to a campsite on the south-east side but wanted to be closer to water.  So we dropped packs and split up.  I went along the east bank and Brian along the south.  Brian didn't find any campsites so we settled for one I found.  It was great, right on the lake's coast, had fire rings (which we had to expand to satisfy our pyro tendencies) with lots of rocks and logs to sit on, great places for tents, rocks to take our packs off on, etc.  The main downside is that there were more mosquitoes than Bear Lake.  It is on the east shore a little north of the island in the lake next to a big rock.  We expected Island Lake and especially our campsite to be isolated but we ran into some fishermen on our first night there and some campers later.

The weather changed on us every hour.  It was a light sprinkle when we setup tents and then as I pumped water it alternated between hot, rainy, and sleeting    We then cooked our meals (Mountain House Lasagna for me) and again I ate then relaxed in the hammock.  Brian took the time to find edible or medicinal plants and came back with a natural insect replant   We intended to go to bed early so we could have an early start on Kings Peak tomorrow but Brian's "quick" fire was not so quick thanks to some really dense wood we found that burns long and hot.

Wednesday

We got up, ate, loaded our day packs, and left camp around 8am.  We took the trail to Gunsight Pass.  Unfortunately the map was misleading.  It showed the trail going straight to the Dollar Lake / Henry Lake trails joining up to go to Gunsight Pass.  It turns out the trail actually curves back around to Dollar Lake.  There is a turn off to head to Gunsight Pass but it starts off not being worn at all and you have to rely on walking between two cairns off to the side of the trail and heading straight between the next two cairns.  After that it is well traveled.

Gunsight pass was rough.  We were scrambling up rocks for a decent distance though we were able to use our hiking sticks for it.  The view from the pass (Altitude; 11,888 feet) was beautiful.  Painter's Basin and where we came from looked great.  We then followed the trail on the map down into the basin.  There are a lot of trails away and alternative trails which muddied things a bit but we figured it out, stay to the right until Anderson Pass was our rule.

The climb up to Anderson Pass starts off steep as you go along a stream (the left side of the stream is a lot easier) but then is a lot more gradual with some switch backs followed by some hiking through some sloped meadows.  It is telling regarding my fear of heights that once at Anderson Pass (Altitude: 12,700 feet), I saw only the top of a cliff of another mountain and my knees went weak thinking how far the cliff (I wasn't even on) drops down (which I couldn't even see).  We started off our summitting using our poles but after the first bit we had to stow them in Brian's pack as we had to scramble up on our hands and feet rocks with some being pretty loose (someone should teach those rocks some morals).

On the way up a guy coming down warned us of bad weather (which the sky still looked good so he must have gotten a report by radio).  Also as we passed people we asked if a Garmin GPS we saw in the meadows before Anderson Pass was theirs and it was surprising how many people lost their GPS but at other spots.  We did find the owner and it was gone on our way back so we assume he got it.

We reached what we suspected was the top of Kings Peak (Altitude: 13,528 feet) at around 1:30 pm.  Once there we realized I was out of water and Brian was almost out (my first time using a bladder).  So we stopped there despite being unsure if this was Kings Peak or a false summit (turns out it was Kings Peak and what we saw further along the ridge was South Kings Peak).  On the way down we had a habitual problem of not quite finding the trail.  Right as we got out of the worse part and switched back to poles, it started snowing.  Back near Anderson Pass a family was concerned about some other clouds bringing lightning.  So they rushed out by going along the mountain ridge straight to Gunsight Pass.  We weren't concerned since we'd be in the basin most of the hike back and the clouds didn't look like they'd come our way.  The snow didn't last much longer.  We headed into the basin, almost caught up with the family at the top of Gunsight, and headed back to camp.  We were in a bit of a hurry due to the lack of water.  We stopped twice to get two mouthfuls each of water.  The first time we both ate and the second time only Brian ate since my mouth was too dry to attempt it.  I tried to keep talking to a minimum and tried to prefer nose-breathing to mouth-breathing (which is difficult when you get winded on any sort of uphill due to the altitude).  At the bottom of Gunsight Pass towards camp, we ran into two friendly brothers who were going to camp in Painter's Basin. They had some pretty nice guns on them (what looked like a .357 magnum and some kind of semi-auto pistol).  Brian would have complemented them on the guns except he was a bit nervous with both of them resting their hands on them.  They pointed out some moose up ahead in some brush to the side of the trail.  Brian was able to spot the antlers but I wasn't.

Just about every half hour Brian made some kind of Lord of the Rings reference, whether it be about the beautiful countryside (which we felt background music from Jenna would have been fitting) or the climb to Kings Peak being likened to Sam and Frodo's journey through Mordor.

We got back to camp at 5:50 pm.  We pumped enough water to drink immediately and then more to cook.  During the after-dinner pumping I felt feverishly hot.  I went to bed as soon as possible.  At one point in the night I woke up and was sweating bullets but later woke up and was perfectly fine.

Thursday

We were playing today by ear, our plans depending on if I still had a temperature and how Brian's legs/feet were doing.  We felt well enough to head on to Bear Lake.  We lazily packed up camp and got to Bear in time to unpack and cook lunch.

The weather was great.  I got on shorts and my water shows and walked out into the lake to clean myself off.  After pumping water, I just lay back in the hammock for hours enjoying the weather, the view, and the lack of civilization.  My legs ended up burning which just made them match my arms from the hike to Kings Peak.

Brian went on another edible/medicinal plant hunt.  He came back with Indian Paintbrush which is more medicinal and should only be eaten in small doses.  He didn't like it.

We burned a short fire and went to bed early so we could break camp early on Friday.

Friday

We gathered everything up and left camp at 7:45 am.  We made it back to the truck at 11:50 am to enjoy our can of peaches each.

We got back in Salt Lake tired, with chapped lips and running noses (both of our noses never stopped) ready to relax.  I'm surprised that I recovered enough that on Saturday I did the Herriman Stampede 4 mile race (I highly recommend it for people in the area, great price for the frills).

Postmortem

The Drive

We were unsure where we would be able to get gas but we were fine the whole way.  The Pilot at the east edge of Evanston had a good price and had Subway which was great to eat on Friday.

As for cell coverage, I had no service on T-Mobile once outside of the Salt Lake Valley.  I did get some  non-data roaming coverage in Wyoming.  Brian had coverage most of the way out to the trailhead on Sprint.

The Hike

We couldn't have asked for better campsites and the views from the trails were beautiful.  Brian titled this hike "Better Than Expected".

It would have been good to cut down the distance to Kings Peak but our choices were: camp at Dollar Lake (no fires), camp along the trail before Gunsight Pass (no or little water to pump), camp at Painter's Basin (it would have been rough getting full packs up Gunsight Pass and we suspect camping areas were on the opposite side of the basin but there were people heading out that way), or cut along the ridge from Gunsight Pass to Anderson Pass (no trail, loose rocks, and staying at altitude longer but like I said, some people do this).

168 ounces of water between two people wasn't enough to go from Island Lake to Kings Peak and back.

The Equipment

MSR Miniworks EX Microfilter: Already covered.

Nalgene Cantene (96 oz): Brian and I both had one of these and they worked great.  Brian used it as his primary water container while I used it around camp and instead used water bottles on the trail.  The screw top is compatible with the MSR filter.

Chinese Camp Stove with Ignition: This is compatible with the MSR fuel canisters, is cheap, and worked great.  I'm glad I did an equipment test before I left though.  The spark from the ignition came out too far from the fuel output so I had to bend it more towards the center.  Even with the adjustment, it sometimes took a couple of tries to light the fuel at camp.  This is much smaller and easier to pack than my old Coleman white-fuel stove with built-in refillable fuel tank.  The stove portion is even smaller than the Pocket Rockets.

Work Gloves: I just use cheap work gloves from Home Depot (is that even real leather?) to work the fire or handle my pot of boiling water.

Mountain House Dinners: Brian used meals from eFoods Direct.  My meals typically had less sodium (some Mountain House meals are low sodium and others aren't, so pay attention), were faster to cook (add boiling water to pouch rather than cooking in boiling water), required less cleaning (you eat out of the pouch), and cooled off to an edible temperature faster.  I used about half a MSR fuel canister while Brian used more than one.  I liked the Lasagna and Sweet and Sour Pork (high sodium).  The Pasta Primavera was ok but it had a lot of vegetables which is good on a hike like this.  The Chicken Alfredo and New Orleans Style Chicken with Rice were alright and I will probably skip them in the future in favor of even better meals.

Oatmeal Packets: I continue to find oatmeal packets (stored in a ziplock bag to avoid getting it damp from dew or rain) to work well for breakfast.  There is more cleanup than the Mountain House meals but still quick to cook.

Sawvivor:  Brian has this and I was impressed by how light it was and how well it worked at cutting wood for our campfires.

High Uinta Gear Trekking Pole: Traditionally I use a single pole made from a closet rod that has an eye hook on the end to help in putting bear bags up.  That didn't exactly fit in my luggage so I went with these low cost poles recommended to me by Brian.  They worked great.  I didn't find myself shortening them or relying on the shocks.  My static configuration worked well for me to keep my balance while I admired the surroundings, help me from falling when going downhill, and help me uphill by pulling myself up with my arms.  I'm unsure whether I'll use my closet rod or these once I'm home but I recommend them to others who don't have poles.



Thanks to Brian for looking over this and reminding me of some parts of the hike and providing some corrections.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

The Prodigal Son


A friend and I recently had a conversation about applications of the parable of the Prodigal Son in our lives (see her post) and it got me thinking on several points on the interpretation of this parable.

When asked about the interpretation of this parable, Joseph Smith taught "I have a key by which I understand the scriptures. I enquire, what was the question which drew out the answer, or caused Jesus to utter the parable?" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pg 277).  The Pharisees were criticizing Christ for sitting with sinners.  He then taught several parables regarding the rejoicing over those who repent.

The parable of the Prodigal Son stands out to us among those because we get a more intimate look into their lives.

One lesson we gain by this more intimate look is that there is not just rejoicing over a lost child of God but that in their journey back they can and should aim high.  The prodigal son came back only aiming for telestial, maybe terrestrial, glory in asking to be a servant (see D&C 76:112).  The father told his son to set his sights higher, to that of the celestial kingdom, by acknowledging their kinship (see D&C 76:56-58).

Another lesson is from the Other Son.  We get the reminder to not be jealous of the rejoicing for the returned sinner (see Elder Holland, The Other Prodigal.  There is sadly a tendency though to over-analyze this son since those who would do such analysis probably see more of themself in this son than the prodigal son.  Within the overall context of the parable, one might try to make the Other Son a surrogate for the Pharisees.  President Kimball warned against being overly harsh in judging the Other Son and taught that it is better to have not sinned than to have sinned and repented (Spencer W Kimball, Miracle of Forgiveness, Chapter 20).

Focusing too much on the Other Son loses our focus on what the focus of this parable is (rejoicing when sinners repent and come back).  We end up incessantly playing a single note tune similar to the pitfall of gospel hobbies which Elder Packer warned about:

Some members of the Church who should know better pick out a hobby key or two and tap them incessantly, to the irritation of those around them. They can dull their own spiritual sensitivities. They lose track that there is a fulness of the gospel, . . . [which they reject] in preference to a favorite note. This becomes exaggerated and distorted, leading them away into apostasy.

Reading the Other Son's words in context of the teaching setting, he seems to be there to fulfill the role of an "audience surrogate" (WARNING: TV Tropes) so we gain an understanding of the father's thoughts.  This doesn't diminish the opportunity to learn from the Other Son but it puts it in context to not look beyond the mark.

Analogies break down after a certain point and looking past that can lead to a skewed perspective on the gospel.  We don't see is what happens to the Prodigal Son in the long run.  The truth being taught has been covered.  We can extrapolate a couple of possibilities based on gospel truths we already know.

The first is the more sad to contemplate intepretation.  The Prodigal Son returned to the presence of his father but with his inheritance wasted much as David had fallen from his exaltation (see D&C 132:39).  I think its much better to contemplate on the interpretation that I would hope would be more broadly applicable and with much less dire results.  This interpretation ends right where Christ does.  Unlike an inheritance from an earthly father, the inheritance from our Heavenly Father is not zero-sum, to give to one son does not diminish from another.  There is infinitely more to dole out to those who squandered but repent.  There is hope for something unfathomably great for those who repent.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Giving in Life



For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.
I've been contemplating this principle since a talk given in church a while ago.  One specific point he brought up is the classic idea that we shouldn't cast blame on the teacher for not getting anything out of a class.  "What do I get?" is the wrong question, the wrong perspective.  We should have the perspective of "What do I give?".  It is amazing how much we grow when we aren't seeking our own growth but those around us.  In my studies recently I've come across this principle regarding multiple topics.

Regarding this topic, Marion G Romney said

We lose our life by serving and lifting others. By so doing we experience the only true and lasting happiness. Service is not something we endure on this earth so we can earn the right to live in the celestial kingdom. Service is the very fiber of which an exalted life in the celestial kingdom is made.
Knowing that service is what gives our Father in Heaven fulfillment, and knowing that we want to be where He is and as He is, why must we be commanded to serve one another? Oh, for the glorious day when these things all come naturally because of the purity of our hearts. In that day there will be no need for a commandment because we will have experienced for ourselves that we are truly happy only when we are engaged in unselfish service.
Below are quotes that explore this concept applied to specific principles.

Sacrifice
President Gordon B. Hinckley explained: “As we look with love and gratitude to God, and as we serve others with no apparent recompense for ourselves, there will come a greater sense of service toward our fellow human beings, less thinking of self and more reaching out to others. This principle of love is the basic essence of goodness” ( Standing for Something, 9).
I have thought of this often and have reached the conviction that in a strange way those who have are actually dependent upon those who have not. Something spiritual happens to a person when he reaches out to help someone else.
As givers gain control of their desires and properly see other needs in light of their own wants, then the powers of the gospel are released in their lives. They learn that by living the great law of consecration they insure not only temporal salvation but also spiritual sanctification

Discipleship
It is not only important for the growth of the members involved to exercise their own claims on God for assurance about the direction of the kingdom, but it is also important for followers to prepare themselves to follow in such a way that their influence could be much more helpful to the leaders in reaching shared goals. Not only do followers who proceed, as Brigham Young said, "with a reckless confidence" fail to develop themselves in their own power and resources, but also they deprive the leaders of the kind of support they deserve and need at times from followers who are themselves developing the skills required. The 58th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants indicates that the Lord expects members of the Church to accomplish much on their own without incessant institutional insistence or prodding. It is neither realistic nor wise to expect leaders to provide all of the answers all of the time, to provide solutions to all of the problems that will arise. This would require leaders to be omniscient; further, it would require of them the kind of sustained energy and time which is simply not humanly possible to give over protracted periods of time.

Love and Marriage

The teachings of Christ suggest that we should begin our search for an eternal companion with greater concern about our ability to give love than about our need to receive it. Of the Savior, John wrote: "We love him, because he first loved us"
Indeed, it may be our own capacity to give love that makes us most lovable. The greater our own personal substance is and the deeper our own mental, emotional, and spiritual reserves are, the greater will be our capacity to nurture and love others, especially our companion.

Leadership

In today's world, it is common to measure one's personal growth by ever-greater positions of responsibility in the workplace or by pay raises that signal increasing personal accomplishment. We often look at visible positions of responsibility as an indication that a person is an important contributor. It is not surprising then that many people struggle to know how best to measure their growth in spiritual matters.
I have heard many Latter-day Saints question their own standing because they have not been called to leadership positions in the Church. But is our progress properly measured by leadership callings?
In fact, leadership does not require a calling. Some people who exert the uplifting and encouraging influence that constitutes true leadership do so with no calling or position
...
Leadership callings are much like training wheels on a bicycle. The training wheels allow a child to learn how to balance and ride with confidence. A leadership calling puts people in a position to learn how to love, be patient, and persuade through pure knowledge and kindness. They may also learn that any attempt to compel behavior is accompanied by withdrawal of the Spirit and decreased effectiveness.
After our release, we will find out if we have grown and learned while in our calling. Have we learned to love and serve others without the calling being the impetus? Have we learned to serve with power as an influence for good simply because of who we have become?

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Porting to PySide/QML: Notification Bar

I keep hearing about how great QML is to learn so I'm a bit baffled as to why I am still having such a hard time with getting more than a toy program written.  I'm trying to save my rant about that once I've gotten an application completed and can help provide more useful feedback.  In the mean time I wanted to cover a set of changes to my python code that will made the QML port a bit easier.  This is regarding code to make it easy both for users to provide good bug reports and for me to figure out what went wrong.

tl;dr

Some sample programs that demonstrate the ideas in this post

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Swipe UX Idea

Over my desk at work I have a sign that says "On my deathbed I would design a better deathbed".

I've been using the N950 now for several weeks and I can't help thinking about how I would do things differently.  This is not meant to criticize Nokia's work on Swipe.  Swipe works well as a universal gesture.  Even if there are issues with it you and I should recognize this is beta software.  I've heard Nokia has already made one change to swipe since my software build and who knows what else might change before release.

I'm just curious about how else things could be done and the effect they might have on the user experience.  I don't think Nokia should immediately drop everything and switch to my idea.  I first would like to see what they come up with in the finished project.  If I still think mine is better?  Oh well.  People think and act differently, especially programmers, and they are probably targeting others.

Swipe UX

I'd recommend these demos for a quick introduction into swipe.  The main swipes will bring you back to the last home screen you used.  When wanting to swipe to a specific screen you swipe back to the home screen you were on, pause to see which it was, and then swipe over.  You can go about it faster by remembering what screen you were on.  I usually think I know where I was but I tend to be wrong leading me to swipe a few more times.

My variant on Swipe UX

My idea centers on a spatial model that spans home screens, the lock screen, and applications.  This could roughly be translated to virtual desktops with rules controlling which desktop different windows get launched on based on the desktop's role.

Launch an app, no matter from what screen?  As it is opening the device also slides home screens over to the task switcher.  Now with the app up a swipe down reveals the task switcher below.  If instead you swipe up the app closes.  Also you can swipe to the right to move to the launcher or left to move to the events feed.
Idea: Swipe up or down from the lock screen to unlock and reveal the feed
The device goes to sleep?  The lock screen is above the events feed.  A swipe up or down reveals the feed below.  Instead a swipe right moves to the task switcher and left for the launcher.

Idea: Swipe left on the lock screen to unlock and move to the launcher
Open up a folder of icons? The subfolder opens up above the launcher.  A swipe up or down to reveals the main launcher below.    This would provide a simple UI for subfolders to be built into the launcher..  Again instead a swipe right moves to the events feed, and left for the task switcher.

Idea: Swipe Right on the lock screen to unlock and move to task switcher
Applications, home screens, and the lock screen would operate on a more consistent set of simpler rules using a spatial model for the home screens rather than most-recently-used.  From where you are you would always know how to get to where you want to be with one swipe without a pause to think of which screen you are on and what direction you need to go to get to where you want or having to keep an accurate mental copy of the device state.

*Note: The images are mockups only and were hacked together from screenshots I found through Google.

Python Packaging for Harmattan

Right now I am taking a break from learning QML.  Instead I've been adding support for Harmattan to my existing QWidget projects.  It might seem pretty pointless because of how aweful QWidget can be with the default theme.  I will at least have the apps available if I need them in a bind.  Also taking working apps and repackaging them rather than new untested apps provides the benefit of controlling the number of variables to debug when things go wrong.

I will be focusing on packaging for OBS seeing as a QWidget-based application isn't worth pushing through OVI.

Packaging

I had to switch my applications packaging over from my py2deb fork to the distutils-based sdist_maemo.  A big reason is sdist_maemo already has Harmattan support.  I also figured it was a good idea to switch to distutils as it is more "proper" python packaging and because it is pluggable for various target packaging systems.  That last part will allow me to continue to support Maemo 4.1/5 and in the future support regular MeeGo.

So first I've moved all of my files to a proper distutils based layout
  • ./setup.py
  • ./LauncherName
  • ./package-name/*.py
  • ./data/package-name.desktop
  • ./data/package-name.png
I try to reuse code and packaging infrastructure between my projects so this means I need an easy way to diff between them, so I added a symlink from "./package-name/" to "./src".

I then wrote my setup.py file with an sdist_maemo command configured for each of my target deb-based distributions.  A nice thing to know is that for Maemo 5 the python module will be optified for you.

An annoying thing is each platform has different packaging requirements.  Some examples include:
  • Different ".desktop" file locations
  • Different ways of launching the app from within a desktop file.
  • Everything seems different with the app launcher icon
  • Different icon sizes for the Maemo-Icon-26 field
  • Different .deb sections
  • Different dependency names
  • Aegis file support (not needed for current apps so skipped over)
Already the differences between Maemo 4.1 and Maemo 5 were annoying from a packaging perspective.  This makes the problem even bigger.  One approach I've always rejected was maintaining separate packaging scripts for each distribution requiring me to keep duplicate information like the version number.  The approach I used with py2deb was passing a parameter in to my script to change what was passed to py2deb.  That doesn't seem to jive with distutils.  So I threw in a touch of code-gen using a nifty tool called cog.
To minimize my need for using code-gen my setup.py file creates multiple instances of sdist_maemo, one for each platform.

The app icon caused me some problems.  I had assumed it would operate like previous versions of Maemo and desktop Linux, that if you just said "ejpi" or "gonvert" it would look for the appropriate icon size in "/usr/share/icons/hicolor".  I'm glad I found that document explaining otherwise.  As an alternative some of the apps in the OVI Store just hard code an absolute path. When you do make a mistake on this, Harmattan seems to have two different default icons.  The red square came up for me when "ejpi" didn't map to an icon.  The green curved icon came up when I had an absolute path that pointed at nothing.

My makefile creates the needed icons, code-gens my desktop files, code-gens my setup.py files, and then runs "setup.*.py sdist_*".

Odds and Ends

I do not believe PyQt is available for Harmattan, so I had to finish adding support for PySide in my applications.  I've made it easy to use both bindings by centralizing all knowledge of the differences between the two.

I've tried to make the switch a couple of times already but each time I came across new bugs that the old bugs prevented me from seeing.  Luckily the PySide people are quick at resolving these issues and by 1.0.5 my applications ran smoothly.

I went ahead and made the simple switch to XDG and Harmattan-style icons though I'm not yet seeking OVI compliance.  I decided to redo the icons.  They weren't all that great, no where near the icon guidelines, and I wanted SVGs so I could use the Harmattan Icon Generator.  Not being an expert at graphics tools, the icon generator definitely saved me a good amount of work.  The main drawback is that basing the icons background gradient on the base icon's content seems to produce results without enough contrast.  I ended up using the "mean" setting to force gray backgrounds.

Distributing

Now that we have all that wrapped up, time to upload onto the OBS.  The Getting Started Guide has been updated and now is pretty good.  I setup a harmattan-specific subproject due to my code-gen specializing the source-packages per distribution.  Once everything was uploaded to my project, I logged in as root, added my sources, and away I went.

So for the fruit of my work:
Well I guess this means I need to get back to learning QML.

Resources

Desktop File:
XDG
Icon
Package
OBS