Happy Canyon

I’ve been doing a poor job of taking pictures in Europe. On the other hand, I’ve had a trip report on the back burner since last spring, so let’s look at a few pictures from that.

Happy Canyon, in a remote part of southeast Utah, has a scenic and non-technical narrow section that would be famous if it were easier to get to. There are about five ways to get there, but each has a catch: a very long hike including a rappel, a multi-day hike with poor access to water, a backcountry airplane landing, a float trip on an intermittent river, or a difficult drive. The last option was the only one that made sense for us.

We left Hanksville UT before sunrise and had about a 20-minute drive on pavement before turning off at Poison Spring Canyon where the track follows the bottom of the canyon in and out of the waterway, through mud and sand and pools of water. This canyon is frequently impassable, but it had been bladed since the last flash flood and was mostly lots of fun, with only a few sections of real 4WD. It took us about 40 minutes to drive 11 miles to where the Black Jump road turns off (#1 on the map below). This next road follows a bench between cliffs; it was put in during the 1950s for uranium exploration and, as far as I know, hasn’t been maintained since then. This track had caused me a lot of stress during trip planning and indeed it was a bit exciting: it is partially blocked by rocks, goes right next to cliff edges, has sinkholes in the clay that could eat a wheel, and has some sections of real high-clearance 4WD. It took us about an hour to drive five miles to where the track is finally blocked for good by a bus-sized rock that fell from the cliffs above (#3).

happymap (Map credit: USGS with annotations by rockgremlin.)

So there we are — an 8 year old, a ten year old, and me — parked on a ledge halfway down the 1400-foot deep Dirty Devil River gorge, probably 10 miles from the nearest human being. We continued along the deteriorating mining road on foot; there’s a lot of petrified wood including some entire logs, which are really fun to see. After a while (well past #4 — the folks who made that map dropped down to the river too early) there’s a nice break in the cliffs and we picked our way down to the river, which was flowing in the 80-90 cfs range. We all took off our shoes; the younger boy crossed holding my hand and the older one crossed on his own. The mud was nasty and there was a bit of quicksand, but nothing too hard to avoid. At this point we were at the mouth of Happy Canyon (#5) and we had lunch on the river bank.

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Happy Canyon rapidly narrows down and remains narrow for most of a mile, and while it isn’t actually a slot canyon (where you can consistently touch both walls) it is deep and convoluted.

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We could have stayed in the narrows for hours, but we had a long (and warm, even in March) hike out and I didn’t want to drive the Black Jump road in the dark. We cooked dinner at the junction with the main Poison Spring road, and then we made it back to Hanksville by dusk.

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The next day was less eventful: we visited a little-visited mesa top and found a place where wind or floods had created a perfect little beach along the Fremont River.

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On the final day of this quick trip I wanted to visit yet another out-of-the way spot. The boys endured a breakfast of beef jerky and gatorade, a routefinding debacle, an extremely muddy river crossing, and a longish and not-inspiring hike. As a reward, we got to spend an hour or two on the moon before heading home.

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Overall this was a successful trip, though we did run into one person while hiking.

Python Exercises for Kids

For the last year or so I’ve been giving Python exercises to my 11 year old. I thought I’d share some of them. If any of you have been doing similar things, I’d love to hear what worked for you. I think it is helpful that I’m not much of a Python programmer, this forces him to read the documentation. The other day he said “Wow– Stack Overflow is great!”

Fibonacci

Print the Fibonacci series, useful for teaching basics of looping.

Number Guessing Game

The user thinks of a number between 1 and 100. The computer tries to guess it based on feedback about whether the previous guess was too high or low. This one was great for learning about the kinds of off-by-one errors that one customarily runs into while implementing a binary search.

Binary Printer

Print the non-negative binary integers in increasing order. This one forces some representation choices.

Palindrome Recognizer

Recognizing “A man, a plan, a canal — Panama!” as a palindrome requires some string manipulation.

Door Code Recognizer

Our Paris apartment building will let you in if you enter the correct five-digit sequence regardless of how many incorrect digits you previously entered. I thought replicating this behavior in Python would be slightly tricky for the kid but he saw that a FIFO could easily be created from a list.

Monte Carlo Pi Estimator

If you generate random points in the square between -1,-1 and 1,1, the fraction of points that lie inside the unit circle will approach pi/4. The kid got a kick out of seeing this happen. Of course I had to explain the derivation of pi/4 and the formula for a circle since he hasn’t seen this stuff in school yet. Also of course we could have simply worked in quadrant one but that seemed to make the explanations more complicated.

I should perhaps add that I explained this exercise to my kid very differently than I’m explaining it here. We started by drawing a box containing a circle and then pretended to throw darts into the box. The concepts are not hard: all we need to understand is random sampling and the area of a circle. Math gets made to seem a lot harder than it is, in many cases, and also we tend to conflate the difficulty with the order in which the concepts are presented in the school system.

Turtle Graphics Interpreter

The current project is implementing a turtle that takes four commands:

  • forward n
  • right-turn n
  • left-turn n
  • color c

So far we’ve been restricting angles to 0, 90, 180, 270 (and no radians yet…) but I don’t think sine and cosine will be hard concepts to explain in this context. Also, so far the turtle commands are just a series of function calls, the parser will come later. I wonder what would be the simplest loop construct for this turtle language? Perhaps “repeat n” followed by some sort of block construct.

Mac and Cheese++

The ability to make macaroni and cheese is a basic parental survival skill. The problem is, the boxed Kraft stuff tastes of chemicals. Although the Annie’s and Whole Foods brands are better — without being overly expensive — I’m still turned off by that packaged powdered cheese food stuff. Eventually I realized that since the water-boiling and pasta-cooking steps dominate the time required to cook mac and cheese, making it from scratch is no slower than making it from a box.

The simplest version of the recipe below gives a result that looks about like boxed mac and cheese while tasting far better. If you use high-quality cheeses and throw in onions, peas, white wine, and some ham or bacon, the resulting dish approaches the savory goodness of a simple risotto.

This is one of those recipes where no measuring whatsoever is required. However, I’ll give approximate amounts calibrated to match a half-pound of dry pasta.

  1. Before even thinking about the cheese sauce, get the water heating. Don’t skimp on the amount and make sure not to overcook the pasta.
  2. Heat 2-3 tablespoons of fat or oil over low heat in a small saucepan. I usually use olive oil, butter, or a combination. If Sarah’s not looking I may sneak in some bacon fat.
  3. Add salt and ground pepper.
  4. Optionally: Add a few tablespoons of diced onion and/or garlic.
  5. Optionally: Add a few tablespoons of diced cooked ham or bacon.
  6. Optionally: Add a big handful of frozen peas or shelled edamame.
  7. When the fat is hot and any extras have cooked a bit, add 1.5 teaspoons of all-purpose flour. Mix well. Most white sauce recipes call for more flour than this, but a teaspoon or so is enough to make a smooth cheese sauce.
  8. Next, add some liquid. Milk, water, white wine, or chicken stock will all work. A few tablespoons is enough. Stir well until a nice creamy, bubbling white sauce is formed. It shouldn’t be lumpy.
  9. Next, add at least 1.5 cups of grated cheese. Pretty much anything will work but the better the cheese, the better the final product. This is a good time to clean up those small fragments of cheese that often lurk in the fridge. Cheddar, perhaps mixed with some parmesan, is ideal. When I use gruyère, the kids say the resulting dish is “stinky but good.”
  10. Stir until the cheese melts into the white sauce, making a nice gooey mess. Don’t overheat this, or cook it any longer than it takes to make a smooth cheese sauce.
  11. Fold the cheese sauce into the drained pasta, which ideally became ready just as the cheese sauce did.

Yum! Kids are the excuse for this dish but I’d cook it for myself in a heartbeat.

The Upside of Air Travel With Children

I do not enjoy traveling with babies. Getting car seats and strollers through security; having little crawling people disappear under a sea of chairs and come out again eating things they found; being unable to console a little one whose ears are hurting on descent. Ugh. But as the babies have grown up into toddlers and then little boys, I’ve started to really enjoy traveling with them:

  • Constant stream of chatter combats boredom
  • They can carry the luggage (just kidding… mostly)
  • They ensure that snacks and water are always available
  • Sometimes they go above and beyond the call of duty on snacks; for example, my 3 year old is liable to sneak an uneaten half of a hamburger into his pocket; he’ll offer me a bite later if he sees I’m hungry
  • They get us into the “family” security line; this saved us about half an hour at SLC yesterday
  • The family restrooms that some airports have are usually roomy and clean
  • The kids actually enjoy air travel and are excited by jet engines; this is infectious and makes it more fun for everyone; even reading those stupid SkyMall catalogs can be entertaining if a 5 year old is commenting on it

Why Be Polite?

I’m generally not extremely rude, but as Sarah and many others would be happy to tell you, I’m not all about pleasantries. Basically I’ve never seen the point of certain kinds of small talk. To make things worse, I know almost nothing about sports and have thus disqualified myself from a large proportion of male small talk. Also, I’m not that interested in people being polite to me, most of the time. During my first few months in Utah — where people are fairly polite — I was actually a little freaked out.

Lately I’ve started to better see the value of being polite, through my kids. When the three year old says at breakfast “Dad may I have a glass of water please?” I’m usually happy to get up and get the water.  On the other hand, if one of them calls out “THIRSTY!” (this actually happened one time and he’ll be lucky to live it down before leaving home) then not only do I fail to be filled with the desire to get him something to drink, but also visions of boarding school pop into my head. Military boarding school.

On my part, I try to be polite with the kids, for example when asking them to clear their places at the table. They do seem to appreciate being treated respectfully. Overall, given a group of people in close proximity who have to help each other out, life is nicer when people are at least moderately polite. Who knew?

Short Order Dad

Since having kids I’ve stopped treating cooking as entertainment and started treating it more like a job.  I’m short-order Dad and the goal is to get something edible on the table, rapidly and reliably.  A bit of diversity is important too, since people get tired of things quickly.

Most of the “30-minute” cookbooks suck.  First, they lie. Oh how they lie.  Jacques Pepin’s Fast Food My Way and America’s Test Kitchen 30 Minute Suppers are both perfectly good cookbooks containing many tasty recipes. But you cannot, no matter how hard you try, make most of these recipes in half an hour or less.  Clearly, timed testing by actual end-users is not a criterion for putting a recipe into this kind of book.  The second problem with this category of  cookbook is that they advocate unacceptable shortcuts (the two examples above don’t do this, but many do).  Ketchup is not an ingredient, ever — what’s so hard about that?  Other things that are unacceptable include anything frozen after being fried and anything that resembles cheese, but is not (the kids demand boxed mac and cheese sometimes, so we do make exceptions).

A fantastic example of a short order cookbook is Nigel Slater’s Real Fast Food; I’ve read every page probably twice.  The difference is that instead of relying on extensive ingredient lists and gimmicky shortcuts, his recipes are based on a small number of basic ingredients.  The fact is, you can rapidly make a large number of good things out of onions, canned tomatoes, eggs, butter/oil, cheese, pasta, rice, basic spices, potatoes, and at most a dozen other staples.  Sometimes advance prep work is needed — this does not need to be a big deal.  To make fried rice, you need cold rice from that morning or the night before.  Many recipes benefit from home-made meat stock or tomato sauce; these can be time consuming but are a perfect thing to make on a bad-weather weekend afternoon.  Tabouli tastes much better if made in advance.  A big batch of polenta gives three meals: one hot and two out of cold, sliced polenta.  In fact it is often possible to work ahead with minimal effort by just making large batches of food, when the extras can be refrigerated or frozen.  All of these kinds of advance planning are pretty easy and pay off well.  Then, when things get hectic and planning fails, we order out pizzas or get Thai food, no big deal.  But I prefer eating out to be a fun thing, not a last resort.

One way to make it easy to cook at home is to have single-dish meals.  Life is too short for thinking about salads or other side dishes, although we do have these occasionally.  A bowl of cut-up cherry tomatoes, olive oil, pepper and a bit of cheese is perfect in my opinion.  Appetizers are never necessary.  Dessert can be fruit, a chocolate bar, cookies out of the freezer, or whatever.

So what do we actually eat on a day to day basis?  Here are some of our common fast meals:

  • baked pasta, covered with home-made tomato sauce (either Nigel Slater’s quick recipe, or frozen), maybe some pork sausage, then grated mozzarella and parmesan cheese
  • fried rice
  • rice pilaf
  • sweet potato and black bean burgers
  • salad nicoise
  • frittata or omelet
  • fried pastrami, egg, and cheese sandwiches
  • white chicken chili
  • chicken noodle soup
  • tuna salad or tuna melts
  • Greek salad
  • fried vegetables and pasta, maybe with tomato sauce, topped with cheese
  • pasta salad with steamed peas, grilled chicken, browned onions and garlic, and crumbled bacon
  • sautéed scallops
  • risotto (really very easy, but lots of stirring required)
  • pizza bagels
  • crab cakes
  • hummus
  • salmon cakes
  • grilled Alaskan salmon
  • grilled sausage
  • baked sausage and potatoes
  • pancakes or crepes
  • tacos, burritos, quesadillas
  • stir fry
  • potato pancakes or potato kugel
  • lentils (Jamie Oliver has an awesome recipe)
  • polenta
  • hamburgers

Some of these don’t quite make a meal, so they’re combined with leftovers, a can of sardines, or whatever.

I’m making it sound like I’m the only cook in my house; that isn’t the case at all.  However, I do enjoy it more than Sarah does and she’s happy to do the dishes if I make the food, so that’s what often happens.

To maintain at least a veneer of civility, we have a rule that you do not criticize Dad’s cooking.  It is fine to turn green, choke, gag, leave the table, make funny faces behind my back, or whatever.  But we do not criticize.  This is a helpful guide to behavior for children whose first impulse, on hearing that dinner is anything besides baked ziti, is to scream “but I HATE that!”  Another simple thing that makes cooking work is to crack open a beer or pour a glass of wine before even starting to figure out what to make.  This just makes the rest of the process go more smoothly, especially when the little food critics learn what is about to be served.  It also helps to have hungry kids.  When I’m running the show snacking is forbidden under pain of death (or at least serious tickling) starting around 4:30.