Grant Muller

High Lonesome 100: Race Report

High Lonesome

We staggered up the last few steps in the dark to the top of Monarch on the Continental Divide trail. A relentless wind slapped me in the face, and kept on slapping. A chill burrowed into me despite the wool shirt, rain jacket, gloves and buff. I couldn’t see more than three feet in front of me; it wasn’t fog, we were standing in a cloud. I turned back to Aaron, now nothing more than a diffuse headlamp glow and a voice in the dark.

"We gotta get the hell off this ridge."

We broke into a run, anxiety fueling our effort. We hadn’t eaten anything in several hours. We were wet with sweat in the cold, constant wind. Slowing down could mean hypothermia. The day before had been perfect.

How the hell did we get here?

5:45 AM, Friday

Hundreds of people milled around in the dawn chill at the campground on Mt. Princeton. Pictures were taken; all smiles. Seventy-three of this crowd were preparing to toe the line of the inaugural High Lonesome 100. I was one of them.

Dudes

This was my first one hundred. Hundred-miler. Hundo. Finally hunting some big game. A few months prior I had no intention of being on the side of that mountain, but a successful fifty-miler seduced me to strike while the iron was hot. Besides, all my buddies would be there, and who doesn’t like a little peer pressure. I got on the waiting list and within a few weeks I was committed.

At 6:00 AM, to the crack of gunfire, we rushed out of the campground in a mass and expelled our nervous energy on a steep downhill road towards the Colorado Trail. After a few miles the paved road degraded into a wide, flat, dirt path. We clicked off several quick miles before the real hunt began.

A steep ascent marked the beginning of the Colorado Trail. I’d be lying if I told you I remember it this way. I only recall this ascent the way back, with ninety-four miles behind me. It was an easy climb going out; it would be a quad-killer coming back.

We peaked out on the initial climb, and were rewarded with some nice, flat, runnable terrain of Colorado Trail. It didn’t take long to make it to Raspberry Gulch, the first aid station.

By now our group of runners, all flatlanders from the Atlanta-area, had split into their respective factions. TJ had spent the better part of a month in Colorado, and had acclimated well enough to take an early lead. We would see him only once more before the finish. We’d instructed our crew to get some sleep, get their supplies, and skip these first few aid stations; we’d catch up with them around mile twenty-five. We filled up on water, grabbed a few snacks (Nutella tortillas? Hell yeah), and headed out for our first big climb: Antero. 9 miles ahead.

It didn’t take long for the going to get tough. Aaron and I ascended the trail into ever thinner air. We came across flatlanders and highlanders alike, all struggling to make meaningful progress up the long hike. Our easy run was reduced to a power hike, and then a trudge.

"I gotta take a picture of this!"

That was my excuse anytime I wanted to stop and breathe for a minute, and the scenery made it easy. We were surrounded by mountains, bare on top, green on their slopes, rocky at their bases. White snow pack salted the peaks, gathering in nooks and crannies between folds of the ridge. The melting ice formed a half dozen creeks, streams and waterfalls that poured off the sides of the mountain, rushing toward flatter terrain. It was a mountain paradise.

Mountain Paradise

It was also a struggle. We worked with the mountain; we slowed to its speed. It might be the altitude talking, but by the time I reached the top I no longer felt spent. There was peace up there that I cannot describe.

Peace up high

At the top, we looked down the side of the pass onto a steep jeep road. Perhaps a dozen rocky switchbacks wound their way downward toward our next aid station. If the previous five miles were toil, this was an effortless fall into a forested abyss. The scenery remained stunning, and with smiles on our faces we strode in to Antero aid.

Into the Basin

We made quick work here. The trail continued to descend out of Antero onto a roughshod jeep road. We passed several trucks on our way down. Several times the trail coincided with a melting snowpack stream; a taste of things to come.

After several miles of descent we turned a corner to hear cheering. Were we at the aid station? Had we covered eight miles so quickly? No. Several members of our crew had found a spot where the road and jeep trail met, parked, and waited for us to pass. It was uplifting, even if it did mean we still had several miles to go until St Elmo.

"I think the worst is over," I commented to Aaron.

"I ran parts of this course during training," another runner interjected. "I think the next out and back from St Elmo is the worst."

We were ignorant of the course other than the elevation profile and map. On the topo map it just looked like a couple of hills. How bad could it be? We contemplated as we ran up the Alpine road and past the creatively named Alpine lake. It didn’t take long before we arrived at St. Elmo.

St. Elmo was supposed to be a ghost town; it looked anything but ghostly as we passed through. The hustle and bustle of runners, their crews, and race volunteers transformed it into a mountain metropolis again for the span of 24 hours. In the traffic we saw Anthony Lee and Mike Wolfe, the front runners, exiting on their way to Tin Cup and the rest of the race. They were hours ahead.

The aid station itself was on the trail about a half mile past the old town. Our crews had made quite a hike to get our gear from the parking area to the station itself, a thing which we’d hear a lot about later on. We took a quick break, our crew forcing us out after 5 minutes, and began the trek up and down to Cottonwood.

This was a low point. The rain hovered like an indecisive spectre. The clouds obscured much of the scenery. When you’re on cooperative terrain you don’t notice. But when the mountain feels like it’s working against you, the weather does too. If it had been sunny and hot, I’d still be complaining. There is no solution to the problem other than to stash your ego in a pocket and get to work.

The going was slow, even coming down the backside into Cottonwood felt like work. How could two little blips on the map compare to the pass at Antero? We caught up with TJ, making his return trip from Cottonwood, looking strong. After a few minutes conversation, we let TJ continue and struggled on. At Cottonwood, our break was short. We headed back the way we came.

Out and backs bend your mind. On the way out you might complain a little. Your way back is a gripefest. Now you know where to complain. You just saw this. You know that "this next section" is muddy, slippery and steep. You’re probably going to fall. There is that tree where the incline gets rough again. There is that clutch of grass that marks where all the damned rocks are. This kind of thinking is unavoidable on an out and back.

As we approached St Elmo, we caught up with Matt on his way out to Cottonwood. We did our best to lift his spirits without being dishonest about the beast in front of him. Forget the thin air and just keep moving. It was a struggle for everyone, and I know I learned something from it: on your way out, better to forget.

Approaching St. Elmo

After powdering my joints on the descent, we met our crew again at St. Elmo. I was burning up despite the dreary rain and stripped off some clothes. It was getting late; the sun would be down before we arrived at the next aid station, so we grabbed our night gear. A quick shoe change later and we were on our way.

The next few miles of flat road flew by as daylight expired. We hit the water drop at Tin Cup, signaling the end of the road and the beginning of the ascent over the ridge to Hancock.

"Hey Yogi!"

Aaron’s cry startled me. Our energy was flagging; conversation was limited to occasional grumbling. Sometimes about the knee-deep mud, other times the endless ascent over the ridge. It was getting too quiet, and we needed to make more noise to encourage our bear friends to stay far away.

"Hey BooBoo!" I called back.

"Go away, bears! Nobody likes you!"

"Nothing to eat here!"

"Fuck off, bears!"

It always devolves into profanity.

The bears weren’t the only things we were cursing. As the snow melts in the mountains of Colorado, rivulets of ice-cold water form and wheedle down the mountain. Sometimes they mind their business and gently cross the trail. Other times they get lazy and just share the trail with you. I don’t mind the occasional creek crossing, but after several miles of running in what can only be described as an "ankle deep kinda ice river", I was pleading for dry feet.

Speaking of snow, during this leg of the course we encountered our first snowpack. What’s snowpack? It’s a big slab of melting, soggy, but still somehow slippery snow that sprawls across the trail like Jabba the Hut. Its too big to run up-mountain of, and if you slip and fall you’re going to end up "down mountain" pretty quickly. In my first encounter I tried to gingerly prancercise my way across and ended up with one pole jammed into the downhill side of the trail, the other end under my rib in a feeble attempt to slow my roll. A few feet of butt-waddling and I was back on dirt trail, but it was a close one. On my second attempt at snowpack I didn’t even try to stay on my feet; I unceremoniously plopped to my ass and slid until I was across.

After several wet, steep, and muddy miles we arrived at Hancock, bear free. Mile 48.8. Halfway. Sort of.

We had expected our crew at Hancock, and were surprised to see that they hadn’t made it. We took a long break here to try and give them time to catch up. Wes, our pacer had planned to step in to get us through a couple of tough climbs. I needed some warmer clothes. Luckily both Aaron and I had packed a drop bag for Hancock in case our crew couldn’t make it. I switched into a long-sleeve wool shirt and stretched a buff over my head. On the verge of shivering, we dragged ourselves out of the comfortable camp chairs and dawdled to the exit. One last look around; our crew hadn’t arrived. It was just Aaron and I until Monarch Pass, mile 66.6.

The trail to Middle Fork, between Hancock and Monarch, was eerily similar to the trail from Tin Cup to Hancock. Oftentimes I found myself asking if we were walking back on the same trail.

Memory is tricky. I don’t remember much in here. I’m sure this portion of trail was difficult, fun, muddy, bear-free, but in retrospect what came after Middle Fork overshadowed it. I find it hard to recall anything that happened between Hancock and Middle Fork. I’m certain I found plenty of opportunities to worry about my pace, yell at bears, and curse the altitude.

I remember ending up in a forested area on switchbacks descending into a gap. I knew we were getting close. You could hear occasional cheering in the distance as a runner approached Middle Fork. When we arrived, there were many butts in seats. A volunteer told us that "visibility was pretty low, and we’ve gotten reports that there was some wind up on the ridge." We wasted little time here. Snacked and hydrated, we set out on what would become the most brutal climb of the race.

The ascent was immediate. The grade prevented anything but the slowest hiking. With burning legs and lungs we forced ourselves forward. As we ascended we came across other runners, flatlanders like ourselves getting our first taste of Monarch. I vividly remember crossing a bridge, a torrent of ice cold water beneath us. I remember looking up to see headlamps in the distance. I remember saying "Are you fucking kidding me?" when I realized how much higher those headlamps were. We were tricked multiple times by false tops and ridges, the exhilaration that we were done climbing into the thin, dark air rudely stamped out by the unfeeling mountain.

The effect of the high altitude and sleep deprivation on our minds and bodies was at its worst as we approached the top. We stumbled through the fog-thick dark, sometimes taking only five or six steps before sitting on one of the boulders that littered the trail. Delirium wasn’t far off. We didn’t eat. Eating meant chewing, and there was no extra energy for chewing. Who can chew and breath this air? The last few steps were agony.

And then we topped it.

In only a few steps we knew we were in a worse position than before. Exposed atop the ridge, the wind pummeled us, the cold mist chilled us to the bone, the air was still thin, and we were wet with sweat from the climb.

"We gotta get the hell off this ridge."

I must have repeated it a dozen times as we ran. Trail flags seemed sparse. Hell, the trail seemed sparse. One moment you think you’re on it, the next you’re running through a patch of bushes. Several times we stopped to check direction. Several times we ran in a direction not knowing if it terminated "down mountain". At one point Aaron lost the trail. I turned around to guide him back with my headlamp. I couldn’t tell if he was ten feet behind me or a thousand. I walked back until we were both on what appeared to be the trail.

"What do you boys say we get the hell off this ridge!"

It was Wes! He appeared out of nowhere. Our crew had arrived at Hancock fifteen minutes after Aaron and I had departed hours prior. Cary asked Wes what he wanted to do, and like a pro he suited up and jumped in at Hancock to catch up with us. He fought out there alone in the mud, in the dark, probably yelling at bears, up that damned climb and caught us just as we were at our lowest. His timing was perfect. Wes lifted our spirits, shepherded us along, and forced us to eat something. Soon enough we could see trees through the fog and knew we were back below tree line.

Things started to look up as we descended. Staggering delirium subsided and the trail opened up onto a wide ski run. On a high visibility night this would have been a godsend, but when you’re limited to three feet of visibility, a twenty foot wide trail is hard to keep track of, especially when you’re looking for trail markers. We split up three wide across the trail to make sure all sides were covered and we didn’t lose track of a turn.

As we shuffled down the pass a huge weight was lifted from my chest. No more high altitude. No more big climbs. No more exposed ridges. Once we hit Monarch Pass at 66.6 miles, the rest of the run would be no more than 10,000 feet. A blissfully oxygenated 10,000 feet. And we were way ahead of cut off. The combination of Wes’ arrival at the lowest point in the race and the knowledge that it was easy street from here renewed me.

We arrived at Monarch Pass at 5:45 AM on Saturday, almost 24 hours and 66.6 miles from where we started. Our whole crew was there waiting for us, and we took a much needed break to change shoes, clothes, gear and pacer. Brooke jumped in with the mandate to ensure we averaged less than 20 min miles no matter how much we complained. She would do much, much better than that.

The trail out of Monarch was significantly easier than any we’d encountered before now. After a short climb we dropped onto "Satan’s Slip and Slide", a steep, rocky downhill under power lines. Other than doing some damage to my quads, it wasn’t really much different than the rutted out rocky roads we run here in Georgia. We made quick work of it.

Brooke, patient but demanding, forced us to run more than we would have had we been alone. Several times I groaned but gave in, and found that I could run without too much trouble. With her help, the five miles from Monarch to Fooses Creek was over in a flash. We helped ourselves at Fooses Creek and rushed towards Blank’s cabin.

Most of this trail was wide and flat. I found myself reminiscing back to when I Mark at The Bear 100. It was early morning, slightly foggy, and the trail was nearly identical. Gravel gave way to dirt track, then road. Within a few miles we were back on the Colorado Trail, and into the home stretch.

The first few climbs on the trail home seemed daunting. 70+ miles into a 100 mile run, they were certainly tough, but nothing compared to what we’d encountered already, and certainly nothing compared to some of our climbs on the Duncan Ridge Trail. We trudged up quickly until we could get back onto flatter ground, where Brooke once again cracked the whip and got us moving again. In no time we’d arrived at Blank’s Cabin.

At Blank’s Cabin we caught our crew again. I felt like royalty; Brooke had run ahead of us to announce our arrival and everyone was ready for us when we waltzed in. I grabbed a Snicker’s and probably some other snacks. I only remember being interested in the Snickers. I ate a pierogi or two, which worked like magic. We set out again after a few minutes, ready to knock out the last 17 or so miles.

Shit got weird. At some point I got a little ahead of the group and out on my own. I remember waiting for a few minutes, but it could have been seconds. Time became elastic. I ran a lot more than I expected to run at the end of a 100. The patterns in the rocks started spelling words. Fish. Pepsi. Announcement. Asahi. All random. A few rocks looked like frogs. A pacer showed up in my peripheral vision. Nope, nobody there. This trail looks familiar, have I been here before?

Wait, I had been there before!

That broke the spell. I was on the return trail, the real homestretch! This was all ground I had covered before! If I’d done it once, I can do it again. The trail flattened out and I broke into a run. After passing through a cattle gate, I found myself in a field smattered with shrubs, on a flat, runnable trail. In the distance was the final aid station, Raspberry Gulch. Again.

Pacer Wife

At Raspberry Gulch my wife Cary was going to jump in with me to run it home. This was my first 100, and though Cary has always been the most important member of my crew, I wanted her to experience some the other side of the adventure on this very special run. In the weeks leading up to the race, Cary had joined me on the tail end of several long runs to get a feel for what it would be like. She’d done great! Her background as a gymnast and weightlifter lent itself to running, even if she is a self-avowed endurance hater.

Only a minute or two behind me Aaron and Brooke popped in. We were all set to conquer the last 7.4 miles together. Brooke went to the finish with the crew while Wes and Cary jumped onto the trail with Aaron and I. The run was on.

The first few miles were open and flat, and we made quick work of them. I remembered them from before, and had been looking forward to some easy work at the end to balance things out. Then we hit that steep downhill that I didn’t recall. My quads were wrecked. There was no way to take advantage of gravity without doing damage to ankles and knees, despite Wes’ insistence that "this is all runnable stuff really. Cha-ching, thats the sound of banking time."

We finally hit the flat open road and agreed to run for the sake of our pacers. We set some goals in the distance. "

"Run to that tree. No, not this tree I meant that one out there."

"Run to that dirt spot. You can’t see it? It’s right there on your left."

"Run to the last flag. I meant the last last flag, not the first last flag."

Brooke, who’d run back from the finish line towards us, found us with less than 3 miles left. Less than 3 miles of open road were all that separated us from the finish.

You might recall that the race started on a steep downhill road towards the Colorado Trail. Well, what goes down, must come up. We hit the final mile, a steep uphill toward the finish, at a solid, um, hike.

In truth we were making good time. Until now we thought we’d be taking a 34+ hour finish time. Until Wes announced that we had 0.6 miles to go, and almost 15 minutes to do it in, we hadn’t entertained the idea that we might finish in less than 34 hours. We picked up the pace, and as the hill leveled out, we settled into a slow jog. Brooke ran ahead to show us just how close the finish was. With 4 minutes to eek out a sub-34 hour finish, Brooke yelled "It’s right here!". Cones marking the entrance to the campground came into view. The horses smelled the barn, and we broke into a gallop.

3:57 PM, Saturday

Sprinting with everything left in the tank, Aaron and I crossed the finish line. I did more damage to my body in that minute than I had in over 34 hours of running. As I caught my breath, Caleb handed me a belt buckle and shook my hand. I’m not sure how many goofy smiles Caleb had already seen that day, but I hope mine was the goofiest. The buckle was beautiful. The finish was beautiful. That dirt patch I was sitting on was beautiful. The cheeseburger was beautiful. Oh god, I was tired.

At the finish

In the minutes after the finish nothing and everything happened. Some folks changed clothes, munched on food, and milled around talking about the race. I was spent. I walked back to the van, took off my shoes, and fell asleep in the passenger seat. Once I had released whatever mental control I had on my body, everything shut down.

But I swear I fell asleep with a smile on my face.

Like never before the race was a team effort. Four runners from the flatlands of Georgia, their crew and pacers, and 100 mountain miles. The volunteers, aid station crews, the race director, the forest service, search and rescue, everyone who has to be involved to make these things work.

I’ve never felt alone out there, on any race, but this one was special. Being out there with fellow runner Aaron, a 100 mile veteran made it seem easy. Being out there with our pacers Brooke and Wes, both 100 mile veterans made it seem easy. Being out there with my crew from Georgia made it seem easy. Most of all, being out there with my wife Cary, my constant supporter, crew, and now pacer made it seem easy. With all of that support, the mental part of the game takes care of itself. After that, its all physical, and thats the easy part.

Book Review: Daily Rituals

Daily Rituals is a superficial book, a collection of “facts” with little analysis or synergy of its constituent parts. Mason Currey says so right in the introduction, so we know the author’s intent right away.

There is no illusion that what Currey is about to present is somehow a compilation of how to’s and instructions for creating. But, regardless of the author’s goals, to walk away from Daily Rituals without at least a few themes is impossible. Here are some.

Art and routine go hand in hand. Even avoiding routine is in some way its own routine. Have you ever tried not doing the same thing two days in a row? Each day? It’s difficult, perhaps harder even then simply settling into a comfortable cadence. The instability of non-routine produces its own set results. Finding a routine quickly becomes its own strange ritual and as Nicholson Baker put it:

…the most useful thing is to have one that feels new. It can almost be arbitrary… there’s something to just the excitement of coming up with a slightly different routine.

At its core, art is craft. Steven Pressfield says the same in The War of Art and Stephen King agrees in On Writing. Daily Rituals overflows with tales of creatives who get up and get to work using the tools they have to do what they know. Good or bad they do the work. Currey’s collection goes a long way in dispelling the myth and mysticism of creation. Artists are working stiffs like the rest of us. They clock in and they clock out. When the mist evaporates, whats left is you, your circumstances and what you make of them. Tolstoy had thirteen kids and wrote War and Peace. Stephen King wrote most of his first novels in a laundry room. What are you doing with your time and circumstance?

Your ritual is itself a creation. The individual routines of Currey’s subjects range from the mundane (Hemingway) to the eccentric (David Lynch and Andy Warhol). Thinking about how you work best is work. The process of creation is a creation, some kind of feedback loop that you experiment with, exploit or erase and start over. Different routines beget different results. Like creative constraints, your routine sets boundaries. You create your unique time and your unique environment; your results will be similarly unique.

So, as a collection of mundane facts about creatives and their daily work, Currey’s work is a success. Its not a rulebook, and its only inspirational if you let it free you to create your own routine (or non-routine). Currey strategically ends Daily Rituals with a quote from Bernand Malamud:

There’s no one way…You are who you are, not Fitzgerald or Thomas Wolfe. You write by sitting down and writing. There’s no particular time of place…How one works, assuming he’s disciplined, doesn’t matter. If he or she is not disciplined, no sympathetic magic will help… Eventually everyone learns his or her own best way. The real mystery to crack is you.

Keep Your Eyes on Your Keyboard

I recently read Accidental Genius by Mark Levy. I did so begrudgingly; I usually don’t go for books that promise to unlock the power of my mind through special techniques. I’m glad that I could put aside my stubbornness because the book contained a wealth of advice on tapping into ideas that you may not even be aware you had.

Accidental Genius advocates a practice called freewriting. Freewriting is just timed bouts of word excess. Sit down with pen and paper, or your favorite full screen editor, and go to town. Don’t think, write. This seems counter-intuitive until you understand that writing is thinking. By turning your hands into your own personal dictation device you engage that part of the brain the controls motor neurons freeing your mind to wander into deeper recesses.

I’ve been doing this to some extent intuitively for years. I first started “journaling” a few years back based on the 750 words meme that rolled over the internet. It advocated writing 750 words a day. Didn’t matter what they were, observations, stories, thoughts, feelings, etc. Just get it all out on paper. I figured if it works for Hemingway it will work for me. Every night for months on end I did this as a means of “brain-dumping”; just get it all out on paper. You can come back later and edit it into something worthwhile if you want…or don’t.

Think of it as making bread. You knead your brain with these 750 words or freewriting sessions, forming new connections between synapses you didn’t even know were there. After you knead and rest your dough (mind) for a while, you can come back and form your thoughts into rolls suitable for baking and serving.

One tip of my own to add:

Keep your eyes on your keyboard

Mavis Beacon will of course disagree, but I’m not trying to teach you QWERTY typing. The act of writing is different than the act of editing. When you write do it with reckless abandon. Ignore punctuation, spelling and typing mistakes. When you look at your screen your internal editor is watching what you put on the page, backspacing, deleting, correcting and moving forward. Backtracking into an idea to correct something as minuscule as a dropped comma forces your brain into the parallel tasks of writing and editing at the same time.

Try This:

Write stream-of-conscious for 5 minutes while looking at your screen. Do what you normally would, correct your errors and keep going.

Then Try this:

Write for 5 minutes looking at your keyboard. You may have made a typo back there or forgotten to type a comma but who the hell cares, your typing at the speed of your brain and not your stupid fingers. Just write, you can come back and clean it up later.

Now Compare

Did you write more in the latter 5 minutes than the former? I always do and I always end up with more usable material than when I edit as I go. Separating the acts of writing and editing is the most important lesson I learned from Accidental Genius.

In the past six months I’ve spent less time dumping my brain on the page, but with the kick start from Accidental Genius I think I’ll start the practice up again with more regularity and include some of the tips and prompts from the book.

Coffee Roasting: Build or Buy?

For the last five years I’ve been roasting coffee in this:

I got 5 years out of my old machine, the Frankenstein Turbo Crazy, home grown of course

My Frankenstein Turbo Crazy.

But alas, after five years of operating “outside of normal temperature ranges”, this happened:

Before this happened. Half a decade of operating "outside of normal temperatures" melted the convection heater...

It seems that convection ovens weren’t meant to have their temperature limiters removed and run for hours on end. The handle, which controls the reed switch to turn the heating unit off and on, melted right off the base.

I knew this would happen someday, and I had planned to build another machine with a leaf blower and a commercial heating element, with robot arms and a positron brain. Alas, the unhappy melting happened right in the middle of rebuilding a fence, writing a bunch of software and getting through several releases at the office. I was posed with the classic question all technology households are posed with: build or buy?

A guy has got to have his home-roasted morning brew. I made a rash decision. I ordered one of these:

The Muller House gets a new coffee roaster

A GeneCafe from Sweet Maria’s.

After a week of waiting the GeneCafe finally arrived so after fulfilling my daily obligations I came home and took it for a test run on some Rwanda NKanka Kinyaga. In Benjamin Franklin style, here is how five years of DIY roaster technology stacks up to the commercial grade:

GeneCafe Frankenstein
Pros
  • Configurable Temperature
  • Configurable Time
  • Integrated cooling unit
  • Excellent chaff removal
  • Single unit
  • Easy to clean (so far)
  • Very even roast
  • Requires less monitoring
  • No coasting
  • Extremely high temperatures
  • Infinitely configurable
  • Very low cost
Cons
  • Long coast time
  • Small batch size
  • Long roast/cool times
  • Temperature
  • Very high coast
  • No integrated cooling unit; long cooling times
  • Requires constant monitoring
  • Occasionally uneven roasts
  • Poor chaff removal

The verdict. After the initial two test runs I’ll give the win to the GeneCafe. If only for the sweet analoguish knobs. We’ll see how it holds up after half a decade.

What’s the plan for my beleaguered Frankenstein Turbo Crazy? Well, I’ve always wanted an outdoor water heater…

Update: The coasting issue I complained about previously is no longer a problem. Seems I just needed to read the instructions…

Seven Languages in Seven Weeks

Think about the way you think. Think about that thought, and this one. Did you think using words? Did you see the words? Sound them out mentally? If someone asked you describe yourself, you would probably think of a series of adjectives (at least if you’re an English speaker).

We think via language, spoken or written. It’s the source of our intelligence and in some ways the root of our consciousness. Helen Keller is quoted with communicating that:

When I learned the meaning of ‘I’ and ‘me’ and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me

The languages you learn are the languages you express yourself with. They mold the way that you think about things and create who you are within your own mind. I’ve written about this before and it’s not an entirely new concept.

Recently I’ve gone to great lengths to change the way I think. Finding new ways to solve problems, especially software problems, often involves learning new languages, syntaxes or paradigms. You can force Java or C to do just about anything, just as you can force the English language to describe just about anything, but it might be that by using Java instead of Haskell, you’re using the wrong tool for the job.

I wanted to expose myself to a breadth of different software paradigms in as little time as possible. Rather than reading dozens of tutorials, or poring through hundreds of pages of reference manuals to get maximum exposure, I bought a book I called Seven Languages in Seven Weeks. Packed into this dense little tome is an overview of seven syntaxes from different families and programming paradigms.

Ruby

The book begins with Ruby. It’s a fairly common syntax and I considered skipping this chapter. Indeed, with the relative ubiquity of the language I wondered why it had been included at all. In the spirit of playing along with the author I read through the sections and did the exercises as described. It turned out to be a good idea; some of the concepts around using method_missing as a DSL generator I had never put into practice.

From a comfort standpoint starting with a language you’re familiar with is also a bit like reading the introduction to a Latin grammar text book in English. I know the language and therefore the author can present his approach to me with words I can understand before I try to make my way through the rest of his presentation.

Speaking of presentation, Tate clearly has a grasp of basic pedagogy. From the beginning he uses a mneumonic device to help the reader put a face to the chapter and the methodology. For Tate, every language is like a character in a movie. They have their own personalities; something that makes them unique within the dozens of lexical environments out there. For Ruby it’s Mary Poppins. You know, syntactical sugar. Get it.

IO

After Ruby Tate introduces a language I had never heard of, Io. Just try searching for information about this little language on the web. You won’t exactly find the throbbing community that surrounds java or ruby to back you up. No, if you choose to use Io to solve something new, you’ll likely find yourself in uncharted terrority. Not necessarily a bad thing if your approach to the text is to learn new ways to think.

A prototype language, Io is described by Tate as Ferris Bueller. In use I got the distinct impression that Io was heavily influenced by Smalltalk; everything you send is a message, and their are nothing but senders and receivers of messages. Method or function? Not really, there are ‘slots’ with message handlers. Can they be construed as the same thing, abstractly yes, but that is to avoid thinking in a way that make the language unique. Sending messages between objects is a powerful concept, and will help you better understand Objective-C and Smalltalk.

Using Io feels a bit like working in JavaScript, the only other prototype language I have any experience with. The concurrency framework is dead simple and provides the reader with a taste of things to come from languages like Scala and Closure. In fact, the actor framework in Io is so simple and impressive it feels like a great environment in which to teach concepts of asynchronous behavior and concurrent development.

Prolog

After Io we get to Prolog, the most frustrating language paradigm for me to grasp in the book. Tate says Prolog is like Rainman. That must make me Tom Cruise.

The logic programming paradigm was at once the most fascinating and frustrating for me to study. At first I was enthralled. A language that I can plug values into and simply query against to get the answer like a super-powered database? Sign me up. I immediately found myself fighting the syntax. It took me some time to grasp the recursive nature of the language as well; no looping structures.

Solving the sudoku problem at the end is the best example of the power of Prolog and languages like it. Reducing a game to a couple of line of syntax, injecting the rules and simply asking questions is a beautiful way to solve many of the problems modern engineers are presented with …if Rainman doesnt drive you nuts along the way.

Scala

With Scala we take a detour back to familiar territory. Scala is the first variant on the java language I’d had the opportunity to use, so when I began the chapter I had some exposure to it. Most of the concepts in this language sunk right in.

Tate says we can think of Scala as Edward Scissorhands. He is the construction of spare parts and a lot of paradigms that already exist. I prefer to think of Scala as MacGuyver; It can do pretty much anything in a pinch. Scala was a comfortable environment to take a break in for a while. It sports functional programming paradigms like higher-order functions, while retaining many imperative concepts held over from C-based languages. Its also completely interoperable with Java, so all of those libraries we’ve grown attached to like joda and jsyn can be reused in the same lexical environment.

For concurrency Scala provides an actor system, much like Io. Tate clearly planned the book to address concurrency in a methodical way, first by introducing simple examples with Io, then advancing to Scala before diving headlong into the deep waters of Erlang and Clojure.

Erlang

Things get uncomfortable again as Tate introduces erlang. From the get go Erlang baffled me, and when it was revealed that it was modeled after Prolog, I understood why. The only language compared to an antagonist in a movie, Tate describes Erlang as Agent Smith from the Matrix. Tate says that this is due to the self-replicating capabilities of Agent Smith in relation to the fail-safes built into Erlang, allowing the user to build highly fault tolerant concurrent systems that “just won’t die”. I think it’s because Erlang is evil.

Erlang is clearly very powerful, so as with Prolog I struggled through the examples and problem sets. I still don’t feel like I fully grasp how to do anything useful with it. Of the languages in the book, I feel like this is the one I need to spend the most time with to really understand.

Clojure

Next we get a lisp. Clojure, a language fully compatible with the jvm is a lisp not at all unlike Scheme, minus a few parentheses. For Tate this language is like Yoda, no doubt due to the “reverse” notation of the arguments and the “inside-outness” of the code construction, at least compared to C.

Surprisingly, I took right to it. Of the new lexical environments this felt the most comfortable, but then, I’ve played with emacs a bit. The concurrency framework is not at all unlike scala with some notable additions. The concept of STM was awkward at first, but after fiddling with it for a while I was comfortable producing usable code.

The interoperability with Java is another major benefit to using Clojure. For Dijkstra’s Sleeping Barber problem, rather than struggle through writing a queue from scratch, I just borrowed the existing Java LinkedBlockingQueue, cranking up one actor to poll it, and another to deliver to it:

In just under 1000 parentheses the barbershop problem was solved. The wrapper around it is unnecessary, but then the whole solution is a little bit wordy for Clojure.

Haskell

Impressed as I was with Clojure, it was time to study the final language in the book, Haskell. I originally selected the book based on the inclusion of Haskell. For some time now I’ve wanted to take a crack at this pure functional, almost entirely mathematical language.

Compared with the ever logical Spock, I’m still dazzled by Haskell. Having read the chapter and gone through the exercises, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what it can do. It’s unofficial tag is that it makes hard things easy, and easy things hard. That ain’t no lie. Try reading a file with it. Do something simple, like open a socket. I feels like pulling teeth. Now go write a Fibonacci solver. Chances are you’ll have cooked up something that can’t be done as succinctly or quickly as Haskell can do it. Of all the languages in the book, this is the one I intend to dig the deepest with.

Wrap-up

When learning anything, I generally feel like a breadth-first overview is the best method of getting started. When learning new ways to think, this breadth-first search seems even more important. Get all your options on the table, see what’s been discovered before deciding how to tackle the problem. Selecting a strategy to go deeper with is a decision that can always be deferred until you know what your strategies are (Of course, you can only defer for so long before you just need to make a damned decision based on what you already know).

The real value of Seven Languages is that it provides this kind of breadth-first overview. You may know Java or C already. That’s great. What else is out there? What can a language like Io make easy? Clojure will help you understand lisp. Haskell will help you understand any functional and improve your understanding of modern math. Scala will let you build damn near anything.

Tate’s progression makes a lot of sense as well. If I was creating a curriculum to prepare a developer for the real world, I would start a youngster out with something like Ruby. This is an obvious ramp into Java and C. Then I might introduce something like Io to explain prototype languages and concurrency in a simple way. This is an step towards a better understanding of both Javascript and Objective-C. Then I might start them on Scala. It’s maximum exposure to as many concepts as possible. From scala, Learning a functional language is made easier if the programmer has been using Scala’s higher-order stuff like fold and map, and is used to immutable variables. Tate’s text provides a decent way to do all of this, introducing a young developer not only to the syntaxes but to paradigms that are broad enough provide insight to damn near any language out there.

If you’re interested in seeing my solutions to the exercises and problem sets, you can find them here. I learned a lot along the way, and I think I achieved the goal I had set out to achieve: Learning new ways to think.

Atlas Shrugged Part 1: From Tome to Train Wreck

19thomas-600Ever try to read the Lord of The Rings Trilogy out loud? If you have, you probably noticed that you sound like a big damn dork. When Ian McKellan renders a line like “A wizard arrives precisely when he means to”, you believe he’s a wizard; you on the other hand sound like thirteen year old at a wicked awesome D&D game. Imagine filming, editing, and adding special effects to your wimpy voice and turning it into box office magic. Sound daunting? For you perhaps, but sometimes the planets of talent, technical virtuosity and, ahem, money align and an epic book survives the translation from tome to theater.

It is unfortunate that these conditions were not present on the set of Atlas Shrugged: Part 1.

The film makes the mistake of flashing a calendar day across the screen in its opening moments, instantly voiding any sense of the timelessness Rand’s novel suggests and giving the viewer an excuse to discard the film as soured milk in a scant 5 years. What follows is a montage as trite as tearing off calendar sheets to show the passage of time. Fake newsreel, snapshots of headlines, talking heads and political commentators create the atmosphere of a failing nation. Despite the overused mechanism to convey the exposition, one does get a sense that this is happening now. This is at least as Rand had intended, but the use of a fixed date and the “modernization” of the story is not only unnecessary, it detracts from the work as a piece of political-philosophical symbolism.

The rest of the film reads like a 12-part made for TV mini-series squeezed in a vice to fit the film format without any of the polish necessary to justify the $11 dollar ticket expense. Hints of amateurism, like the black-and-white “missing” freeze frames, would be easier to stomach if they were sandwiched between commercial breaks. When more than a ten spot is on the line I expect better than the stiff delivery of even the most throwaway lines, and I certainly expect to experience the message of the original work without the heavy-handed exposition getting in the way.

Ok I’ll be fair, even the book is heavy-handed. A book can get away with a lot more than a film, but if the producers were trying to avoid the beat-you-over-the-head-with-it approach entirely why rely on the least important pieces of dialogue, adding over the top verbal exposition when Rand supplied the hammer right in the book? Missing are monologues like the “Money Speech” that D’Anconia delivers at Reardon’s anniversary, perhaps one of the most important in the  book. The characters in the book are archetypes; strip away their names and you’re still left with symbols, different aspects of political and economic philosophy embodied in a voice. The various monologues can read like essays at times, but their absence makes the actors in the film feel less like archetypes and more like shallow characters. These monologues carry the message of the novel in a unique way, and even though the actors selected to play the parts may lack the talent to give them real weight it’s unfair to the original work to leave them out entirely.

There were a few redeeming characters. Patrick Fischler’s portrayal of snake-in-the-grass Paul Larkin is believable, and Ellis Wyatt played by Graham Beckel was a likeable by-his-bootstraps CEO. It is unfortunate however that the leads couldn’t make up the same ground with their characterizations. Reardon feels weak. James Taggart feels less like the big fake softy he is in the book and more like a a child with a toy. D’Anconia has yet to blossom into the character he is supposed to be, but even his false act as a playboy reads like Benicio Del Toro on a bender with Johnny Depp. Even in playboy mode D’Anconia still had class in the novel; that dapper demeanor is gone in the film.

All in all I’m left severely disappointed with the film rendition of Atlas Shrugged, even if there are still two parts left. Paul Johansson might have been able to make this work as a mini-series, and indeed the budget may have leant itself better to that medium. As a film it feels rushed. The attempt to use stiff exposition in place of the essay-like monologues feels limp. The cinematography is unmemorable save for the various poor decisions made by the men behind the camera (like the “micro-zoom” moment at Reardon’s Anniversary party). There are casting errors; I hear that Charlize Theron or Angelina Jolie were considered for the roles of Dagny Taggart. Brad Pitt could easily have swaggered his way into the character of Reardon had the budget allowed for it.

But the budget didn’t allow for it.

In the face of low funding my suggestion to Johansson would have been to cut his losses and give a TV audience a well-paced rendition of Rand’s treatise, rather than make a film that does neither book nor audience justice.

Article first published as Movie Review: Atlas Shrugged: Part 1 – From Tome to Train Wreck on Blogcritics.