Photo by Piotr Zurek

Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico is legendary among Boy Scouts and those who work with them--214 square miles of desert, forest and mountains in New Mexico. A Philmont trek is the highest ambition of many a scout troop. A Philmont "crew" carries their food and shelter on their backs for 50 miles or more over varied train. They sleep in a different place each night, some of which offer activities such as rock climbing or horseback riding, others being nothing more than an X on the map and great scenery.

I don't know who coined the precept Be present, but I heard it first from Leo Babuta. I find it particularly appropriate to the Age of Distraction that we live in. I doubt that medieval peasants needed reminding to "be present"; what else did they have to think about? For me personally, this precept is best embodied in an experience I had at Philmont.

To set the stage both geographically and spiritually, this story takes place on the last day of a six-day trek that I undertook with my sons, both scouts. Most treks are ten days, but our troop favored the short treks that come at the end of the season. Certainly after five days I felt satisfied with the amount of sleeping in the dirt I had done. A shorter trek is not necessarily less strenuous, because one may cover much the same distance in a shorter time period.

The Philmont experience begins at base camp--a huge city of semipermanent tents. I imagine this is how refugees must live. In contrast to most Boy Scout camps, which offer a varied program of sports and naturecraft and sing-alongs and ceremonies, the Philmont program is all about the trek--either preparing for it, or undertaking it, or cleaning up afterward. The first day is spent with an instructor/guide (called a "ranger") who helpfully describes the many ways one is likely to die out there.

Base camp is literally at lower altitude than most of the reservation. A rugged spine of peaks stabs toward base camp and barely misses it. (You can see this on the map below--click for a larger version) The highest peak on this ridge, the Tooth of Time, is suitably imposing (though by no means the highest point in Philmont). Hiking along the Tooth of Time ridge and down into base camp is a popular finale to one's trek.

Water is the critical variable at Philmont. Sources of drinkable water are fairly scarce and far between. Human beings need lots of water, and water is heavy, so carrying more than half a day's supply is not easy. Thus each day's trek is organized around the water sources to be found along the way.

Our crew's itinerary called for us to set out on the next-to-last day from the Clark's Fork camp, climb up to the Tooth of Time ridge, hike along the ridge to the Tooth Ridge camp and spend the night there, and then make the hike down into base camp the next morning. This was a great finale to our trek, but it also meant having to carry all our water for the last two days. There are no springs atop the ridge--consider that water runs downhill below ground as well as above and you'll see why.

So for the final two days even foregoing all cooking and no washing, we would still have extra water weight to carry. We coped with this (as other crews do) by eating up our cookable food on the previous day and planning to subsist on crackers and trail mix, etc. for the final day and a half.

The next-to-last-day's hike up to the Tooth of Time Ridge was naturally strenuous but enjoyable. After five days on the trail you start hurting in places you never noticed before. I had it easier than one of the other adults in our group, who was doggedly marching along on a trick ankle that had locked up, but I was feeling decidely sore all along the soles of my feet. But once atop the ridge we could look out over the landscape for miles in both directions. We tried to triangulate the visible landmarks to fix our location on the map (a pastime of diminishing utility in the age of GPS).

We hit the Tooth of Time peak about half an hour before reaching Tooth Ridge camp where we were to spend the night, making it just in time to seek shelter from one of the common sudden brief torrential storms--half of us under a hastily-erected sheet of plastic, the other half hiding in holes in the gnarly rock formations that dot the camp.

You can imagine the mixture of satisfaction and anticipation we felt as we got up for the last time on the trail. A few more hours of hiking--all downhill--and we would be tasting all the comforts of civilization. Chairs to sit in! All the water you can drink! Toilets that flush!

It was a beautiful clear morning. All we had to do was pack up our gear, wolf down our last few bags of crackers and trail mix, and hit the trail.

And this was the morning I learned that crackers and trail mix can be the best meal of your life, if you pay attention to your surroundings.

All it took was an extra fifteen minutes. Our crew decided to make an event of our crude breakfast by having it atop one of the large rock formations around. The view was unexpected. Looking out over the valley, we found that the sky was clear only from our vantage point--the valley was hidden under a carpet of clouds. As we ate, the sun came up from the other edge of the carpet and illuminated it.

Since then, I try to remember in throwaway moments--standing in line, waiting for a movie to start--to stop and look around. You never know what's there to be seen.

Another Good Reason to Study Languages

Because it helps keep you from going senile. Barking up the Wrong Tree points to a study showing that multilingual persons maintain better mental function in late old age. This effect is seen even after controlling for correlated but distinct variables such as general level of education.


One of the most regrettable decisions of my misspent youth was not taking the typing course offered by my high school. Others may have foreseen the huge amount of time I was destined to spend in front of a keyboard, but not I. At the time, typing was something that secretaries did, or maybe college students, but not most people.

Another skill I wish I had developed better is that of shorthand. Although my high school had no such classes, we did have quite an old shorthand textbook at home. I learned the rudiments and used it to take notes in college, but I never became a real expert.

Shorthand still appeals to me. Not for practical reasons--I almost never write anything out in longhand any more (except mathematics, where shorthand is little help). But then I frequently undertake to learn things for impractical reasons. I like shorthand as a prime example of lucid thinking and brutal efficiency.

Several shorthand systems have been devised. I studied the Gregg system. Based on a superficial glance at the others, I still like Gregg the best--it seems the most fluid and natural.

The example above shows the Lord's Prayer. The first mark, that looks like a smile, is the letter r, which also represents the word "our". The last mark in the first line consists of the shorthand letters k-m representing the word "come". The last squiggle in the second line shows the shorthand letters b-r-e-d (see the smile in the middle of the squiggle?), or the word "bread" (Gregg shorthand works phonetically). Generally one squiggle corresponds to one word, but sometimes a phrase of short words is also written as a single squiggle. For example, the second squiggle in the second line consists of the letters l-b-d-n, representing the phrase "will be done".

Every communication channel has a certain (greater or lesser) level of redundancy. For shorthand, the level of redundancy is sacrificed as much as possible for the sake of brevity. A shorthand message carries more potential for misunderstanding than an ordinary handwritten message, but the system is designed to be error-tolerant. For example, the inverted smile is the k sound (as in the word "come" above). Lengthen the inverted smile (maybe by accident), and it becomes a hard g, so "come" becomes "gum". But the two words are similar enough in sound that a reader is likely to understand that "come" was intended.

By contrast, suppose you write in a letter to your Aunt Sadie that you "reamed the clog out with a plumber's snake." But you have sloppy handwriting, so "clog" comes out looking like "dog." Suddenly your Christmas checks from Aunt Sadie are a lot smaller and you have no idea why. This would never happen with shorthand. "Clog" might come out looking like "glog" or "clock" or "croc", but never "dog."

Shorthand is almost a lost art, destroyed by recording machines and the now universal necessity for everyone to use a keyboard. Shorthand could be extremely useful in the coming era of touchscreens. It would be the ideal interface for entering text into an iPhone, for example. I predict, however, that it would never catch on--because in our day anything demanding effort without immediate gratification has gone out of style.

A Drunkard Walks Through His To-Do List

Photo by St Stev

Sometime in my adult life I acquired a fascination with time management. (This marked part of my transition from slacker status.) The most basic stage of time management is making a to-do list. Over the years I've noticed an interesting phenomenon with this list. I've talked to friends who maintain similar lists and found that their lists show the same behavior, although they never notice it until I point it out and don't necessarily understand it even after I explain it.

This phenomenon is related to what mathematicians (and probabilists) call a drunkard's walk. The name comes from the idea of a drunk attempting to walk home starting from a lamppost. This is not your ordinary everyday drunk, but a mathematically idealized drunk, so that each step he--he because the concept of the drunkard's walk dates back to the dark ages before women were expected to engage in public drunkenness--each step he takes has a completely random direction unrelated to the steps before or after. It turns out you can analyze the drunk's motion in considerable detail, and although it is of course impossible to predict the drunk's exact location at any time (except at the very start), you can make a lot of other predictions, such as that the drunk will return to the lamppost with probabilistic certainty (meaning it is theoretically possible that this would happen, but the probability is zero).

You can model a simple version of the drunkard's walk using coin flips. Suppose he can only choose to go north or south along the street. Start flipping the coin. Every time it comes up heads, move him one step to the north. Every time it comes up tails, move him one step to the south. Probability theory tells us several things about his path, even though his exact position is impossible to predict. Some of these may seem paradoxical:

1. The drunkard's average distance from the starting point (more precisely, the standard deviation) equals the square root of the number of steps taken. For example, after nine steps , the drunkard may be anywhere from zero to nine steps away from the lamppost, but if you take a large number of drunkards each staggering away from his own lamppost, their average distance from the lamppost after nine steps will be very close to three steps. After a hundred total steps the average distance from the lamppost is ten steps, and so on.

2. With probabilistic certainty, the drunkard returns to the lamppost, not once, but infinitely many times.

This is assuming the coin is perfectly fair; that is, the odds of getting heads or tails are exactly the same. If there is even the slightest imbalance--say heads comes up slightly more often than tails, then something quite different happens. The drunkard, although still taking both northward and southward steps, slowly drifts to the north. Pick any spot on the street north of the starting point. The drunkard is likely to cross this position several times, traveling northward the first time, southward the second, and so on, but eventually he crosses the point in the northward direction for the last time, and never comes south of that point again. Given enough time, he travels northward a mile--or a thousand.

Here's what does not happen--in any scenario: the drunkard wanders back and forth within a certain section of street, without going outside it. Even a thousand-mile section of street is not enough room--the drunkard eventually will exit from one end or the other (although he might later go back, depending on the scenario).

Now back to my to-do list. For a long time I assumed that items got added to the list at random. Stuff happens--your car headlight burns out, a raccoon crawls under the porch and dies--and you have to deal with it. And items get subtracted from the list essentially at random, because different tasks require different amounts of time to dispose of. And in the decades that I have been keeping a list, the number of items has always fluctuated between 15 and 50, usually averaging around 30. In particular, I have never completely cleared out the list.

But this doesn't add up, because if the addition and subtraction of list items is random, the length of the list is essentially a drunkard's walk. The drunkard takes a northward step--add an item to the list. The drunkard takes a southward step--subtract an item from the list. The one big difference is that once the list reaches zero, you can't subtract anything else. It's as if there is a wall at the lamppost which keeps the drunkard from traveling further south.

So, two possible scenarios: First is that on average I am able to clear things off the list as quickly as they come in. Because it's random, the list would grow and shrink randomly, but the analysis of the drunkard's walk shows that the drunk would occasionally come back to the lamppost again and again--i.e., the list would shrink to zero sometimes. But my list has never been at zero since I started keeping it.

So the second scenario: Maybe I can't clear items off the list as quickly as they come in. In this case, the analysis shows that the drunkard drifts to the north without limit. In other words, my list would still grow and shrink randomly, but over the long term get longer... and longer... and longer. But that doesn't happen either.

Conclusion? The list is not random. Someone (face it--probably me) is controlling the length of the list. And if I'm not happy with the average length of the list (which I'm not--it's a little long for my taste, although I've decided that zero is not the optimum length) it is within my power to change it.

I've asked friends about their to-do lists, and everyone has the same story. The list fluctuates around some average number of items but never gets too long or too short. Everyone feels controlled by the list but generally doesn't recognize that they must be controlling it.

(BTW the analysis of the drunkard's walk is very robust--pretty much all you need is some randomness either on the addition of items to the list or the subtraction therefrom, and you can draw these same conclusions.)