Saturday, April 20, 2013

Backpacking in the Grand Canyon

Last year in February, Adam and I visited the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon is almost 5,000 feet difference in elevation between the rim of the canyon and the river at the base of the canyon. We went on two separate dayhikes last year, each about halfway down, because there were ominous signs everywhere saying "DO NOT ATTEMPT TO HIKE TO THE RIVER AND BACK IN ONE DAY. YOU WILL DIE OF OVERHEATING AND DEHYDRATION." Nevermind that both times we were there in winter or early spring and it was actually pretty cold. Anyway, from the halfway point, we could see glimpses of the river and, in the famous words of Liz Lemon, we want to go to there. 

I can't express it adequately, but I really like the Grand Canyon. Not only is it an amazing giant gaping crack in the ground, but it's a very smoothly operated national park, and last year we partook in awesome things like a cabin-esque room right on the rim where we actually woke up to watch the sunrise, and a tour of the cliff-hanging house of these old-timey photographer brothers who made a living out of exploring and photographing the crazy nature around them. But still, I wanted to get down to the river. And figure out what the mysterious "Phantom Ranch" was. All we knew was that it had a "canteen" and served beer, because we saw mules carrying empty cans of Tecate up from the bottom of the canyon. 

This year, we were already in Arizona for a wedding. We weren't exactly planning to go back, partly because by the time we decided we could go back, it seemed impossible to get a reservation at Phantom Ranch and hard to get a backcountry permit. I was expecting April to be the extremely pleasant, not-so-hot season that everyone clambers into the canyon. A friend, Igor, also wanted to visit the canyon, so we made a deal that if he went and got a permit, we would drive up from wherever we were in Arizona and join him. That plan worked amazingly. We got a call at 11am that permits were in hand, drove up that day, stayed in a hotel on the rim overnight, and then wandered into the  canyon in the morning to meet Igor at the bottom.

brr cold hiking!!

Here we are at the visitor's center on the South Rim. It turns out that early April is not necessarily ultra warm and pleasant. It started snowing on us right as we were filling up our water bottles with chilly hands, and while everyone else probably went to a cafe or their rooms, we trudged off down the trail.

the grand canyon doesn't look so big right now

Ahh, look at the view from Ooh Ahh Point! Good thing we'd seen it last year.

so much texture from the cloud shadows!

Our hiking out into crummy weather paid off, because it eventually cleared up and looked quite nice. Different lighting and colors than what I saw last year. More cool blues.

CAMP!! Igor and a new friend Adel are there!!!

It's pretty rough walking downhill for 5,000 feet with a heavy pack. I felt like I used up all the muscles in my legs and it took days for them to grow back. But we made it down, to our first stop at Bright Angel Campground, where we found Igor and his new friend Adel! Rendezvous in the middle of a giant canyon are pretty amazing. We had stopped by the backcountry office earlier to ask what to do, and they were super nice and laid back, saying, "Yeah! We see the reservation! Just hike on down there and look for your friend! It'll be great!" The campground was 50%-75% full.

The campground, which is right by Phantom Ranch, is along the bank of Bright Angel Creek, so named because it was a source of nice, clean, fresh water. Speaking of clean, fresh water, the campground had sinks, soap, hand dryers, and flush toilets. It was the most luxurious campground I've ever been at. We peered in the window of the Phantom Ranch canteen, but they were having their dinner for people who'd reserved dinners and it wouldn't open up again to the "public" until 8pm, by which time we were comfortably nestled in our own camp.

plateu point back to indian gardens

Luckily, we didn't hike back up all in one day. We stopped at Indian Gardens, which I'd dayhiked to last year, which can be seen as the patch of green trees in the distance in the center of this photo.

igor sketching

igor photographing adel

From Indian Gardens, we explored out to Plateau Point where photos were taken and sketches were sketched.

adam and kathleen

The third day, with legs that were still extremely exhausted and knees that were unhappy, we made it back to the top, pausing for many a rest and photo opportunity along the way. The trail has nice rest houses (with impressively not-smelly compost pit toilets) where we impressed a good many hikers with our tales of hiking all the way down and back. A pesky squirrel also ate through a zipper on Igor's backpack and stole some cliffbar. Except for the squirrel damage, it was an excellent trip.

A map of the trail from Brendan Caffrey:


Trip summary:

  • Day 1: South Kaibab Trail from rim to Bright Angel Campground (~7 miles, ~5 hours)
  • Day 2: Bright Angel Trail from Bright Angel Campground to Indian Gardens (~4.7 miles, ~4 hours) plus 3 mile roundtrip hike to Plateau Point from the campground.
  • Day 3: Bright Angel Trail from Indian Gardens to the rim (~4.5 miles, ~4 hours)


It turns out that Adam and I are pretty fancy when it comes to backpacking food. Maybe if we were going for more than 3 days, we would be more efficient with food, but this time we had things like:
  • Fresh zucchini 
  • Fresh avocado
  • Boxed wine (it comes in the cutest little 0.5 liter boxes!!)

a fancy lunch

And we prepared some new meals like:
  • Taco couscous: couscous with taco seasoning, canned chicken, and canned salsa
  • Mashed potatoes and vienna sausages (kind of weird)
  • Fresh burrito/tacos with tortillas, cheese, zucchini, and avocado
Now I'm hungry! I also am eager for the Seattle area to warm up (and dry up a little) so we can do more local hiking.

Mturk reactions to profile pictures

Feeling down? Pay people on the internet to say nice things about you!

Not really... This was more about seeing what people would write when asked for their impression of a photo

This post is one part mechanical turk tutorial and one part experiment about what a profile photo says about a person and if other people can usefully describe their impressions.

Part 1: Mturk stuff

I have another blog post bitching about external hits and a super old mturk API. This time, I just used the website because my job fit one of the templates. I did, however, call upon some extra wisdom that is not obvious on the site that I will mention here.

Mturk build-a-hit within the mturk website. Adapted image transcription template.


Wisdom nugget 1: Mturk just wants a nice HTML form.

The mturk hit building website has a HTML-like editor for setting up a job. One might expect the WYSIWYG editor to include mturk-friendly primitives. Like places to enter text and places to show images like you saw in the templates. Alas, no.

I'm here to tell you that you just need to go into the HTML view and write your own damn HTML form elements (without the form tag). Don't forget to give your form elements names, otherwise they will be ignored. And if you have no named form elements, mturk will get mad at you. I made a textarea named impression.

<textarea rows="4" cols="50" name="impression"></textarea>

That's pretty much it. Mturk will display your html chunk inside itself. Then workers will enter stuff into your form fields, and mturk will save it in a very reasonable way that you can view later and download as a csv file.

Wisdom nugget 2: Mturk template variable things.

You might wonder, how do I customize a job, eh? What if I have a list of photos I want feedback on? To do that, define your own variables inside your job layout. I had this line, with ${image_url} being the variable in question.

<p><img src="${image_url}" style="margin-right: 10px;" alt="image_url" /></p>

Then once I saved my job layout thing, (sorry, I don't care to figure out the exact vocabulary... the website is pretty straight forward, except when it's not) I made actual jobs that actual people could do by uploading a file that defined my variables. It looked like this, with the variable name(s) at the top. I know you can have multiple variables by using tabs (or maybe commas) to separate them.


Viewing Mturk results

I guess they intended people to spend a small amount of time making jobs and a very large amount of time actually dealing with the results/finished work. So the job results viewer is pretty slick.

Watching other people get work done is oddly satisfying.

View of the results. See my image_url field and a textarea field I had named "impression".

Great, now that you know about html forms and csv files defining the variables of your jobs.... you can go off and make simple mturk tasks super easily! If you don't want to do that right now and instead want to hear about the experiment I just ran, continue reading.

Part 2: Profile picture reaction experiment

CSE homepage, Facebook, Flickr 1, Flickr 2, Github, Google+, Linkedin

Whether we like it or not, the images we display on our online profiles affect peoples' impressions of us. I realized I had five different online profile images across five sites, and while I had vague reasons for picking those particular images, I've never actually validated what impressions other people get from looking at those images. For example, I use a hand-drawn picture for github, because it's where I craft other things, like code. I used those five images here, and two other recent ones that I don't think I'd ever use as a profile picture, but that I kind of like.


I paid people $0.11 per impresion. I didn't figure out how to limit one worker to one picture so they could do multiple hits and see multiple pictures of me. Here's the text they saw:

This is a public photo of me on the internet and I want to know what it says about me.

  • What impression of me does this photo give you?
  • What could I change about the photo to have it give a more positive impression of me?

Honestly, this worked better than I expected. I thought people might be too harsh or too nice or too creepy, but I think the responses are reasonable. The main suggestions were to smile more and maybe remove my glasses.

very wonderful and very attractive photo.
photo clarity was very bad
hidden thoughts, lonely, thoughtful, shy, healthy, self-conscious, camper, adventurer, enjoys hiking, nice scenery
This is my current facebook profile. I like it because Adam took it, it's got a nostalgic feeling, and I think I look pretty. The internet requested that the background be changed to the sea. I could be up for that, the sea is nice. There was also this kind of cheesy suggestion: "The only thing I would change is to have a photo with the sun shining bright and with you having a radiant smile on your face." One radiant smile coming up.

mountain, desert, morning, happy, adventurer, explorer, free, interesting, intelligent, dark, silent, calm, nervous, gloomy, docile
I think this is a cool picture. Taken in the grand canyon last week, at a location we could only be at at sunset because we were camping down there. I wouldn't use it as a profile picture because the internet is right, it's too dark and too gloomy. My favorite comment, though, is that it's "a little strange, in a good way."

playful, bold, tourist, tracker, nerdy, curious, cute, sweet, sexy, happy, calm, relaxed
Here's another grand canyon picture that I would not use as a profile picture because I know how long I'd been without a shower when the picture was taken. This is more of a "I was here, I looked like this as I was hiking out" picture. One piece of feedback was, "could tone down a little bit." Maybe that means the brightness/shadows. Another comment was to look more directly into the camera.

nice, pretty, cool, popular, attractive, curious, not smiling, judging
A drawing I traced of myself as my github/gravatar picture. Someone said, "I could feel clear sense of judgement in your eyes and it is not positive." Other suggestions were to smile more and face the camera. This one I might actually change, if I can find a different picture of myself that I think still conveys hacker/nerd/artist. 

anxious, sympathetic, eyes are beautiful, silent, speak no evil, funny, cool, wild, weird
I didn't want to give Google+ too much attention, so I uploaded this artsy-farsty blank face picture. I think it's kind of cool, but I know it's a bit weird. Mturk people wanted a nose and mouth to be present, and someone said, "weird and a little disturbing, maybe you're a goth or a zombie lover." Maybe! Honestly, that's a fine thing for viewers of my Google+ profile to think.

natural, cute, sweet, calm, gentle, charming, smart, intelligent, redhead, happy, pleasant, sophisticated, alive and confident
Taken by the department photographer, this became my "professional" portrait on Linkedin. It feels a bit awkward to me, and I wish my chin was more defined than it is. The internet seems to think it's good, though. It's definitely giving the right impression for its purpose, even if it doesn't feel like "me" to me. Someone said, "This picture gives quite positive impression about you. It may be because of the mild smile and the happy eyes. That specs make you look like an office lady." Someone also suggested moving the glasses up a bit and smiling more. Those sound like good suggestions to me.

serious, quiet, dreamy, reserved, friendly, reasonable, cute, far away thoughts, wonder what you're thinking about, inquisitive, deep
Finally, here's the picture on my academic homepage. It feels more "me" than the previous one. Yup, just hangin' out in a tree, smiling a little bit and looking thoughtful... People had suggestions for improving it, though: smile more, lose the glasses, wear more makeup (although it might be okay to not have much makeup if you're outside, especially in a tree), face the camera. I could do those things, but then I might look less thoughtful and inquisitive! Something to consider, though.

Wrap up

So it seems that my prompt worked pretty well and mturk users provided reasonable feedback and even tried to provide a reading of my emotional state. People's impressions jive pretty well with what I intended, though it did get me thinking.  I might even update one or two of those pictures based on their suggestions.