Long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus bruijni) crossing water, Papua New Guinea , endemic, New Guinea highland forests

Long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus bruijni) crossing water, Papua New Guinea , endemic, New Guinea highland forests

Thanks to the fine folks at Wired for running their own feature, “absurd creature of the week”. They recently featured the echidna which:

lay eggs like reptiles and detect electrical fields like sharks. They’ve got the mug of an anteater and the spines of a porcupine. And of course the males have four-headed penises like … well, maybe something out of hentai?

But even more fascinating is their link to synapsids.

Synapsid tree

You can see where we diverged from the reptiles a Very Long Time Ago, but the super cool part is that the creature below is more closely related to us than to a lizard. Somewhat mind blowing.

Dimetrodon skeleton

Happy Platypus Freedom Day!

margins of safety

It was a bluebird Sunday and I was a dead weight, stuck and swinging stupidly in space, 7 feet away from the nearest solid surface in any direction. My rappel was in the midst of going awry.

Continuing down would’ve resulted in guaranteed major injury if not outright death. Swinging inward 7 feet to the rock face, was literally impossible, and only Adam West and Burt Ward would’ve been able to pull themselves up the 25 feet back to the roof lip, underneath which I was dangling.

batman and robin

It was typically windy up high near the top of Donner Pass, and shouting back up to my three partners was a lost cause. They couldn’t see me nor I them; all they knew was that the rappel rope was still taut after an abnormally long time. All I knew was that the problem solving was not going particularly well.

We’d just finished climbing One Hand Clapping as two parties of 2, so we had two 70m ropes between us. The plan was to rap off the Lizard Ledge in two separate 35m rappels. I’d go first on the blue rope while bringing the yellow rope with me, so that I could set up the second rap, all the name of efficiently getting 4 people to the ground with minimal fuss.

E coiled the yellow rope into the standard butterfly backpack configuration and handed it to me. She made a joke about coiling it for her petite size and that I was too fat for it to fit properly. I tied it around my back and indeed the tails were on the short side; I tied them into the standard square knot but didn’t have enough tail to finish them off with overhand backups. But it was a beautiful day and we were already thinking about cheeseburgers.

I ran the blue rope through my tubular rappel device and slapped on my autoblock, which is a short 8″ loop of webbing, clipped onto my harness’s leg loop with a locking biner.


I asked E if she had an autoblock setup; she said “no, do you always use one?” Ever the witty one, I joked, “well, I value my life so yeah, I always use one”. Talk about your Vertical Limit levels of foreshadowing.

vertical limit cam

Before I started lowering, I asked another party of 2 who had just completed Touch and Go where the next set of anchors were. “Directly below you” was the response.

I was confused because I had just watched them climb up from a left angled ramp below me, say, 7 o’clock, and I was standing on the edge of a ledge. Directly below me at 6 o’clock was the underside of the ledge, which is to say, an overhang.

“You sure it’s not just down that ramp to my left, where you guys just came up?”

“Directly below you dude.”

“Hmm… ok.”

Dubious, I started rappelling down the ramp they’d just come up in the 7 o’clock direction, and after about 30 feet, I saw some rap chains to my right. They were indeed directly underneath the giant ledge, at 6 o’clock from my starting point. I guess brah was right, so I pushed off the ramp and flipped the blue rope over the nose of the overhang so I was hanging in a plumb line below my rappel anchor.

That was the beginning of the fuckery.

Find the poo

Click to enlarge

Click on the photo above. Zoom in and look for the poo just to the left of “7. Touch & go 3rd pitch .10a” That’s where I was, 20 feet below the roof.

As I bounced into free space, the janky square knot holding the yellow rope on my back came undone and the rope started sliding off into oblivion, where “oblivion” was defined as “the red circle with two black Xes just to the right ‘4’ where the orange and magenta lines intersect, stopping there only long enough to bounce off the rock towards the jaunty ‘1’ very far away where the green line starts”.

I caught the yellow rope with one hand, and after checking my autoblock a few times to ensure that I myself would not go shooting off to the aforementioned “oblivion” place, cautiously retied yellow. A little tighter this time.

The roof was large enough, and the wall beneath it steep enough, that I was at least 7 feet away from the vertical surface, if not more. Vainly, gamely, I attempted to swing my body a few times to try and make contact with the vertical wall but I never moved more than 6″ off vertical. Height-wise, the chains were at my eye-level, but they may as well have been in Istanbul.

So to recap, the roof was 20′ above. The chains were impossible to gain. And down we’ve already defined as “oblivion”.

I thought briefly about tying yellow to blue and continuing to rap down even further towards oblivion, but then decided that was an idiotic plan because it involved a huge unknown, that being complete lack of knowledge whether there were more chains below me and how far away oblivion was. Another party was on the ground, just starting up One Hand Clapping and I also entertained the thought of asking them for help, but they were 2 pitches down and unlikely to reach me any time soon.

Up was the only way. It took me about 5 minutes of faffing about to reach this conclusion.

I had a single length runner made of 1/2″ tubular webbing and a second single length runner made of fancy tech webbing, probably Dyneema.

The idea was to tie both runners into prusik knots above me, clip one into my belay loop, and the other was to be used as a foot step. I could step in the lower one, stand up on it, then slide the upper one higher. I’d sit in the upper one and slide the lower one higher. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Here’s what actually happened.

First, I tied the brake side of my rappel into a figure 8 on a bight, below my autoblock. I was about to introduce perturbations into my system and although I had reasonable amounts of confidence in the procedure upon which I was about to embark, it still didn’t feel great to contemplate the idea of my prusiks failing and also my autoblock failing and then that whole oblivion thing.

I used the 1/2″ tubular webbing as the upper sling first and discovered the hard way that I couldn’t get enough friction. When I weighted that prusik, it kinda slid down the rope a bit before reluctantly catching. After making 3 or 4 attempts at “push up, then slide back down on something that Really Shouldn’t Slide”, I decided this was an undesirable feature for my ascending system.

It turns out the skinny Dyneema webbing gripped the rope much more securely, so I reconfigured that sling to be the upper one.

Next lesson was that ascending with 2x single length slings is hard, because the foot sling doesn’t reach down anywhere near your feet and it is tricky to get enough height standing in it to move the upper sling any reasonable distance.

Additionally, the rope was still running through my rap device and my autoblock, and moving rope through that entire system was … strenuous.

A bit of experimentation revealed that the trick was to commit mentally to ascending. This meant flipping upside down in my rappel position so I could get my foot into the foot sling. Every time I did that, I checked in as the Mayor of Sucktown, because all the gear strapped to me including my friend the yellow rope kept shifting around and also because going upside down in your harness is not a natural position for a climber.

After getting the high foot, the other technique was to stand up very hard while pushing my foot out in front of me. This movement allowed me to push my waist higher, and thus slide the upper sling a longer distance every repetition.

Each rep rewarded me between 2 and 3 feet of height. The most annoying part was feeding the newly gained slack through my rap device and autoblock. Perhaps it would have been easier had I taken the autoblock off, but at that point in my life, that did not seem like a wise course of action.

Every 6 feet, I retied the 8-on-a-bight below my autoblock. Safety first, y’know?

In this manner, I was able to ascend 15 feet in the 20 minutes since I’d last departed the upper rap anchor. My plan was to gain the roof, give my screaming abs a break, and then figure out part 2 of the plan.

I was about 5 feet away from the roof when the party who’d come up Touch and Go rapped down the ramp on their rope. It turns out there were chains in the ramp after all, and that’s what they meant when they said “directly below me”.

After a brief bit of discussion, since the tail ends of my blue rope were actually in the ramp, we decided that he would grab those tails and pull me in towards the ramp. I’d lower back down on rappel and be guided into him, where he was clipped into the proper anchor.

Undoing my ascension system took another small effort, but soon enough I was going back down again, this time with tension on the tail ends of my rope so that I could get back into the damn ramp. Finally, I was able to clip the proper anchor and take myself off rap. It had been an annoying 20 or 30 minutes, and I was glad for it to be over.

Bringing the rest of our party down on the blue rope, and then to the ground afterwards from the 2nd rap station proved to be mostly uneventful, and we rewarded ourselves with bacon Sriracha jerky back at our packs.


To me, the biggest takeaway is that adventures (which later blossom into epics) always stem from errors in judgement.

I had seen that party climb up the ramp with my own eyes, and I knew that rappelling off an overhanging roof is not an action to be done cavalierly. Yet for some reason, I chose not to continue down the ramp and instead opted to flip my rope over the roof into a free hanging rappel.

That decision went against my instincts, and yet I did it anyway because I chose to listen to confusing words from a 3rd party rather than trusting my own judgement. I have no excuse for my brain wandering off into stupid-landia. I’m just glad it didn’t kill me.

That said, if you’re going to make stupid decisions, at least bring enough tools to extract yourself from said decisions.

In the context of rappelling, to me, this means ALWAYS using a backup knot of some sort. Whether it’s a prusik or autoblock or whatever else, the point is that rappelling is dangerous because it is committing. Minimally, you are committing yourself to your anchor, and if you are free hanging in air, you are committed to the rest of your system if something goes south. Your 5.12 climbing skills are irrelevant if you can’t touch the actual rock, and whatever your next move is, doing it without a backup means that you have a much smaller margin of safety.

In the past, I have not always rappelled with the two minimal slings I’d need to ascend back up the rope. After this incident, I think I’m just going to start doing so. In a trad climbing situation, you probably have enough slings on you anyway. It’s harder to remember in a sport climbing situation, but I’ve also had minor excitement rapping from a 10 pitch route in Potrero Chico where all you typically need is a rope and quickdraws, and we were lucky that we had at least one trad sling with us at the time.

For those keeping track, this means that I’m now bringing an autoblock cord and two slings for any non-trivial rap.

Next, the knowledge and skills to use your rescue gear. I was lucky in that there was a clear picture in my mind on how to go up the rope, and that I have used variations of the technique in the past, although never in a situation where I was hanging free and 100% committed to the ascension system. Even so, it took me a few valuable minutes to remember the optimal way to do it.

Not a problem on a sunny, cloudless Sunday, but not something you want to be trying to remember if thunderclouds are rolling in fast and your hair is crackling in your helmet. Do yourself a favor and practice at least once in a safe situation.

Not included in this discussion are the myriad of other ways that rapping can kill you, but on a final note, every multipitch climber really needs to learn the Munter hitch, which is the friction knot you’d use to both belay and rap with if you drop your belay device. If you don’t know this knot, you are going to be a very sad panda some day and we will be your sad panda friends.

Climbing is fun. Complacency kills.

best tool for the lazy photographer i love

I’ve not had much motivation to write here lately, not sure why. Some combination of lack of emotional bandwidth, overhead using (and maintaining) a “heavyweight” piece of software like WordPress, and just general focus on living life rather than documenting every last piece of it.

xmas in Vegas

To that extent, I’ve been pretty pleased with Google Stories, a surely underpublicized piece of technology out there.

climbing in Potrero

It’s pretty brilliant. You download the G+ app Google Photos app (edit 2 June 2015) to your phone and set it to autobackup. I turn off full-size backups so that all the storage is free. Google Photos “high quality backups” are more than sufficient for most phone photos. (edit 2 June 2015)

IMG_1676 IMG_1677

And that’s it.

riding the Delta Loop

Photos upload automatically in the background, a few days later, you get an email saying your story is ready.

climbing Snake Dike!

Perfect for the lazy photog.

Memorial Day at Smith Rocks

seriously, vmware?

In my inbox tonight:

Hi Alex,

My name is Tony XXXX, I’m a recruiter at VMware. I know this message may seem out of the blue, but I came across your profile on LinkedIn and I wanted to reach out and see if you were open to new opportunities right now? VMware has openings for Kernel Developers on our ESXi VMKernel team. This position will have the option of sitting in either Palo Alto, CA or Bellevue, WA. I wanted to ask if this is an opportunity you would be interested in exploring and If so, can I send you some additional details?

Please let me know either way so I can update my records. Please also include a copy of your CV if you are interested in moving forward. Thanks in advance for the consideration.

Candidate Development Recruiter

My reply in its entirety:

Good luck, and please do feel free to escalate up your management chain that finding good kernel developers to work on a product that is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit violating our principles may be difficult.



If you read Jonathan Chait’s essay about why he, as a moderate white man with good intentions, feels like he’s being unfairly treated on the internet; if you were nodding along as a fellow moderate white person yourself, feeling somewhat alarmed by a recent trend in social justice vocality on social media, you owe it to yourself to read Arthur Chu’s response.

As MLK himself said:

the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate.

Yes, I am pissed off daily at the injustice in our society.

Yes, I have privilege as an affluent male working in tech.

Yes, I will use my privilege to fight for those without, as well as my own causes.

I refuse your moderation and calls for civil discourse.



This dude is taking things to the next level. As quoted in the Malaysian Digest:

“Externally, I am now a platypus,” he said. “My resemblance is the way I want it to be. It takes bravery to do what I’ve done and I will keep modifying my body until I am happy.”

And from Lidtime:

He added “Even after these transformation, I can normally eat, talk and even sing. I feel everything normal”.

Singing is the essence of the human spirit. Rock on dude, and happy Platypus Friday!

a tale of two dates

“Hey man, you hungry?”

Those are four of the most powerful words I know.

I was standing in line at the Civic Center Burger King, having just ordered my meal after a fairly forgetful okcupid date, and was lost in my own head when a guy standing next to me asked if I had $0.38 so he could buy a cup of water.


“I need $0.38 so I can buy a cup of water.”

“They charge for water?!”

He was holding an empty liter bottle of water in his hands and a small 6 oz crappy plastic cup. You know, the tiny free water cup. Thirty-eight fucking cents!

“No man, they’ll give me water, but I need to buy the cup.”

Normally I say no to the indigent. But this indignity made me indignant.

I fumbled out a dollar to give to him and for about 10 seconds, watched him try to pay the counter worker so he could fill his crappy 6 oz cup, and then the ridiculousness of the situation struck me.

“Hey man, you hungry?”

“Naw, I’m all good. Just wanted a cup of water.”

“Dude, I know you’re hungry. Come on, let me buy you dinner.”

“Aight, I jes’ go for some nuggets, man.”

“Get as many as you want. It’s all good.”

“20’ll do me.”

“You sure you don’t want more? How about a drink?”

“Hey you have free refills?” to the counter worker, who shakes his head. “Nah, I’m cool with this water and them nuggets. Hey you want your dollar back?”

I shook my own head. He asked my name and then introduced himself as Kevin. As I handed over my credit card for the second time, I thought I was done. Having bought the man some food, he’d go away, and I could eat my own meal while playing with my äppärät.

Kevin shambled away while I waited for my card and set his empty water bottle and slim backpack on a table. Then yelling and gesturing at me:

“Yo Alex, you wanna eat with me?”

After pausing for just long enough to think but not long enough to be awkward but also right before Kevin just kinda disappeared, I said “Yeah sure why not.”

I got my meal and sat at our table, deducing that Kevin was in the bathroom. I watched his stuff like I would watch anyone’s stuff for them in a public place near San Francisco’s Civic Center. Kevin came back and I got my first good look at him. There were tiny white spots salted on his black face. I was mildly alarmed at his skin condition until several minutes into our dinner when some of them fell off. Bits of paper towel, I decided, the cheap kind that Burger King stocks and that fall apart when they get wet.

Kevin asked me what I was doing. “You just out and about?”

“Yeah man, just came from SOMA.”

“Oh whatchoo doin’ there?”

I figured why hide anything. “Oh, I was actually just on a date.”

“Whatchoo all do onnadate?”

“Just drinks. I’m here now.”

“Shit man, I just left my girl. It’s a long story. Too long to get into. How old areya?”


A smile. “Same age as me.”

There but for the grace of god, go I.

Kevin alternated between rapid-fire questions and highly entertaining monologues.

“How long you lived out here?” (About 2 years) “Where you from?” (NJ. Where *you* from?) “I’m from Oakland, but my mom lives in Sac. I like it here in Frisco better. Spent some time in jail. Came here after that. Why’d you come here?” (Job. Weather. And where I was had too many white people. I wanted to hang with brown folks.) “Ah man, people are people, you know what I mean?”

[mildly surprising to learn that I am more pissed off about race than he was…]

“Man, I had a great summer. Went to Waterworld. Went to Magic Mountain. Went with my buddy. Was cool, but then we had to stop hanging out because he was all into me. I mean, he a cool guy and all and he’s gay, but I had to tell him I’m not into that. I mean, he was really into me, but you know, I ain’t gay. Got a little awkward. I mean, I let him suck my dick and he wanted to get all these candles out and shit. Shit man, I don’t know why I just told you that story.”

[I didn’t know why either, but it was an amazing story]

“You like football?” (Um… no, not really.) “Baseball? Basketball?” (I… don’t really watch much sports. How about you? You a Raiders fan?) “Naw, I just love good football. Raiders probably 0-10 this year. But if we talking AFC… the Broncos are good.” (Oh yeah, I like Peyton Manning. And I guess I like the Giants too. NY Giants, that is.) “Eli got more rings than Peyton.” (Right, he’s got 2.) “Ah shit, see you know a little something about football!”

“My girlfriend, I had to break up with her. You know what sadomasochism is? Man she was all into that shit and it was fun at first but then she was really into it and it started making me crazy and the more crazy I got, the more she got off on it. Man, one time she wanted me to piss on her but I didn’t want to do it but she kept asking so I pissed into a cup and then threw it on her. BAP-tized that bitch! But I had to go.”

[amazing story #2]

“You see any good movies lately? What movies you like?” (Last thing I saw was Django Unchained, and thought that was pretty good.) “Man that’s a revenge movie. You just like it because it’s shooting white people! You crazy!”

[cue long discussion about who the star of Django Unchained was without resolution]

“Man someone stole my backpack with my clothes, my phone, and my Samsung Galaxy Tab. Now I don’t got no phone!” (That’s terrible, why would someone do that? (response was a blank stare (so I guess there are stupid questions after all) followed by more monologuing)) “Backpack had the clothes I liked. This one I just went to Goodwill and got it. You work a job? That’s the good thing about being homeless I guess. Don’t nobody make you have to be nowhere. I’m like…. a nomad. A Frisco nomad!”

[a bona fide local says Frisco unabashedly, so I’m taking my cues there]

Kevin mumbled something about politics so I asked what he thought of Obama. “He’s a pawn. There’s a global elite and he’s just a pawn. He is controlled by entities that are… not of this realm. The Federal Reserve doesn’t exist. You walk into a bank and get a loan for five thousand dollars, they don’t print no five thousand dollars and give it to you, they just type that into a computer and somehow that’s money. You know that ain’t money! David Icke, you know him? You gotta read his stuff. That’s I-c-k-e. Reptilian theory, 4th dimension. Small global elite rule everything man. It’s all there.”

And while I thought Kevin actually had a pretty good grasp on how our modern banking system works, he lost me a bit when he mentioned reptilian theory.

In any case, an hour had passed, and I was ready to go. I’d already insisted earlier that he eat my onion rings because “I was full” (which he did with gusto), and now I asked if he wanted the rest of my soda, but he laughed at me when I said it was Diet Coke.

“Well, what do you like to drink instead?”

“Dr. Pepper man. But you heard that guy, no free refills.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Walking up to the counter, I handed the service worker my mostly full cup. “I ordered this Diet but didn’t really like it. Can I get a Dr. Pepper instead, please?” (Sure, no problem.) I can’t remember the last time I used my class privilege in such a blatant manner no matter how minor. But hey, I asked politely, so no harm, right?

Kevin said, “Hey man, why’d you help me? I wish I didn’t get my Galaxy Tab stolen. I’d show you a movie to say thank you. Hey what’s your number? I’ll get my phone back and you gotta read that Icke I-c-k-e and you can tell me what you think.”

I paused again… and then thought, fuck it, why not. I gave it to him.

I won’t call that girl back, but if I get a random text from Kevin, I’ll answer it.