Tuesday, January 22, 2008

How (not) to drive in the snow

Provo, Utah is an interesting place to live because:
  1. It snows a lot.
  2. There are a lot of people here from places where it doesn't snow a lot.
  3. These people drive.
As I was walking home from school tonight, my path was blocked by a car with one of these people in the driver's seat. Katherine (maybe—I think I might have forgotten her name already) was spinning her tires on ice, futilely trying to get out of the driveway. I stopped to help her get unstuck, and after a few minutes she was on her way.

Unfortunately, there are many more people in Provo like Katherine. If you are one of them, count your lucky chickens, because what I'm about to tell you may:
  • save your life.
  • save you time.
  • save you money.
  • save you from embarrassing yourself in front of your friends (or worse, enemies).
  • bring you a lifetime of happiness. *
Paying attention now? OK. I'm going to give you a few practical tips on winter driving, but first, I'm going to give you a physics lesson.

The key physical principle that governs winter driving is friction. Your car runs more or less the same in the winter as it does in the summer (except for the occasional dead battery), but the way that it interacts with the road is quite different when there's snow or ice on the ground. Your goal while driving is to maintain maximum friction in the few square inches where your tires touch the road.

Friction comes in two flavors:
  • static friction
  • dynamic friction
(There's actually a little more to it than that, but we'll stick with the simple version for now.)

To illustrate the difference, think about the old pull-the-tablecloth-out-without-making-everything-fall-on-the-floor trick. Why does the stuff fall on the floor when you pull slow, but it stays put when you yank? Because of static and dynamic friction, of course! Static friction applies when two surfaces are touching without slipping (like a bowl on a tablecloth that you're slowly pulling); dynamic friction applies when they are slipping (like when you yank the tablecloth). The key point here is that for most surface combinations, including ice on rubber, dynamic friction is significantly less than static friction.

You can wake up from your bad dreams of high school physics class now. On to the practical tips for increasing the friction between your tires and the icy road.

Bruce's first tip for winter driving: no spinning allowed!

You get up in the morning, get ready for the day, and open the front door to a cold, wintry day. You go scrape the ice off your windshield, hop in the driver's seat, and fire up the engine. After a few sluggish cranks, it rumbles to life and you put it in gear. You press on the gas and the speedometer needle jumps forward, but the car doesn't move. What do you do?
  1. Press on the gas harder.
  2. Swear vehemently, and then press on the gas harder.
  3. Take a deep breath, and then press on the gas very gently.
If you chose option A, you might be from Arizona. If you chose option B, maybe you're from Las Vegas. If you chose C, you get a gold star.

What's so bad about spinning your tires? After all, it makes you feel powerful, right? Well, the problem is that as soon as your tires start slipping, you've left the sunny, rolling hills of static friction for the hellish, fiery pit of dynamic friction. Once your tires start slipping, you have pretty much no friction. (Ever wonder why antilock brakes were invented?) Spinning them faster won't fix that. Instead, try pressing the gas pedal very gently until the car just barely begins to move, then slowly increase your speed. It helps to open your door and watch the tire; if it starts slipping, stop (to get back into happy static friction land) and then try again, a little slower.

Corollary to Bruce's first tip for winter driving: don't slam on the brakes (unless you have antilock brakes).

Lots of college students in Provo have older cars without antilock brakes, and when you slam on the brakes, your tires slip, just like when you stomp on the gas. The ideal situation is to brake as hard as possible without the tires slipping. Unfortunately, you don't really know how hard that is until it's too late and you're already sliding. If you start to slide, let up on the brakes until you regain traction (switching from dynamic back to static friction), and then start braking again.

If you have antilock brakes, there's a computer in your car that will do that for you much better than you can, so just stomp away. If you're not sure if you have antilock brakes, find an empty, icy parking lot, accelerate to 10 MPH or so, and stomp on the brakes. If you can hear and feel the brakes pulsing, you have antilock brakes; If the car just smoothly skids, you don't.

Bruce's second tip for winter driving: avoid braking (or accelerating) and turning at the same time.

Why? Because there's only so much friction available between your car and the road. If you try to turn and accelerate at the same time, part of the friction helps slow you down, and part of it helps you turn. The problem is that there might not be enough friction to do both, and your tires could start slipping. Next time you're stuck, turn the wheels straight and try to get out.

Bruce's third tip for winter driving: get down and dirty.

If you're really stuck (like on polished ice), there's a good chance that your tires will slip even if they're turned straight and you're really gentle with the gas. That's the situation that the girl I helped tonight was in. What do you do? One easy option is to put something between the tire and the ice to increase the friction. Snow plows often spread sand or ground rock behind them to make surface of the ice rougher so that your tires will have something to grip.

You can do a miniature version of that when your car is stuck. Tonight Katherine grabbed a flower pot off her front porch, and I got down on the ground and spread the dirt behind her front tires, making sure to push it as far as I could into the space between the tires and the ground. In combination with tips one and two, the dirt added enough friction to get her out of the driveway. Some people keep a small bag of kitty litter in their trunk to get them out of similar (un)sticky situations.

I was going to stop with three tips, but I'm feeling generous tonight, so I'll give you one more.

Bruce's bonus tip for winter driving: rock it, baby!

Sometimes you get stuck in loose snow. When that happens, try rocking the car back and forth, quickly switching from forward to reverse, but be careful to not damage your transmission by switching while you're still moving. By doing so, you'll compact the snow and go a little bit further each time you switch directions. If things go well, you'll eventually make it out.

Have fun out there—and don't hit me!

* Uh, yeah. Maybe. But no guarantees.

Sunday, January 20, 2008


Winter is here in Provo, and I've been snowshoeing three times in the past eight days, with two or three more trips scheduled in the next couple of weeks. Woo hoo!

Last Saturday I went to American Fork Canyon with my friend Ben and some people he knew. We drove to Silver Lake Reservoir and then walked around south of Granite Flat Campground. I had fun jumping high stream banks into the soft snow fifteen feet below.

This past Friday I went by myself to Hobble Creek Canyon to look for new places to go snowshoeing. I found a place that was passable, but not great. I parked at the power plant just past the golf course and headed up a small ridge on the west side of the road. I went for about an hour up the ridge, which was drifted in places and wind-scoured in others. There was a small cornice on top of the rounded ridge, so I walked out to the edge of it to see how far I could go before it collapsed. It was a little scary how easily it collapsed. I definitely wouldn't want to fall through a big cornice on a steep ridge.

My exploration on Friday was only moderately successful, and I'm getting bored of snowshoeing at South Fork/Big Spring in Provo Canyon. Anyone know of other good moderate snowshoeing routes around the Utah Valley area that have minimal avalanche danger?

Yesterday I went snowshoeing up Big Spring Hollow in Provo Canyon with some friends. I invited a girl that I met at a bonfire last week, and I had a great time.

I might go snowshoeing tomorrow since there's no school. This Saturday I'm planning to climb Lone Peak, which will be my first mountaineering trip of the year. The following Friday and Saturday I'm going on an overnight snowshoe trip in the mountains east of Provo with my friends John and Brian. We're planning to hike up one of the canyons and camp for the night. The next day we'll hike to the top of Buckley Mountain, which John and I have both wanted to climb for a few years. It's turning out to be a good winter!

Me vs. Delta, round three

If you're a regular reader of my blog (hi Mom!), you know that I had bit of a tussle with Delta last month trying to get SkyMiles credit for my flight home for Christmas. After writing them a five-page letter, they credited my account with the miles silently—or so I thought. It turns out that they did respond, but it was via snail mail, so it took a while to get here.

This week I got a letter in my mailbox (the metal kind, not the electronic kind) from Bettie Brown, sent from Delta headquarters in Atlanta. Bettie gave me a little lecture on how their electronic SkyMiles system works, and she also explained that although on-time service is important, safety is their top priority. (Really? I had no idea!) She didn't have much of a sense of humor—or perhaps Delta has a regulation against allowing it in their official correspondence—but at least she took the time to write.

To her credit (and mine), Bettie also gave me $50 toward traveling on Delta in the next year. At that rate, my 3-hour delay in the airport last month was worth a little over $15/hour. Not bad.

Almost every time that I've written to a company to express dissatisfaction with a product or service, I've gotten a response and some kind of compensation. It's kind of fun. You should try it sometime.

Thursday, January 17, 2008


It's official: I'll be an intern at Apple in the Bay Area this summer, working the iPod engineering team. I'm pretty excited about working at Apple and living in Silicon Valley.

I got internship offers from Google and Apple in early January, and I've spent the last two weeks thinking about which one I want to take. It hasn't been an easy decision. Google offered me an internship on the Android team working on their new mobile phone platform; Apple offered me a spot working on the iPod. Both were projects that I wanted to work on, and both were at great companies.

I had two primary focuses when looking for an internship for this summer:
  • I wanted to work in Colorado or California, since those are places that I might want to live when I get a full-time job.
  • I wanted to do embedded systems or hardware development since I've never done that type of work professionally.
My goal with internships has been to gain broad experience with companies, locations, and types of work so that I'll have a good idea of what I want when I choose a full-time job. It's hard to jump around to different jobs after you graduate, but internships offer a good opportunity to "try before you buy".

I waffled back and forth several times in the last two weeks about which offer I wanted to take. The job at Apple offers more experience with embedded systems, but the job at Google was on an exciting new project that I'm really interested in. The iPod is cool, but Android is poised to start a long-needed shakeup of the wireless handset market. Apple is a new company to work for, but I really liked what I saw at Google last summer. In the end, I went with Apple because the type of work there was a little closer to what I was looking for, and because I thought it would be good to see how another company works. I felt bad turning down Google's offer, but I think I made a good choice.

I'll miss Google's amazing free food this summer, but I'm excited to work in a fun place on a cool product at a company that's doing amazing things. It should be a fun ride.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Evangelicals, Mormons, and the religious vote

Recently, I was discussing the influence of the evangelical vote on Mike Huckabee's unexpectedly large win in last week's Iowa Republican caucus. Huckabee won with about 34% of the votes, which was widely viewed as an impressively large victory in a state where he spent far less money than his next closest competitors. (Mitt Romney came in second at about 25%.)

One of my friends complained that Huckabee won because so many evangelicals voted for him simply because of his religion. (Huckabee used to be a Baptist minister.) We agreed that religion alone was a horrible reason to vote for someone; after all, what about economic policy? What about social issues? What about foreign policy? Religion may influence all of those, but to blindly vote for someone simply because you share religious beliefs is civically irresponsible.

Unfortunately, Mormons do the same thing. There's a disturbing amount of blind support among students at BYU—a school run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—for Mitt Romney, who is a member of the Church. I know several people who claim to support Romney, and yet they seem to have no idea about his policies when I ask them. Their only reason for supporting him is that the he's a member of the same church that they are. That disturbing attitude—the same one that led to Huckabee's unexpectedly large win in Iowa—seems to be alive and well in Mormon country at BYU.

That this attitude exists among Mormons is especially disappointing because there have been so many times in our history when we were persecuted by the government because of our beliefs. If anyone should realize the importance of separating policy from piety, it is us.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008


Some recent events in my life, followed by a relaxed—but not necessarily relaxing—two week break from school, have given me plenty of both cause and opportunity for introspection. I usually avoid personal posts on my blog, but I'm going to break with tradition today and share some of my thoughts in the hope that they might help someone.

I've been thinking a lot about how I can become a better person. Among other things, I want to be a better:
  • husband of my (as-yet very much future) wife.
  • father of my future children.
  • friend, co-worker and family member.
  • child of God.
I have thought and prayed a lot about what I can do to improve, and the result of many hours of contemplation is one word: charity.

Charity is the "highest, noblest, and strongest kind of love" (source), and both the Bible and the Book of Mormon talk about its preeminence. The apostle Paul in the New Testament (see 1 Corinthians 13) and the prophet Mormon in the Book of Mormon both taught a similar principle:
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, if ye have not charity, ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must fail—

But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.

(Moroni 7:46–47; see also v. 44–48)
I set goals at the beginning of every semester. This semester my goal isn't a resolution to do anything, but a resolution to become something. I want to fundamentally change my character to become more like Christ in my love for others.

I want to be a better listener. I want to serve others more. I want to be a better home teacher. I want to do random acts of meaningful service for lots of people. I want to smile at others more often. I want to be freer with compliments. I want to focus on others rather than myself. I want to not judge others, but to see them as Christ sees them.

That's a pretty tall order. So how do I pull it off? Thankfully, Mormon not only outlined the importance of charity, but he also explained how to develop it:
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love....

(Moroni 7:48)
It's humbling to think how far I have to go, but this year I'm going to take a small step on the road to becoming more like Christ. Through prayer, action, and the grace of Christ, I'm confident that that step will be an effective and worthwhile one.

I believe that God wants me to improve, and that in Christ he has provided a way for me to do so:
Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ; and if by the grace of God ye are perfect in Christ, ye can in nowise deny the power of God.

And again, if ye by the grace of God are perfect in Christ, and deny not his power, then are ye sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot.

(Moroni 10:32–33)
That's a pretty amazing promise.

If I seem a little nicer the next time you see me, now you'll know why. :)

Sunday, January 06, 2008

My best friend's wedding

One of my best friends got married on Friday. Erik Bassett married Britney Walker in the Mesa Arizona temple, and I was privileged to be there.

I've known Erik for about three years. We were roommates in 2005 and 2006, and then we both lived with his family while we worked in Seattle during the summer of 2006. We've shared many indoor and outdoor adventures, including climbing Mt. Shuksan, climbing part of Mt. Rainier, and solving many crossword puzzles. He graduated in 2006 and moved to Boston to go to grad school at MIT: good for him, bad for me. :) I've missed him ever since. You don't find friends like Erik every day.

As proof that life doesn't end once you graduate and leave BYU, Erik met Britney in Boston and they fell in love. As they became more serious, it became harder to talk to Erik on the phone because he was extra busy, but I was happy, because I knew that meant that things were going well with Britney.

Erik called me at the beginning of October and told me that they were engaged and that he wanted me to be some sort of somewhat important person at his wedding. I forgot what I was supposed to be until I went on a trip with Erik's sister in December and she found out that I was the best man. I'm not too up on my wedding knowledge, so I had to consult Wikipedia to find out what a best man was. :)

I felt very special at the wedding because the Bassetts treated me like family. I went to the family "advice dinner" on Thursday night and went to breakfast with them on Friday. I went to the wedding luncheon, the sealing ceremony, and the reception. I even slept at the same house as the Bassetts. I felt very included, and it was really fun to be with them. I finally met Erik's brother David, who I had heard a lot about but never met. They're an amazing family.

The wedding yesterday was beautiful. Everything felt so peaceful and so right. We (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) believe that a man and woman can be sealed for not just time, but for all eternity in temples of God. As Erik and Britney were sealed in the Mesa temple, I got a glimpse of that eternal relationship. I know that God loves us and that because of that he has made it possible for us to live together forever as families.

I met Britney for the first time on Thursday, and I was really impressed with her and her family. She is a great match for Erik, and I'm looking forward to getting to know her better. I just hopes she lets me borrow Erik every once in a while. :)

Outdoor goals for 2008

I posted a list of places I want to go hiking, climbing, mountaineering, and canyoneering this year on my SummitPost profile. If you want to join me on any of them, let me know.