Thursday, December 27, 2007

Delta comes through (but boringly)

Guess what showed up in my SkyMiles account online yesterday morning?

It looks like Delta's bureaucracy isn't completely broken, just dysfunctional. I'm disappointed, though, that they just silently credited me with the miles. I wrote them a five-page letter, and they didn't even respond? Oh well. I guess you can't really expect a big, faceless corporation to have a sense of humor. At least they have some sort of sense of honesty.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Dear Delta, please give the rest of my name back

This weekend definitely wasn't the best one of my life. Among other things, I was stuck in the airport for a lot of Saturday. I was flying home for Christmas with my brother, my sister, and her husband. Our flight was supposed to leave at 11:35 a.m., but it ended up being delayed until 2:00 p.m. because of mechanical troubles. That meant that I had an extra two and a half hours in the airport to... do something. What do you do in an airport to keep yourself busy?

I had some trouble getting my flight put on my frequent flyer account, so I used some of my "bonus" airport time to go talk to a Delta representative. She told me that because the name on my boarding pass ("CHR/BRUCE") differed from my actual name, I would have to call the Delta SkyMiles customer service line to get the problem resolved.

The situation ended up becoming pretty funny, although it wouldn't have been if getting credit for the flight were really important. I ended up having to write a letter to Delta headquarters to get the problem resolved. To pass the time and brighten an otherwise melancholy weekend, I decided to have a little fun with it.

For the rest of the story, you'll have to read the letter. It's a little long, but I think it's worth a read. After all, I wrote it. :) I faxed it to Delta tonight. We'll see what happens. Maybe Delta will return the missing eight elevenths of my name.

This post was brought to you by the department of superfluous verbiage and the letter V (as in Victor).

Zion! (with four girls...)

For the impatient and/or illiterate: the pictures.

We had final exams at BYU last week. Outsiders (and some misguided students) think that finals are the worst time of the semester, filled with nervous studying and stressful, sleepless nights of cramming. I know better, though: finals are a great time for having fun! Just think: your regular class schedule is cancelled, it's almost Christmas break, and all you have to do for the whole week is spend a few hours taking some tests. My freshman year I went skiing three times during finals; last year I climbed a mountain.

As good as finals are, the best part actually comes before they start: reading days. For those of you not in the college loop, reading days are two days right before finals when the school calendar is cleared so that students can study for finals. That's what BYU thinks, anyway. We students know better, though: reading days are the best play days of the semester.

Reading days were Friday and Saturday, 14-15 December this semester. I went down to Zion National Park with what ended up being four girls to go camping and hiking. The original plan was to go canyoneering with a bigger group that included more guys than just me, but we decided that canyoneering wouldn't be safe because of the freezing temperatures and the water in the canyons. The guys who were going decided not to come since we weren't going canyoneering, so it ended up being just me and the ladies.

We drove down on Friday afternoon and camped at Mosquito Cove right outside the park, which was noticeably lacking any mosquitoes at this time of year. We got there, set up camp, and played Scum for a little while in the girls' tent. When it started getting cold, we decided it was bedtime. It was pretty chilly at night (maybe 15 degrees?), so I was glad that I brought warm clothes. The four girls slept in a tent together, and I slept alone outside in my new bivy sack. It worked pretty well, and I stayed warm for most of the night, although the frost on the inside and outside of my sack when I woke up made it look like I might have frozen to death.

We woke up the next day, had breakfast, packed up camp, and headed into the park. Carianne worked at (but not for) the park this past summer, so she was our expert guide. She listed off a few places that we could go for the day, and we decided to hike up to Observation Point where we would have a great view overlooking most of the park. That's the same trail that I hiked up a few months ago when I went canyoneering in Echo Canyon.

The hike was beautiful. Water slowly flows out of the sandstone at several places along the trail, and since it was cold in Zion, the water was frozen into amazing ice formations. There were icicle gardens, impossibly thin plants that were embalmed in inches of heavy, glittery, crystalized ice, and beautiful (but small) ice waterfalls. As we moved higher, there was snow covering parts of the canyon, especially in shady areas.

We reached the canyon rim and had a beautiful view of the Virgin River canyon. We also had a good conversation with a man from Ireland who was spending a few days hiking the park.

We hiked back down to the trailhead and drove up Zion Canyon and through the tunnel to the to Canyon Overlook trailhead. It was getting dark, but people coming back said the hike was only ten or twenty minutes, so we decided to go for it. We watched the sunlight creep up the highest walls as it fell over the horizon and headed back to the car before the light had completely faded.

Although my grades might have benefited a little from staying in Provo and working, there's more to life than school. I'm glad that I went. After all, what will I remember in twenty years? The difference between an A- and a B+, or a trip to Zion?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Trip to Colorado

I flew to Colorado Springs last Thursday to interview for an internship at Lockheed Martin, the world's largest defense contractor. I left on Thursday night and came back Saturday night.

My flight to Colorado was kind of fun. I took my GPS on the plane, and it was cool to watch our speed, altitude, and location change. I had chosen to sit in an exit row seat so that I would have more legroom, but I accidentally sat one row back. I'm glad I did, though, because I got to talk to a cool guy from Colorado Springs.

I had a window seat, but it didn't do me much good for most of the flight because it was dark and cloudy. However, as we descended below the clouds as we approached Colorado Springs, and I could see the city. It really felt like the holidays when I looked out the window and saw neighborhoods full of houses decked in Christmas lights. I felt a little like Santa flying in on his sleigh.

I arrived pretty late, so I just picked up my car (which turned out to be a minivan), drove to my hotel, and went to bed. I slept better that night than I had in a long time.

Freezing Fog

I woke up the next morning to a cold, foggy day. Colorado Springs supposedly has 300 day of sun a year, but last Friday was certainly not one of them. I arrived at Lockheed right at 11:30, and when I got out of the car, I felt a strange sensation: freezing fog. Freezing fog is supercooled water vapor, which means that it's actually colder than the freezing point, but it hasn't actually frozen. To turn into ice, water needs a starting point--something solid that an ice crystal can grow on. Freezing fog just hangs around as water vapor in the air until it touches something like your car, a dust particle, or your skin, and then it freezes almost instantly. It was a strange feeling to walk through it.

Interviews

I had a funny experience while I was waiting in the lobby. Another interviewee started talking to me, saying that he was behind me on the plane last night. After we talked a little more, we realized that not only were we both from Utah, but we both went to the same school, had the same major, and were even in the same class the semester. I guess I need to get to know my peers a little better. :)

The group that I interviewed with is called Information Systems & Global Solutions. They're Lockheed Martin's largest division, and they do a wide variety of things. It seems like the group in Colorado Springs focuses on satellites, missiles, and command and control systems. They build and operate things like nuclear missiles, space junk tracking systems, satellite and space communications, and battlefield command and control information systems.

After a boxed lunch, a quick tour of a secret-level conference room (make sure you leave your cell phone at the door!), and a short presentation about Lockheed, I had interviews with four managers. Interestingly, they didn't ask me a single technical question; instead, they were all behavioral interviews. They asked typical questions about things like how I work in teams, how I communicate, and how I manage my time. I think that the people I talked to liked me, and I liked everyone that I met there. They seemed like genuinely good people who would be good coworkers.

However, through the presentation and my interviews, it became clear that the division of Lockheed that I was interviewing with didn't have a lot of opportunities for me to do the kind of work that I want to do next summer. I want to work on embedded systems or digital logic design, designing hardware for things like cell phones, robots, or airplanes. Lockheed IS&GS does mostly systems integration, gluing preexisting systems together, rather than developing new hardware systems. Other parts of Lockheed Martin, like their Space Systems division, do have lots of opportunities in hardware development, and the people I talked to said that they would pass my information along.

The prospect of working for a defense contractor raises some interesting questions. After all, they make stuff that kills lots of people, and they receive a huge portion of our taxes. I haven't totally decided how I feel about working for an organization like that. On the one hand, they develop some really cool technology that would be fun to work on. They make the F-16 fighter jet, lots of parts of the Space Shuttle, and intercontinental ballistic missiles--all things that I thought were really cool as a kid (and still do). However, there are lingering ethical considerations about working on military systems that I haven't quite worked through yet. It would certainly be a lot simpler to just work on space systems, where I could still do cool stuff without having to worry about the ethics of killing people.

Hiking

It was snowing a little bit when I left my interview around 5 p.m., and the snow picked up through the night. I grabbed dinner (and Cold Stone for dessert, since Lockheed was paying) and then went back to my hotel room to plan my hike for the next day. There were no flights available out of Colorado Springs late enough on Friday night, so instead of flying back Saturday morning, I had decided to stay the day and go hiking.

After checking conditions and routes, I decided to take the Crags Campground route up Pikes Peak. It would be a solo hike in the snow, with more falling through the day, but it was a safe route, and I felt prepared with warm clothes, good boots, a map, and my GPS. I packed my gear, set my alarm for 5 a.m., and went to bed.

Although I set my alarm, there was one little problem: it turns out that I didn't actually turn it on. I woke up around 9:30 a.m. the next morning to a beautiful snowy day. The good news is that I got to eat a yummy hotel breakfast; the bad news is that I woke up too late to hike Pikes Peak. I did a little research and chose to hike up Raspberry Mountain, a smaller peak south of Pikes. I wrote up a trip report and took some pictures.

Return to Utah

I made good time on the way back, so on my way to the airport I stopped by Garden of the Gods, a park full of nifty sandstone formations. It looked like it would be a fun place to hike and climb. I had just a little while there, so I didn't get to see a lot of it. However, I got out and hiked around for a few minutes, and during that time I saw a herd of female deer and then a lone buck a few minutes later. I also saw a rabbit and some birds. I took some pictures.

My flight back was delayed because of weather, but it was pretty uneventful. I sat next to a guy who was in Colorado Springs at a wrestling camp. He's apparently a good wrestler (three spots away from being in the Olympics), but he sure wasn't a very enthusiastic talker, so I just read for most of the flight.

I'm glad I went to Colorado this weekend. Interview trips are a little lonely, but it's fun to see what a company and a place are like.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Spanish Fork Peak

Yesterday was Thanksgiving, and I spent the day with family eating and relaxing at my Aunt Sharon's house. In an effort to counteract yesterday's massive calorie intake, I made a massive calorie expenditure today by hiking to the top of Spanish Fork Peak. I've posted my pictures from the trip.

I chose Spanish Fork Peak because it was the last of the seven major peaks around Utah Valley that I hadn't summitted. Last week I ran into Ben, who has been in a couple of my recreation managment classes, on campus, and we talked about hiking together. He invited Rich, who was in our canyoneering class, and I invited my brother David. The four of us left Provo a little after 4:30 a.m. (!) and set off toward the trailhead.

I had called the Uinta National Forest earlier in the week to see if the Maple Canyon road was still open, and the ranger I talked to said that the road was closed pretty close to the mouth of the canyon, so I had planned on an extra two mile hike from the car to the trailhead. However, when we arrived we were pleasantly surprised to discover that the gate was open, and we could drive to within a quarter mile of the trailhead. Although I was glad that we had a shorter hike than expected, I was a little irked that I had gotten up earlier than it turned out I needed to.

We hit the trail at 5:25 a.m. After a short walk up a gravel road, we crossed the stream that flows down Maple Canyon (on rocks; we didn't get wet) and started up the main trail, which was very well maintained--a nice contrast to the bushwhacking it seems like I usually do. We were on dirt for the first couple miles, but after that there was patchy hard snow for a lot of the way. It was pretty cold (probably 10-15°F), and it had been a little while since it had snowed, so the snow was really hard, making for good walking. The snow on the trail itself had been packed into very slick ice, so we stuck to the untracked snow to the sides.

We passed Maple Canyon Lake (which was more of a pond, really) a little before dawn and continued up into the basin below the summit. Ben suggested climbing up a couloir (a steep chute filled with snow, pronounced "koo-lar") instead of taking the switchbacks up the ridge. That looked pretty fun, so we started up. I noticed that David was lagging behind, though, so I told Ben and Rich to keep going and I waited for him.

The coldest time of the day is right at or a little after dawn, which is when we started up the couloir. David's hands had gotten painfully cold, so we decided to go back down to the trail since the sun, which was rising above the ridge to the east, had just reached the trail. We stopped, warmed up his hands a little, and had something to eat before continuing.

Once we were on the ridge above the basin, the hike to the summit was pretty easy. We arrived just after 9 a.m. and spent about five minutes taking pictures and enjoying the view. We could see Provo Peak and Mount Timpanogos to the north, and Santaquin Peak and Mount Nebo to the west.

The hike down was spiced up by a couple of things: we glissaded (slid) down a chute from the summit ridge to the basin below, and we played around on the frozen lake for a little while. The lake had several inches of ice on it, so we slid around and played for a few minutes. I was curious how thick the ice was, so I grabbed one of our ice axes and started chopping. After I had chopped away three or four inches, water started bubbling out of the hole I had cut. Rich kept chopping (soaking the front of his pants in the process), and we eventually made the hole big enough to stick the ax shaft in. The "lake" had about four inches of ice, and the water was only about a foot deep where we were.

From the lake we kept a pretty good pace the rest of the way to the car, and we arrived back at noon, ten miles, 4600 feet of elevation gain, and a little over six and a half hours after we began.

As an aside, this was the first time that I had worn the new (to me, anyway) Asolo Summit GTX mountaineering boots that I got at the Black Diamond Gear Swap last month. I was pretty happy with their performance. My feet stayed pretty warm the whole time (wearing a pair of wool ski socks and over a pair of SmartWool hiking socks), and the boots were pretty comfortable. I stood in the stream for a minute on our way back and they didn't leak. My only complaint is that the sole is narrower than I'm used to, so it was a little harder to get a firm footing sometimes. However, that's par for the course for mountaineering boots.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Inimical

I've been a slacker at living up to the title of my blog lately. The superfluousness of most of the words on my blog has been so lacking that you wouldn't even know that I'm a connoisseur of the more extravagant side of the lexicon.

In an effort to reform my ways, I bring you: inimical.

What in the world is inimical, you say? I was asking the same question about a week ago. I was sitting in church last Sunday, and our stake president (kind of like the Mormon analog of a Catholic bishop) was speaking. He used the word inimical, and Jenny, who was sitting next to me turned and asked, "What word did he just say?". I said I thought he said inamicable, she wrote it down, and the stake president continued speaking.

Later, Jenny informed me that the word was actually inimical, not inamicable (neither of which is to be confused with inimitable). I got excited because inimical was a potential new word to add to my already-too-large collection of words that you can't use when talking to your friends without them looking at you like you just arrived from Mars or something.

I wanted to get the full story on this intriguing new word, so I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary. I discovered that what I told Jenny wasn't too far off: inimical and inamicable mean about the same thing, and actually share the same Latin derivation. You probably don't care about that, though, and just wish that I would tell you what inimical means. I won't keep you hanging any longer: the OED defines inimical as
1. Having the disposition or temper of an enemy; unfriendly, hostile.
2. Adverse or injurious in tendency or influence; harmful, hurtful.
The OED is a great resource for word nerds like me because it doesn't just give a short definition of a word; it tells its whole life story: its birth, milestones in its life, and its current meaning. In this case, inimical began life as the negating prefix in-, plus amicus, which is Latin for "friend". Over time this became inimicus, and later inimicalis, which migrated over to English in the mid-1600's as inimical.

By this point, you're probably thinking, "Man, this guy is a nerd, and I just wasted way too long reading this way too long (and way too boring) blog post." Not so! Superfluous verbiage has its practical applications. In this case, your new inimical skills can be your secret weapon in awkward social situations. The next time some creepy person asks you if you want to go out with them, you can just reply that you're quite inimical to the idea and walk away while they're scratching their head wondering if that meant yes or no.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Canyoneering in the San Rafael Swell

After a break last week for General Conference, I resumed my weekly adventures this week with a trip to the San Rafael Swell. I'm in a canyoneering class at BYU, and we had a field trip to south central Utah on Thursday and Friday to do a couple of canyons. We left Thursday morning, did Ding and Dang Canyons, visited Goblin Valley State Park, and camped in the desert that night. On Friday we woke up early and did Baptist Draw/Chute Canyon and then spent the rest of the afternoon driving back to Provo.

Southern Utah is a unique place: it's a dry, barren desert, but the scenery is incredible. The canyons that we went through are red rock sandstone that has been eroded over the centuries by occasional flash floods. The water carves out holes in the canyons that sometimes fill with water. If they're in a narrow section, there's often no way to get past them other than wading or swimming through them. The rest of the time in the canyon is spent hiking, climbing, or rappelling.

We left Provo around 9:30a.m. on Thursday and arrived at the trailhead (if you can call it that) to Ding and Dang Canyons a little after 1p.m. After eating lunch and getting our things together, we set off toward the canyon around 1:40. We spent about 25 minutes on a sunny, flat trail that follows some sandstone cliffs to the mouth of Ding Canyon. Ding Canyon is a beautiful, fairly easy hike. We passed one pool of water, but the canyon was almost completely dry. After about 40 minutes of hiking we reached the top of the canyon and hiked for 15 minutes over to the top of Dang Canyon to start back on our loop. The second canyon was a little more challenging, requiring bridging over a couple sections and a bit of pretty easy downclimbing. There were no rappels, and we stayed out of the water the whole time. We exited the canyon around 3:50 and completed our loop back to the van around 4:30.

We stopped by Goblin Valley State Park as we were leaving the canyons. The park is filled with hundreds of strangely-shaped eroded sandstone pillars. You can go hike down among them and even climb on them. The park was absolutely amazing. Our professor, Brian Hill, said that it's a great place to play hide and seek at night. It would almost be worth going back just for that. :)

On Thursday night we drove to where we would start our hike to Baptist Draw the next morning. We left the freeway and traveled down increasingly smaller and bumpier dirt roads until we reached a "cowboy camp" out in the middle of the desert. After cooking dinner (spaghetti and bread on a stick), we sat around the campfire and talked. We all went to bed around 9pm and got a good night's sleep.

Brian woke us up the next morning with a rousing rendition of the Cougar Fight Song, and we arose to an amazing flaming pink-and-blue sky. After a quick breakfast (breakfast burritos) and cleaning up camp, we headed off toward Baptist Draw. We left camp around 8:40 and hiked a little over two miles to our entrance point, entering the canyon around 9:30.

There were three easy rappels in the canyon (the longest about 80 feet) and several pools of muddy water that we had to wade through. The pools became progressively deeper as we went through the canyon. It almost would have been better if the deepest pool was first so that we could just get getting wet over with at the beginning and not have to worry about trying to stay dry. After we neared the end of a section of pools we thought that the canyon would be dry for the rest of the way. It was for a little while, but then we came to a filthy, smelly pool with wood and juniper berries floating in it that was worse than any that we had been through before.

We descended a hand line down one section and then stemmed across a pool. Brian slipped on a muddy spot of rock there and ended up falling into the water up to his neck. Later, when we came to the last big pool, he assumed that it would be a waist-deep wade like the others. As he waded further in, the water rose past his legs, past his waist, and up to his chest. It was too late to put on his wetsuit, so he just swam to the other end. He shivered for the next hour while the rest of us put on our wetsuits and swam across.

I had a great time on the field trip, and I'm sure I'll be back to do another canyon soon.

I took my GPS along on the trip and recorded our route. You can view our tracks through the canyons in Google Earth.

Pictures:

Monday, October 01, 2007

Squaw Peak

I was originally planning to hike to the top of Borah Peak, Idaho's highest mountain, this past weekend. However, weather forced me to reschedule that trip, so I planned to go rock climbing on Saturday instead. When I woke up on Saturday morning it was raining, so I had to bag that plan too. I was determined to do something outside, though, so I grabbed my rain coat and went for a quick hike from the Rock Canyon trailhead to the top of Squaw Peak on Saturday.

Although it was raining, the hike was still beautiful. All of the leaves are changing, and some of the juxtaposed bold colors were stunning, even in the diffuse light of a rainstorm. Although the many of the leaves are changing, the aspens are still green, so we should have a few more weeks of color before everything turns to brown--and then white.

It was raining on my way up, and the rain turned to snow around 7000 feet. The summit of Squaw Peak normally offers great views of Utah Valley, but clouds limited the visibility to about 100 feet on Saturday. At least I got some exercise. :)

Pictures

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Mount Timpanogos

I hiked most of the way to the top of Mount Timpanogos last Saturday with my friend Bryan and his friend Molly. We were planning to leave Provo at 6 a.m., but we moved our departure time up to 4 a.m. (yuck!) to try to beat an incoming thunderstorm. We made it to the saddle (about 800 feet below the summit) a little after 10 a.m. and got a nice view of Utah Valley and Utah Lake. We decided to turn around so we wouldn't be on top when the storm came, and we made it back to Aspen Grove a bit after 2 p.m.

As always, I took lots of pictures.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Canyoneering in Echo Canyon

[If you don't want to read my novel below, you can skip straight to the pictures.]

When I went hiking with John last week, he told me that one of his friends was going down to Zion National Park to go canyoneering this weekend and asked if I'd be interested in going. I told him I was, and so this weekend I went down to Zion with Art (John's friend) and Adam (a guy in Art's ward). Art has been to Zion tons of times, and was our guide. Adam has been down a couple of times. This was my first visit to Zion since a family vacation when I was about ten years old. I definitely got a bigger dose of adventure this time around.

We drove down to Zion on Friday night and arrived at a BLM campground a few miles outside of the park a little after midnight. We pulled up, threw our sleeping bags down on the sand, and went to sleep under the stars. The stars were pretty amazing out there. The sky was clear and dark, and I could see way more stars than I have for quite a while. The Milky Way was particularly impressive.

We woke up at 5:30 a.m. the next morning, quickly packed up, and hurried to the park to make it in before 6 a.m. since there's an entrance fee if you enter after then. We were the first people to the permit window, so we hung out until the rangers opened the window at 7 a.m. We wanted to go to Mystery Canyon, but all of the permits had already been issued the day before. We had a reservation for Echo Canyon, so we just picked up our permits, grabbed our gear, and hopped on the shuttle to the trailhead.

We left the trailhead around 8 a.m. The route began with a hike of a little over 1000 vertical feet up to the canyon entrance. We had great views of the sun rising and casting beautiful colors on the sandstone as we hiked. We entered the canyon not too long after 9 a.m.

Canyoneering is a technical descent through a canyon, and our first technical section came up pretty quickly when we rappelled down ten or fifteen feet off a dead tree. Some of our rappel anchors were definitely more sketchy than I would have rock climbed from, but since the rappels were pretty short, I didn't worry too much.

We alternated between hiking, downclimbing, wading, swimming, and rappelling as we made our way further down the canyon. There was no water flowing through the canyon, but we had to pass through several pools of stagnant water left over from the last They were really murky, with lots of debris floating in them. The smelly methane bubbles that floated to the surface when we moved through the water were a pretty good indication that things were decomposing down there. Most of the pools were shallow enough for us to wade through, but we had to swim ten feet or so through some of them. We just walked right into some of the pools, but others were at the bottom of a rappel.

After the first swim, I started getting pretty cold. Even though the weather forecast said it was supposed to be 92 degrees, we were deep in a canyon where the sun rarely shines, and it was pretty cold. My whole body was shivering, and I couldn't talk very well because my teeth were chattering, but I warmed up pretty quickly when we got back into the sun.

As we neared one place, Art noticed some bird droppings on the canyon floor and looked up to discover a pair of roosting owls perched on a tree above us. I snapped a picture of them.

The canyon became deeper and darker as we moved further into it. As we neared the end, we reached a the section that probably gave the canyon its name. There was an amazing echo, and we amused ourselves by yelling, singing, and making weird noises.

We exited the canyon and followed the same trail that we took up back down to the trailhead. We decided to go a little further into the park and hike a little way up the Narrows to Mystery Falls. We were hurrying so that we could get back to Provo in time for a ward activity that Art and Adam had, so we zoomed up the river, saw Mystery Falls, zoomed back down, and hopped on the shuttle.

It's been over a decade since I went to Zion, but my next trip won't be that far off. I'm taking a canyoneering class at BYU this semester, so I'm sure I'll be back down there soon.

Monday, September 10, 2007

South summit of Mount Nebo

On Saturday I hiked with my friend John to the 11,877-foot south summit of Mount Nebo, which is the tallest mountain in Utah's Wasatch Range. We hiked to Nebo's north summit, which is the highest of its three peaks, on the same weekend last year. This year we took the Andrew's Ridge route to the slightly-lower south summit.

We left Provo around 4:45 a.m., drove down toward Nephi, and reached the trailhead a little before 6 a.m. When I went to change from my Chacos into my hiking boots, I discovered that I had brought only one sock. (The silly things you do early in the morning....) Rather than wear one boot without a sock, I decided to just wear my Chacos.

The weather was perfect, and the hike went pretty quickly, especially considering how little hiking I did this summer. The sandals worked pretty well, and we made it to the top in a little over four hours. After a nice 40-minute rest on the summit, we headed down.

My Chacos didn't treat me quite as well on the way down. After a couple of hours of hiking, I had developed quite a collection of blisters. I kept hobbling down, but after a while I had to stop. Thankfully, John had brought moleskin, and I covered my feet with it. He even let me wear his socks, which was a lifesaver. (Thanks John!)

I made it the rest of the way down, and we reached the car a little before 3 p.m. In spite of a little podiatric pain, I really enjoyed the hike. John and I had some good conversations, and I had some time to think about life.

My pictures from the hike are online.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Kite Runner

I bought The Kite Runner in audiobook form a couple weeks ago to keep me busy on a couple upcoming road trips. I finished it last Saturday somewhere in northern Utah on the way back to school.

The Kite Runner tells the (fictional) story of Amir--a man who grew up in Afghanistan during the 70's and later moved to the U.S. The story focuses on Amir's relationships with other Afghans, especially a boy named Hasan, who he grew up with. It is a sometimes heartwrenching, but always engaging and interesting narrative.

I feel like I understand Afghanistan a little better now. The author explores the political situation, racial tensions, traditions, and social structure of Afghanistan. He doesn't explicitly address any of these topics; they just kind of fell out of the story. If you're looking for an easy way to get a rough picture of some aspects of Afghanistan, I'd definitely recommend the book. It's obviously not an exhaustive treatment of any of these topics, but it will give you a general idea and feel for the country.

Next up on the reading list: Hamlet.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

1984

I finished reading George Orwell's 1984 last night. Somehow I made it thorough middle school and high school without reading it, so this was my first time. It made me think a lot about government. A few key points from the book that I think are especially salient today:
  • Constant warfare provides a way to control popular opinion and protect the status of the upper class. (War on drugs, terror.)
  • Doublethink--believing something that you know is false--destroys people's sanity and rationality.
  • Mindless entertainment (produced for and distributed to the proles in 1984) keeps people from making any meaningful intellectual achievements. (MTV, anyone?)
  • Constant surveillance restricts free thought. (NSA warrentless wiretapping, NYC surveillance.)
Orwell was remarkably insightful. 1984 is almost sixty years old, but the world it portrays seems to be closer to reality now than when it was written. I don't think that the world will ever become like Oceania, but I do think that it's important that people think for themselves and participate in government to keep it open and free. It's too easy for those in power to grow too fond of it, at the expense of the rest of us.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Mere Christianity

As part of my goal to read a book a month, today I finished Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis. The book is Lewis's explanation of "mere" Christianity: the simple subset of Christianity that everyone can agree about. He adapted the book from a series of BBC radio talks that he gave during WWII.

Lewis is an interesting expositor of Christian belief because he claims no special authority for doing so. He writes not as the Pope or an ordained minister, but as a common layman, explaining his religion to his common friends. If anything, Lewis makes it clear that he is as much of a sinner as anyone else. The humble position from which he writes gives his words an authority more powerful than a scholarly title.
I enjoyed Mere Christianity. It was interesting to read from my perspective as a Mormon. I found that, true to the book's goal, there was very little that I disagreed with. I even realized that Ezra Taft Benson's well-known Beware of Pride talk, which I have read many times, was based on Lewis's analysis of the topic, and it quoted his words and ideas at length.

A few favorite quotes from the book (citations from the HarperCollins 2001 edition):
  • Becoming: "We might think that God wanted simply obedience to a set of rules: whereas He really wants people of a particular sort." (p. 80)
  • Heaven: "The point is not that God will refuse you admission to His eternal world if you have not got certain qualities of character; the point is that if people have not got at least the beginning of those qualities inside them, then no possible external conditions could make a 'Heaven' for them...." (p. 81)
  • Charitable giving: "I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.... If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expediture excludes them." (p. 86)
  • Faults: "The devil loves 'curing' a small fault by giving you a great one." (p. 127)
  • Humility: "Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call 'humble' nowadays: he will not be a short of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all." (p. 128)
  • Faith vs. works: "Christians have often disputed as to whether what leads the Christian home is good actions, or Faith in Christ. I have no right really to speak on such a difficult question, but it does seem to me like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary." (p. 148)
  • Those pesky facts: "We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about." (p. 165)
  • God's plan for you: "Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps you can understand what He is doing.... But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of.... You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace." (p. 205)
  • Thoughts vs. actions: "Fine feelings, new insights, greater interest in 'religion' mean nothing unless they make our actual behaviour better; just as in an illness 'feeling better' is not much good if the thermometer show that your temperature is still going up." (p. 207)

Monday, July 23, 2007

Vint Cerf and Google Tech Talks

You know how Al Gore invented the internet? Well he didn't; Vint Cerf did, along with Bob Kahn. One of the things that he works on these days is the interplanetary internet--no joke.

One of the cool things about working at Google is that people like Vint also work there. Today he came to the Kirkland Washington office and talked to us (Kirkland Googlers) for about an hour. He talked a little bit about Google's plans to bid on the wireless spectrum that be auctioned soon, and he talked about the future of the internet. He didn't say anything revolutionary, but it was just cool to have one of the guys who created the internet standing in front of me.

Vint spoke at a Tech Talk. Google holds several tech talks at their offices all over the world each week, and all employees are invited attend in person or tune in via video conference to any that they are interested in. I'm taking advantage of the opportunity while I'm at Google. I've listened to Tech Talks on face recognition, Google Maps, a somewhat obscure programming language, details about how Google's search and ads systems work, among others. I also listened in when Ron Paul (one of the Republican presidential candidates) visited Google. All of the Tech Talks have been really interesting.

Google's philosophy is to make information universally available; in keeping with that, you can view many of the Tech Talks on Google Video.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Summer reading

I wrote in my last post that I had a goal to read at least a book a month for the next year. In an effort to start on that goal, I visited the bookstore tonight and picked up a few volumes:
  • Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis
  • 1984, by George Orwell
  • Hamlet, by Shakespeare
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling
Three books of substance, and one book of fun.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

First up: The Tipping Point

I've had my own little personal literary renaissance during the past few months. I read voraciously when I was growing up, but as I entered high school and my life got busier, my appetite for books waned. I'm ashamed to say that I haven't read much of substance (other than the occasional technical book or Harry Potter volume, if that counts) for a long time. Thankfully, that's changed recently.

When I was studying in London earlier this year, I took a British literature class, which forced me to read lots in little time--and I liked it! All of that reading reminded me that I had been missing out on an enriching part of life, and I decided continue when the class ended.

In what I hope will be the beginning (renewal?) of a lifelong habit, I'm planning to read a book a month for the next year. In a nod to keeping myself accountable (to myself, mostly), I'm going to write about my reading here. I'm planning to select from a wide menu of books, from classics to popular fiction to history. If you have suggestions, let me know.

* * *

I started reading The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell, on a road trip last summer, but my reading ended 1/3 of the way through the book when we got to our campground. So when I saw the book in the airport as I was leaving London a few weeks ago, I bought a copy. I finally finished it tonight.

Gladwell's premise is that social phenomena spread nonlinearly. In other words, some ideas and trends don't spread through society at a predictable, steady pace; instead, they stay below the radar for a little while, and then they suddenly explode. Gladwell notes several examples, such as NYC's sudden decrease in crime in the 90's, the surprising resurgence of Hush Puppies a decade ago, or the runaway popularity of the children's TV show Blue's Clues.

The Tipping Point presents several phenomena that have "tipped", and then explores the reasons for their success. His examples come from diverse areas, including government, business, culture, and public health. Gladwell's main point is that little things can have a huge impact: spreading a marketing message to a few key people can be more effective than a huge advertising campaign; slight changes to the content of a TV program can produce huge increases in interest; cleaning graffiti in New York can lead to a sudden fall in crime rates.

While I don't buy all of his arguments (like the ones about NYC crime), reading Gladwell's book made me reevaluate some of my ideas about how the world works. His examples are interesting, which makes the book both enjoyable and informative.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

I'm home

For all of you who have to have closure (you know who you are) you can sleep easy knowing that I made it home safely from my London adventure.

The week before I left we drove across England, through Wales, and took a ferry to Ireland. I loved Glendalough, which is an old village in the misty green hills of Ireland. It looked just like I pictured Ireland would. I didn't like Dublin very much. It may have just been the incessant rain, but I really didn't like the city much. It seemed like it was filled with drunk, rowdy Irish people. I witnessed three (yes, three) fights in one day: one bloody one between two women on the street (the police came), one in McDonalds (the security man threw them out), and one outside our hostel window in the middle of the night.

Life after Ireland was pretty crazy because there were final papers to write, tests to take, and things to be packed. Our schedule was way too tight, but I managed to finish everything with a couple of almost sleep-free nights.

My trip home was pretty uneventful. I flew on a 767 to Atlanta, and on a 757 from there to Portland. The trip took 25 hours from doorstep to doorstep, and I was pretty exhausted by the end of it. I've been waking up at unnaturally early hours of the morning for most of the week, but I think that I'm finally almost over the jet lag.

I drove up to Seattle tonight to begin the second phase of my summer: an internship at Google. I'm looking forward to it.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

It's down to the wire

A lot has happened in the last week and a half. It's going to be a long entry today:
  • I had tea (herbal, of course) and scones at the Orangery at Kensington Palace.
  • I visited a mosque.
  • I sat in the Stranger's Gallery and watched question time in the House of Lords at the Houses of Parliament.
  • I went to Dover Castle and the White Cliffs of Dover.
  • I visited Canterbury, including Canterbury Cathedral, which is the home of the Archbishop (head) of the Church of England.
  • I ran a three-mile race (the 2007 Crisis Square Mile Run).
  • I visited Kew Gardens.
  • I went to Borough Market (again).
  • I saw The Merchant of Venice at the Globe Theatre.
The Orangery was beautiful, and I felt very sophisticated dressing up and going there for tea. I had peppermint, but I recommend blackcurrant, which one of the girls I went with got. I also got a fruit scone, which was superb.

We visited the London Central Mosque on Tuesday after I went to the Orangery. We were there for the afternoon prayers, which was interesting to watch. I also learned a lot listening to our host.

Right after the mosque a few of us hopped on the Tube and went to Parliament. We watched question time at the House of Lords. MPs can submit written questions for "Her Majesty's Government" (the ruling party) to answer orally. It was interesting to see the joviality and camaraderie that the Lords have among themselves.

Dover Castle was pretty cool, but I'm getting tired of castles.

It was fun to go to the White Cliffs, which you might know as the site of Gloucester's attempted suicide in Shakespeare's King Lear. We could see the Channel there, and I think I could barely make out France on the far side.

Canterbury Cathedral is beautiful, as you would expect. The stained glass there was amazing. It's amazing that it still exists at all, actually, because the Germans tried to bomb it during the war. Their flare markers got carried by the wind, though, so they ended up bombing another nearby site to smithereens and the cathedral made it through mostly unscathed.

The Square Mile Run was fun. I ran it with Amber and Kelli from my group. The race is fundraiser for Crisis, which is an organization that helps homeless people. There were a few more than 2000 runners. We met at Paternoster Square right by St. Paul's Cathedral. The race went south to the river, then east along the river, over London Bridge, further east to the end of Tower Bridge, then turned west along the river, past the Globe, and over the Millennium Bridge across from the Tate Modern.

The run was definitely correctly titled. Calling it a race would have been an overstatement. There were two or three places where I was stopped to a standstill while people filtered through bottlenecks in the course. I was passing people on the entire run. I'd get stuck behind a group, get an opening and sprint ahead a few meters, and then get stuck behind someone again. Consequently, my time of 29:35 wasn't so hot. It was a beautiful run along the Thames, though.

Kew Gardens was a bit of a disappointment. There were some amazing plants there (especially the huge water lilies!), but the grounds felt more like a city park when I expected a diverse, carefully-tended garden. They did have some clownfish and piranhas, though, so I can at least say that I saw Nemo and some killer fish.

On Saturday I went to Borough Market again, but this time I actually bought stuff. I got one of the most excellent brownies that they sell (£1.50), a bunch of strawberries (£1.50), some razcherries (cherries candied in sugar and raspberry juice) (£4), and some fresh cherries (£1).

After the market, our group saw The Merchant of Venice at the Globe. Shakespeare's company performed at the Globe when he was alive, but the original building burned down. The modern one was constructed relatively recently as closely as possible to the original design.

Seeing the play in the Globe was really fun. It's an open-air theater, and lucky for us, the weather was absolutely perfect. We had tickets to stand in the yard as groundlings, and we got there early enough to stand right next to the stage, so the actors were just a meter or two away from us sometimes.

There was one problem with the performance that we watched: the actress who plays the main part was missing. Since they don't have any understudies and they found out on short notice that the actress wouldn't be able to make it, the artistic director came out on the stage before the performance and explained what was going on. They had Nerissa play Portia, and Jessica played both Nerissa and Jessica, and both actresses had scripts in hand for the whole performance. The situation could have turned out horribly, but just the opposite happened. The actresses did an excellent job, and I didn't feel like it detracted from the play at all. The fact that they pulled it off really shows how talented the actors were.

After the play I went to dinner with Kelli and Amber and her roommates at Wagamama, a Japanese sort-of fast food restaurant. I really liked the food and only paid about £7 for it.

Sunday was the last day of church in the Spanish branch for Jeffrey and me since we'll be going to church at the Hyde Park Chapel next Sunday.

Today we visited an orthodox Jewish synagogue that's only a block away from here. It a beautiful building, and it was really interesting to have the caretaker show us around and explain about their religion.

School has been pretty crazy as the semester has been winding down. As of last Friday I had to write 20 pages of papers for my humanities class and two or three pages for English. I've been pretty unhappy with the workload that we have had in humanities, but the good news is that it's almost over.

Tomorrow morning (at 6:30a.m.!) we're leaving for Ireland. We're going to get on the coach and drive to Wales, where we will take a ferry to Ireland. I'm really looking forward to visiting there, but I'm really not looking forward to having to finish my papers while I'm there.

We'll return from Ireland on Saturday and have finals on Monday. Then, on Tuesday morning, I'm headed home. The time has flown by.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Speaker's Corner, Evensong at St. Paul's

We had stake conference on Sunday. The main chunk of the meeting was a broadcast from Salt Lake City. President Hinckley, Elder Eyring, Sister Dalton, and a couple members of the Seventy spoke. It was fun to hear President Hinckley talk about his time in London.

President Hinckley mentioned his days as a missionary preaching at Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park, and we were in the Hyde Park Chapel, so we walked over through Hyde Park after the meeting and listened to some people at Speaker's Corner. There were six or seven people speaking at any one time. A few were there the whole time, but others came and went. There was a crazy toothless guy who had a sign that said "open forum", a woman preaching about God (but against religion), a Muslim guy, a guy from the Socialist Party, a really judgmental "Christian" guy who told a bunch of Muslims that their god was a devil, an environmentalist guy (in short shorts), and a guy with a cowboy hat and a sign that said he would debate any of ten widely varying topics. Crowds around speakers fluctuated from between zero and 50 people. Some speakers stood on boxes or stools; others just stayed on the ground.

Jeffrey (one of the guys in our study abroad group) debated point #4 from the list of ten topics that the cowboy hat guy had. The point was that "faith is knowing that something isn't true and believing it anyway". Because the cowboy hat guy had control of the debate, Jeffrey had a hard time getting his point across and "lost". I thought it was interesting that the guy was actually arguing a different point than he had written on his sign: he was arguing that faith is not knowing that something isn't true and yet believing it; his sign said that faith is knowing that something is not true and yet believing it. Oh well. Contentious debates are pretty pointless.

Later in the afternoon we went to Evensong at St. Paul's Cathedral. The building, especially its famous dome, is pretty amazing. I really enjoyed the service there. The acoustics were really echoy, so it was a little hard to understand at at times, but it wasn't too bad since I had a printed program that spelled out the words to all of the songs. The choir at St. Paul's was better than the others I've heard.

The sermon that the (once again, woman) priest gave was very good--better than most sacrament meeting talks in my church. I guess that's what happens when you have a professional, trained clergy. She talked about how we in the world make up gods unto our own image instead of being humble and worshiping the true God.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Warwick Castle, Stratford-upon-Avon, Greenwich

On Tuesday we went to Stratford-upon-Avon, which was Shakespeare's birthplace and home until he moved to London. On the way there we stopped at Warwick Castle.

Warwick Castle

Warwick Castle was built on an ancient site on the River Avon over a period of about 200 years, starting around 1000 years ago. It's the most "castley" castle that I have yet visited. The grounds are beautiful, and there is lots to do there.

Some of the castles we have visited are just old, out-of-the-way structures that no one pays much attention to. Warwick Castle, in contrast, is quite a tourist attraction. Not long after we arrived the staff fired the castle's trebuchet, which is a huge medieval slingshot. The trebuchet at Warwick Castle is the largest working trebuchet of medieval design in the world. They shot a 30kg stone several hundred meters.

We also saw a birds of prey demonstration, where they had two kinds of eagles (including a bald eagle), a vulture, and a few other birds. It was amazing to see how much the handlers could control the huge birds.

Stratford-upon-Avon

We arrived in Stratford in the afternoon and checked into our hostel. That evening we got dinner at a pub. My whole table got hamburgers, and Kasey's was green in the middle. We weren't sure if that was standard operating procedure around here, so he asked a waiter. The waiter just apologized and brought him a huge bowl of chips (aka french fries). Seemed a little sketchy to me, but I got some of the chips, so I didn't mind too much.

That night we saw the Royal Shakespeare Company's performance of King Lear. It's the first play that I've both read and watched, and I really enjoyed seeing the performers' interpretation of what I had read. Seeing it on stage was much more intense than reading it in a book. Ian McKellen played King Lear. (He's Magneto in X-Men and Gandalf in Lord of the Rings.)

The next morning I went on a four-mile run from Alveston (where we were staying) to Stratford and back. Later we visited Shakespeare's birthplace, a 500-year-old building that's still standing. I'm not very versed in my Shakespeare history, so I learned quite a bit.

We had a few hours free, so six of us went down to the River Avon to rent some row boats for an hour. On the way there was a fountain that someone had put soap in, and it was brewing huge quantities of bubbles, which we played in for a few minutes.

There were three of us in each row boat: one on the oars, one on the rudder, and one to enjoy the ride. We had a good time going down the river, and we traded off jobs so that everyone got to row. On the way back, the people in the other boat rammed ours from the side. A canvas strap on their bow got caught over the metal loop that held one of our oars in, so our boats were stuck together. We had a hard time unhooking our boats, and we were pretty sure that the people at the rental (or "hire" as they call it here) place were laughing at us. Jeffrey eventually jumped into our boat to unload his enough that we could lift their bow and unhook it. We were under a bridge at this point, and we had trouble getting away because the oars would hit the bridge when we tried to row. We finally got away from the bridge, only to discover that a dinner boat was coming right through the bridge arch that we were now under. They blew their horn at us and looked pretty annoyed. We finally got out of the way and made it back to the dock. Whew!

That afternoon we went to the family home of Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare's wife. It wasn't super exciting except that some workers were re-thatching the roof.

On Thursday I had class and did homework. Woo hoo!

Greenwich

On Friday we went to Greenwich, home of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich Mean Time (called Universal Coordinated Time these days), and the prime meridian (0º longitude) that divides the western and eastern hemispheres. They also have a market, a university, and a maritime museum.

Almost more interesting than all of the things in Greenwich was how we got to Greenwich: by boat. We took the tube to Westminster and then got on a boat that took us east on the River Thames for about an hour. It was really fun to see the city from the river, especially since the captain gave us an audio tour as we floated along.

In Greenwich we visited an open market (just jewelry and stuff--boring!) and then got lunch at a bakery-type place. I got a tomato and mozzarella focaccia sandwich for less than £3, and it was really good.

I only had a couple of hours to spend in Greenwich since I had to get back to write some papers, so Jeffrey and I headed up to the Royal Observatory for a quick visit. We stood across the 0º line and took some pictures, saw some clocks, and looked at a few astronomical instruments. There's really not a ton to do there.

I was a little disappointed that my first steps into the eastern hemisphere were unmarked. I unknowingly crossed into it as I climbed the hill to the observatory, and I only realized it when I noticed that I was on the eastern side of the prime meridian at the Royal Observatory. They should have warned me!

I took the boat back to the Tower of London and then hopped on the Tube to get home a little quicker. I didn't finish my papers on time, but that's okay, because I decided before I came here that I was going to experience London first, and do schoolwork second. It wouldn't have been worth it to skip the boat and Greenwich to get a bit better grade on my papers.

Running

Today I finished up my papers and went for a run in Hyde Park. It was really warm (in the high 70s Fahrenheit), but I hadn't been running for a while so I decided to go anyway. I ran almost 8 miles in about 1:15--not really fast, but I took it slow on purpose since I had never run that far in my life. I'm thinking about entering a half marathon race later this year, so I'm trying to get in better shape. I'm also going to run a 3.5-mile race this Thursday in London.

Tonight I'm going to Hard Rock Cafe for some American food (and free refills!). Tomorrow is stake conference, and I'm planning to go to evensong at St. Paul's in the afternoon.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Northern England and Scotland

(Note: I sort of wrote a book on this one. You might want to grab a snack, use the toilet, and make sure that your will is up to date before continuing.)

I got back yesterday from a four-day trip to northern England and Scotland. I loved it. We traveled by coach (chartered bus). Here are the places I visited (click links for pictures):

Wednesday:
  • King's College, Cambridge, including its beautiful chapel
  • York, including York Minster, which is the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe
Thursday:
  • Fountains Abbey, a rare well-preserved 11th-century Cistercian monastary
  • Hadrian's Wall, a barrier erected across Great Britain by the Romans to keep northern tribes out of their empire
Friday:Saturday:
  • Castle Howard, a misnamed (but impressive) 300-year-old estate in England
It was an action-packed four days. We traveled on a Mercedes-Benz (ooh!) bus that has about 50 seats. The legroom is?well, it leaves something to be desired, but it's not a horrible way to travel. It was fun to see the countryside. England is amazingly green, and it becomes increasingly undulating as you travel further northward toward Scotland--unfortunately for my stomach. We passed several fields of wildflowers, and there were many bright-yellow canola fields in bloom. The coach also provided plenty of reading time. I finished King Lear on the way up and most of Freakonomics on the way back.

King's College

Our first stop on Wednesday was King's College, which is part of Cambridge University. We toured their chapel, which has an amazing stone and wood fan-vaulted ceiling. We also wandered around the town for a while, and I got a sweatshirt and some raspberries at the market there. I liked the atmosphere. There were people all over the place riding bikes, walking, and talking. There are tons of little shops right next to expansive, painstakingly manicured lawns and imposing, centuries-old stone buildings.

York

Next stop: York. York is much smaller than London. This became apparent when wandering its streets and noticing that the buildings were only two or three stories tall instead of six or seven. It was also apparent in the more laid back feeling. The streets weren't so crowded (and people didn't push), the city wasn't as noisy, and most of the businesses closed before 7pm. I really liked the city.

While we were there we visited York Minster, which is an amazingly huge Gothic cathedral. I was impressed by Westminster Abbey in London, but York Minster was even more impressive. Its stained glass windows are enormous?some bigger than a tennis court! The ceilings seem to reach the sky. I climbed 273 (if I remember right) stairs up a seemly-endless winding staircase to the top of the highest tower in the minster to enjoy a beautiful panoramic view of the city. I also attended the Evensong service, which is a mass sung by the choir. I really enjoyed it.

We stayed that night at a Travelodge hotel in Tadcaster, about five miles west of York. I went running the next morning along the motorway, which made me miss Hyde Park. The motorway's sidewalk and thick diesel fumes weren't quite as nice as the grassy trails in Hyde Park. I'm pretty fortunate to live so close to the park in London.

Fountains Abbey

We visited Fountains Abbey on Thursday morning. It's a beautiful ancient religious complex that was established by Cistercian monks. The Cistercians were an especially strict group of monks. They had meetings every?every?three hours (eight times a day) and ate gruel. They devoted their lives to work and study. They rarely spoke. The life sounds miserable, but I think I might have signed up anyway if I had seen the abbey. It's amazing.

What's more amazing is that the abbey is still around. Henry VIII decided that the monasteries were growing too powerful, so he had most of them destroyed. Fountains Abbey survived the period surprisingly unscathed. The buildings are enormous, and their architecture is inspiring. I walked through the buildings, found a hidden tunnel, and walked along the serpentine (a waterway).

Hadrian's Wall

After a while longer on the coach, we arrived at Housesteads, an ancient Roman fort along Hadrian's Wall. The Roman emperor Hadrian built the stone wall across the width of Great Britain about 2000 years ago to keep the northern tribes out of Roman territory. Housesteads was a fort along the wall that housed Roman soldiers. The fort was in ruins, but the outlines of the outer perimeter, barracks, a kitchen, officers' quarters, and other areas were clearly visible.

I hiked west along the wall with my group from the fort for 2-3 miles that afternoon. We walked on top of or beside the wall all of the way and enjoyed great views since it is built along the top of a hill. We passed a search and rescue team that was training at a crag near the wall, and we passed some cliffs and a lough (small lake).

Edinburgh

We drove from Hadrian's Wall north to Edinburgh, which is Scotland's capital. Edinburgh (pronounced ed-in-BUR-uh) is located on the Firth of Forth, a huge estuary that cuts into the eastern side of the isle of Great Britain. It has lots of beautiful old buildings, shops, and restaurants.

We stayed in a hostel (Smart City Hostel) for two nights in Edinburgh. I liked it much better than our hotel stay Tadcaster. The hostel is new, and the lower price there was accompanied by much better accommodations, such as free internet access and breakfast. It also doesn't hurt that the hostel is located right in the middle of the city. I'd definitely recommend it.

We arrived on Thursday night and just wandered around for a while. I ate with a few people at Garfunkel's, which was pretty much like Chili's in the U.S. Keith got a cheeseburger, I got pasta, and Amber got lasagna. I guess you can't always be cultured. :) I did have haggis for breakfast the next morning, though...

I made an amazing discovery on Thursday night: Sainsbury's grocery store in Edinburgh sells a pack of chocolate digestives (thin cookies coated with chocolate on one side) for 27p. 27p! That's amazing! You can buy pretty much nothing in London for under a pound, so 27p is a steal. I thought about buying 27 packs, but I settled for just one.

Arthur's Seat

On Friday morning I got up a little early to hike to the top of Arthur's Seat with a some of our group. Arthur's Seat is an 823-foot-tall "mountain" in Holyrood Park, which is an amazingly wild area in the middle of Edinburgh. I almost felt like I was back in Utah for a little while, except that everything was green, of course. I really liked the hike. The view from the top was great.

Scottish Parliament

We hiked back down to the city and met some BYU interns who are working at the Scottish Parliament this summer. They gave us a tour of the new parliament building. The building was recently finished at a cost of over £400 million, which is almost a billion dollars, and about seven times the projected cost. All of that money bought an amazing building, though. It looks a little weird from the outside, but the inside is incredible. An interesting mix of wood, concrete, and metal is shaped into an aesthetic pleasure that is flooded with natural light.

As we toured the building we got to go into the debating chamber, and I got to sit in the seat of an SMP (Scottish Member of Parliament). I also got a crash course in Scottish politics, which was spiced up by the fact that the Scottish National Party just gained control of the government for the first time in decades. They want to withdraw from the United Kingdom in 2010, like the Republic of Ireland. It's an interesting situation.

Edinburgh Castle

In the afternoon we visited Edinburgh Castle. It's built on a high point formed from volcanic rock. It was pretty interesting (and looks just like you'd expect a castle to), but castles are getting a little old. They all seem a lot the same: lots of old stones and history. This one was slightly more exciting than average because they shot off a cannon at 1pm. I was about 40 feet away, and my ears rang for a few minutes afterward. They apparently started shooting the cannon as an audible clock for sailors in the Firth of Forth, but now I think it's mostly just a tourist attraction.

I had dinner on Friday night at The Advocate, which is a pub about a block from our hostel in Edinburgh. Pubs have some of the best food at great prices, and The Advocate lived up to the trend. I had a really yummy chicken pot pie with mashed potatoes, gravy, and vegetables for about £6.

Castle Howard

Saturday was a day of sitting on the coach. We made a couple of rest stops, but the day still felt really long. The only thing that really broke it up was a tour of the Castle Howard in England. The Castle Howard isn't really a castle. It doesn't have lots of defenses, and a king didn't build it. Rather, it's the 300-year-old home of the aristocratic Howard family. Don't get me wrong: it's beautiful, and huge, and the gardens are quite nice, but it's not a castle or a royal palace.

The interior was pretty impressive, although we didn't get to see all of it since the staff were setting up for a birthday party that evening. The exterior had lots of gardens and ponds and the usual trappings of rich people's estates.

It's back to business as usual for a few days until we head to Stratford (you know, the Shakespeare place) for a couple of days this coming week.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Church, US Senators, Science Museum

I taught a lesson in Spanish at church again on Sunday. It went pretty well, but my Spanish definitely isn't as good as it used to be. There were a few times when I struggled to communicate what I was thinking.

On Sunday night there was a fireside (meeting where church members go listen to a speaker) where Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Gordon Smith (R-Oregon) spoke. They're both US senators and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It's kind of funny that I'm here in another country all the way across the ocean, and yet I had the chance to listen to a couple of US senators. They were on their way back from a two-day tour of Iraq.

The two spoke on "Why I Believe". It was interesting to hear a couple of politicians speak in a church setting. They were still politicians, but it was clear that they also believed in the teachings of the Church.

Senator Smith (from my state) was a little more plump than the last time I saw him. He seemed pretty humble, and I enjoyed listening to him. He was very diplomatic and spent quite a bit of time building rapport with his British audience. At one point he said that some of his ancestors wore red coats during the American Revolutionary War–something that I doubt he says very often in the States. :) However, his remarks focused on his testimony and barely mentioned politics.

Senators Hatch was quite a different story. He talked for two or three times as long, and I was pretty anxious to get out of there by the end of it. Several times he looked at the clock and said that he would end his remarks; right after that he would launch into another story. His remarks were a series of stories from his legislative and ecclesiastical experiences. He was much more political than Senator Smith. He told about how he forced an opposing senate leader to "save the taxpayers $20 million" by pulling his "trump card" on them: a threat to send the Mormon missionaries to his door. He put in his (very) thinly veiled plug for Mitt Romney for President 2008. He told us about a series of miraculous priesthood blessings that he has given, which seemed far too personal to be sharing with an audience of hundreds. He told about an experience with someone who doubted that God spoke to men today that was almost an exact quote (not even a paraphrase) of Hugh B Brown's Profile of a Prophet. I was pretty unimpressed with him.

My favorite speaker was actually neither of the senators: it was a man who joined the Church a couple of weeks ago. This man had been searching–really searching–for the truth for many years. He had attended numerous churches and eventually become dissatisfied with each of them. A few weeks ago he met the missionaries and after three weeks of study, he decided to join the Church. He said that he has never felt such peace and such happiness, and that this will be his last church, for he has found the truth. This humble man spoke with more power than two members of what Senator Smith said some called "the most exclusive debating club in the world".

An area authority spoke at the very end of the fireside and told about an experience he recently had with Gordon Smith, Dieter F Uchtdorf (a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve), and some representatives of the Italian government. They were trying to get full official recognition for the Church in Italy, which has been an ongoing struggle. After making their case, a professor in the Italian group told about how he had gone to Salt Lake City recently and visited Temple Square. Two Italian sister missionaries had given him a tour of the site, and he was deeply touched. He told the church representatives, "I have one question for you: when are you going to build one of your temples in Rome?". Elder Uchtdorf responded, only half-jokingly, "when you sign the document". He did sign the document, and the recognition is in the final states of ratification in the Italian government.

Yesterday I went to the Science Museum, which is just across the street from the Hyde Park Chapel where the fireside was the night before. I have fond memories of going to OMSI when I was in elementary school, so I was excited to go. However, I was pretty disappointed. There were some cool things there, like parts of Babbage's original Analytical Engine, but the museum seemed pretty boring for the most part. I think that reason I was disappointed has more to do with me than with the museum: I'm not the curious little boy that I used to be. I'm still curious, but as with Christmas, the boyish wonder has faded a little from my eyes.

Today I went to the Tate Britain, another of London's free art galleries, to look at some paintings for my humanities class. It's a lot quieter than the bustling National Gallery at Trafalgar Square, so much so that I thought we were in the wrong place when we were walking toward it. However, I think I like the Tate better than the National Gallery.

Tomorrow morning we're heading out for a four-day trip to Northern England and Scotland. We'll be in a hotel the first night, and a youth hostel for the other two nights. We'll visit York and Edinburgh, among other places. I'll give a report when we get back.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Tallis Scholars, Les Mis, Hampton Court, Portobello Market

On Thursday Dr. Baker let us out of English class a little early to go listen to a free Tallis Scholars performance at the British Library. They are perhaps the world's premiere Renaissance choral music ensemble. I heard them sing last summer in Seattle, and they were amazing. It enjoyed hearing them again here.

On Thursday afternoon I went to the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection to look at some paintings for my humanities class.

That evening I went to see Les Miserables. I had never seen the play or read the book before, so about all that I knew was that it was about a guy named Jean val Jean. I really enjoyed the performance. They used a revolving stage that was really cool, and the singing was great. The best part was that we got great seats for half price since we are students. Some of the other people in our group got seats right in the middle on the seventh row; we were right toward the front of the lowest balcony.

On Friday we went to Hampton Court Palace. Among others, it was home to Henry VIII and William III. The palace itself was pretty cool, but my favorite part was the gardens. There are amazing, expansive (I think around 60 acres), beautifully designed gardens surrounding the palace. I would love to be able to go there all the time just to read, think, and ponder. Make sure you check out the pictures.

Yesterday morning I went for a 10K run in Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. I think that it would be fun to run a race while I'm here in London.

I spent most of yesterday reading Tess of the d'Urbervilles, which I finished around 9pm. I needed a break from reading for a while in the afternoon, so I went with Keith to Portobello Market, which was about a ten-minute walk from our flat. Hundreds of street vendors lined Portobello Road, selling everything from antiques to clothing to souvenirs to food. It was a fun experience. We were there from 4-5pm, and a lot of the vendors put things on sale since they were starting to close things down. Keith and I got two pretty big cartons of strawberries for £1.60, which was a really good deal. I also bought a bag of juicy dried apples for £1, two French chocolate pastries for £1.40, and a small carton of blueberries for £2. I almost didn't get the blueberries because they were pretty expensive, but they were amazingly good. They're huge and juicy and sweet—probably the best blueberries I've ever had.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Westminster, Kent, Wicked, Bath, Avebury, Stonehenge

I've been traveling up a storm recently. Last Friday we visited Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster, where Parliament meets. I attended a mass (Holy Communion) with Amber and Kelli and was blessed by the female priest.

On Saturday we took a train and went on a 10-mile hike through the countryside in Shoreham, Kent, which is south of London. It was beautiful, and we visited a Norman castle, among other things.

On Sunday I had to teach two lessons in Spanish at church since Jeff, who usually comes to the Spanish branch with me, was home sick.

I spent all of Monday finishing reading Jane Austen's Persuasion. It ended a lot better that it started, and I liked it better than I expected. However, I wish that I read a lot faster, because it's no fun being cooped up in my room all day when I'm in London.

Yesterday evening I saw Wicked (the musical) with several people in our program. It was amazing. My favorite part was right before intermission (or "interval", as they call it here) when Elphaba sang Defying Gravity.

Today we took a coach and visited Bath (about 100 miles west of London), which is a resort city that is the site of an ancient Roman public bath. Amazingly, it's still there, although it was buried for some time and rediscovered in the late 1800's. We also visited a Jane Austen museum in Bath. She lived there for a few years, and it's the setting for parts of several of her books, including Persuasion. It was fun to see a sign for Marlborough Buildings when I had just read about them in Persuasion yesterday.

After Bath we traveled to Avebury, which is the site of a neolithic stone formation. It was fun because we could get right up next to the rocks and touch them.

Our final visit today was Stonehenge. It's roped off so that you can't get very close to it, but it's still impressive from a distance. I have to admit that it's a little smaller than I had imagined, but it's still an amazing feat of 5000-year-old engineering.

As usual, pictures are available: