Visiting the Grand Canyon: Part 3

Continued from Part 2.

Early on October 5th we got up, had a delicious breakfast at the B&B, and drove back in to Page to the Colorado River Discovery headquarters for the first half of our two-part all-day adventure: a Hummer ride to a slot canyon followed by a boat trip on the river.  The slot canyon tour was only four of us, plus the guide, who, after learning we were all from Northern California and Washington, spent half the time apologizing for the fact that we had to take a Hummer (there was a lot of off-roading and steep drops, and he demonstrated the full capacity of the vehicle in the process).   He used the other half of the time to point out where to take the best photos of the canyon, and what camera settings to use.  Apparently taking photos of the canyon is considered the primary reason to visit!  He also showed us the different types of native plants, which are surprisingly varied and interesting.

The canyon itself was beautiful and quiet, especially in the morning light as we saw it.  It's only a few feet wide at certain points, and nearly 30 feet deep, so one should never visit without a guide who knows the weather patterns.  When it rains, the canyons fill up with water, and flash floods can come up in minutes; it doesn't even have to be raining at the canyon for it to fill, since the flood waters travel for miles toward the river.  The area is beautiful and potentially deadly at the same time.

After the canyon tour, we went back to the headquarters and had lunch, then waited to board a bus for our river trip.  The river tour was with a large group - we were on a pontoon boat with about 12 other people, plus the guide, and there were half a dozen similar boats - and was much more of a production.  To access the river, the bus has to descend a long tunnel cut beside the canyon, passing through federally-protected areas to the base of the Glen Canyon Dam.  Glen Canyon Dam is what creates Lake Powell and the Lake Powell Recreation Area above, and although not as large as the Hoover Dam, was still very impressive, especially from the water.  To get to the boats, we had to walk about 100 feet from the bus across part of the restricted "back of house" area for the dam, and they made everyone wear hard hats for those 100 feet.  It was pretty comical, but whatever makes the security people happy!

Tiebacks grouted in the rock face to keep the rock from spalling

Once at the boats, we were off on our cruise of the Colorado River, finally getting face to face with the author of all the canyon landscapes we had seen so far.  The weather was brutally hot and the canyon was without any shade, but the river was cold, and with the air moving from the speed of the boats, it wasn't too bad.  The rock formations are beautiful along the canyon walls, but it's difficult to get a sense of scale.  The canyon is about 900 feet deep, we were told, at Glen Canyon, which is much shallower than at the Grand Canyon, but still crazy deep.

The coloration on the sides of the canyon are from bacterial oxidation of the minerals leaching out of the rock.  It takes thousands of years for this "desert varnish" to form, and is easily destroyed by acid rain or erosion.  Depending on the mineral content and the light, some of it sparkles, and it comes in many colors.  The petroglyphs (rock carvings) at many sites in the area, which are themselves hundreds of years old in some cases, are made by scraping off this material, which has not grown back in all that time.  Apparently the thing to do on these tours is to invent interesting (read: stupid) names for the shapes in the rocks and then tell them to the group, so that the only thing one can see afterward is the shape that's been identified.  Ergo, Lincoln Pez Dispenser, below.

Abraham Lincoln Pez Dispenser.  You can't not see it once I've told you it's there.
Our guide discovered that one of the passengers was interested in birds, and thereafter took care to point out all the birds and other animals we could see along the way.  We did see a coyote taking a drink, plus other assorted birds.  The highlight of the trip was right at the end, when the bird watcher noticed what turned out to be a California condor circling overhead.  We weren't sure until we got home and analyzed the picture, but the bird's tags were clearly visible when we zoomed in.  California condors are endangered, with about 200 of them living in the wild, and about 400 total alive.  They went extinct in the wild in the 1980s and since then have been re-released in batches.  It was very exciting to see the condor, and the bird watcher commented that that alone was worth the price of the trip for him!

After our boat trip, we returned to the B&B to rest, stopping on the way to look out over Lake Powell.  We went to bed, exhausted, for some rest before our final day of the trip: driving back to Las Vegas, along the north side of the canyon.  After another delicious breakfast, we headed out.  On the way we stopped at a dinosaur bones info site, which explained the types of fossils found in the area, and then decided to check out Valley of Fire State Park.  It took us forever to find it, but once there, most of it was pretty impressive.  Parts of the park look exactly like the Old West movies where the outlaws lie in wait for the heroes to ride down the path.  Apparently some of the area was actually the hideout of some outlaws in the past.  After visiting a few sites there, including an unimpressive petrified wood exhibit, we completed our drive back to Las Vegas, stopped again at the amazing BBQ place under the highway, and headed to the airport.

We think this is Elephant Rock?  Probably?

Rocks!  More of them!
Overall, it was a great trip, despite some forgetting-of-maps and driving-in-circles and consumption of far too many calories in the form of granola bars, for lack of better food options.  We really did pick the best time of year (or at least we were told so by literally every person we met), as the weather was great, and there were no crowds.  Las Vegas was weird, Page was boring, but the rocks rocked.  Deserts are a great place to see what the earth has been up to over the past millennia.  As some of the exhibits we saw eloquently described, it's here that we can see the forces of water, wind, and gravity/compression at work, compacting the layers of soil, then eroding them.  Yet despite the seeming harshness of the environment, plants, animals, and insects find ways to thrive.  I'm glad that much of this amazing area has been preserved as national park for everyone to be able to enjoy.

Visiting the Grand Canyon: Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

By late afternoon on Friday, October 3rd, we'd reached the Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim.  We checked in to the Yavapai Lodge, where we were staying, and headed over to the canyon rim to see what we could see.  The view was lovely; we managed to arrive just about at sunset.  We walked along the rim in the village area, looked into the El Tovar - the oldest hotel on the property - and had dinner at the Bright Angel Restaurant.  Then it was time for bed in preparation for our hike the next day.

If you know us, you know we are not morning people.  So on Saturday, we did the best we could, and managed to get out of the hotel, eat breakfast, gather some snacks, and get on the bus to the trailhead by around 10am.  In the parking lot we saw a huge elk wandering around, so be on the lookout for nature everywhere!  For our hike, we took the Bright Angel Trail, which starts right in the village.  And then it was a long walk down the side of the canyon, fortunately mostly in shade and at the perfect temperature. Most of the way down, we walked along with a group composed of a woman with her 80-year-old father and a guide.  We made it our goal to go farther than this adventurous gentleman.  We arrived at the first rest station, the 1.5 Mile Resthouse, around lunchtime and had our lunch.  The other group turned around at that point, and we decided to head back as well rather than continue on, since we had a schedule to meet; we may not have made it further, but at least we made it as far as they did!  We were back up to the top around 2 or 3pm, and at the same time, there were crazy people returning from having hiked to the river and back that same morning.  Apparently this is something people train for, like running a marathon, and come back to do annually.  Matching t-shirts seem to be part of the draw.  After resting a bit, we then walked along the Rim Trail for some great views back toward the village.

The canyon is so massive that it's hard to get a good sense of it.  It hardly feels like a discrete feature, in the way that a mountain or a rock formation does; it's an entire landscape.  At the top, you can't see the river, and I don't think we saw it at all on our hike.  What's really amazing is to consider that the river carved this entire landscape over time (with some help from erosion and uplift).  It would be great to be able to do the whole hike down to the river, but there's no way I could get back up the same day, and I'm not much for camping...  so it's probably not something I'll ever do.  I'm still glad that I got to see this natural wonder.

After the hike we were pretty tired, but not too bad, and ready to continue on.  If I went back, I'd probably want to start earlier and try to make it to the 3 Mile point.  We had such a packed schedule on this trip that there just wasn't time to do more, but I think we got a pretty good idea of what the canyon is like.

Our next destination:  Page, Arizona, where we would visit a slot canyon and actually touch the Colorado River.  On the way there, we stopped at the Desert View Watchtower, from which we could actually glimpse the river at the bottom of the canyon.  The Watchtower was built in 1932 by architect Mary Colter, modeled after Native American watchtowers of the region, but much taller (about 70 feet tall).  The views from the top were carefully planned, and are indeed impressive.  Finally, we could see the river!

After this stop, we kept driving until we arrived in Page, and then across the Utah border to Dreamkatcher B&B, where we would spend two nights.  This was the nicest accommodation of our trip, and I would definitely recommend it!  Eric & Jarod were wonderful hosts and their breakfasts were amazing, which is saying something since I'm not a big fan of breakfast in general.  We didn't get to try out the rooftop hot tub, but compared to staying anywhere in Page, I think this was the clear winner.

After checking in, we checked out Big John's BBQ in Page for dinner, which was mediocre, as was all the food we had in Page.  But we weren't there for the food, and what we did find was pretty spectacular.

Continued in Part 3.


Visiting the Grand Canyon: Part 1

Five days.  Four nights.  Three states.  Two type-A personalities.  One really big canyon.

Last October we took our first "real" vacation ever, just the two of us.  I had been hoping to visiting the Grand Canyon ever since I took "The Dynamic Earth" (aka "Rocks for Jocks") in college, where the professor, Alex Glass, somehow convinced me that geology is awesome.  Let me tell you, that man can make rocks interesting.  (It helped that he included random Star Wars references in many of his lectures.)  Anyway, being the supportive spouse that he is, Justin agreed to visit the Grand Canyon with me, we picked a time that seemed like it would have good weather with fewer crowds, and off we went.

Since I had never been to Las Vegas, we decided to start there, spend a day and a night, then spend four days completing the "Grand Circle," a 700 mile, 12 hour drive around the canyon.  On our way we passed through three states, several Native American reservations, and multiple state and national parks, finally ending back in Vegas for our flight home.

As a dutiful student of architectural history, of course I have read Learning from Las Vegas, that seminal work of postmodern architectural writing.  The book dissects and ultimately approves of the "American vernacular" of neon signs, car-scale design, and the "decorated shed," the utilitarian building with applied ornament.  Written in the 1960s-70s by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, the book is an illustrated foray into the heart of what is now the old Las Vegas strip, before the mega-malls and glass towers came to town.  If you're still trying to figure out what happened to Modernism, I suggest you read this book.  In any event, on our visit I hoped to find at least a piece of what Venturi & Scott Brown saw on their pilgrimages to Sin City with their Yale architecture students of yore, and so we found ourselves at the Neon Museum.  This was one of the glowing highlights of our time in Las Vegas, together with a truly wonderful barbeque restaurant under a highway overpass.  We took the night tour, when the enormous neon signs are illuminated (mostly from the outside, although a few restored ones are self-illuminated), and one can more easily imagine the feeling of years gone by.

The museum gift shop / visitor's center is housed inside a repurposed and relocated motel lobby, which is itself fun to see.  I recommend it.  The rest of our time in Las Vegas was spent at the pretty terrible National Atomic Testing Museum (an exhibit on Area 51 involving fake science on aliens?  give me a break) and trying to sleep despite extremely loud amplified sound until past 2am at the Downtown Grand Hotel.  Don't stay there.

Having survived our 18 hours or so in Las Vegas, we headed out of town as quickly as possible to see the very big things on our itinerary.  Our first stop:  the Hoover Dam.  We can confirm that it is, indeed, very big.  We went on the Dam Tour, which takes you both to the power station at the base on the dam and inside the dam itself; if you have the time, I definitely recommend doing that over just the power plant tour.  Our guide showed us a tiny vent on the outside face of the dam, then took us there where we could look out, back at the point where we began.  It was an incredible view, and was amazing to think of what was accomplished in the 1930s with a whole lot of cheap labor and reinforced concrete.

Until recently, the highway actually passed across the top of the dam, which as you can imagine, was a safety risk.  Now there's a quite nice bridge downstream of the dam that carries the highway traffice and has a pedestrian overlook.  If you're interested in learning more about the dam, check out: this website from the National Park Service and this one from the Land Reclamation Bureau, which built the dam.  I was surprised to learn that flood control was one of the stated primary objectives of the dam, rather than simply for energy production.  Apparently catastrophic flooding was common before the whole series of dams was built that now controls the Colorado River.

Inside the power station
Leaving the Hoover Dam, we continued southeast until we reached I-40, then headed east, parallel with the Grand Canyon.  When we reached the 64, we headed north.  Before the end of the day, we made it to the South Rim Visitor's Center, Grand Canyon National Park.

To be continued in Part 2.


ARE We Done Yet? - Yes.

I knew this day would come eventually...  And last Thursday was it:  the day I finally finished the ARE.  NCARB even sent me a congratulatory e-mail!  My official test time:  March 15, 2014 to March 21, 2015 (date of my first and last exams).  Just over one year to complete.

And now I've started thinking about what the new exam will be like for everyone beginning testing now.

In reading about the exam transition to ARE 5.0, it appears to me (and I am not in any way involved with the new exam design, so this is just based on the information that NCARB has made public) that the new exam will be significantly easier.  The new exam will be in 6 sections, instead of 7, which by itself, means little.  What indicates to me that the new sections will be easier is that 3 of the current 7 exams grant you credit for 4 of the new exams, while the remaining 4 current exams (which includes the three most difficult ones, in my opinion) are consolidated into two new exams.  I can't imagine that the two new exams will be anywhere near the combined level of difficulty of the four current exams - that would be insane.  So the two new exams must be easier, and significantly reduce the amount of content that is in the four current exams.  (Pro tip: this means that you can pass the ARE in 2016 by taking only 5 exams, if you take 3 of the current ones and 2 of the new ones.  Check out the credit transfer scheme for yourself.)

And you know what?  I think that's great.  The current exams cover a lot of material that simply isn't needed for the protection of the health & welfare of the public, and certainly isn't useful for day-to-day architectural practice.  I spent weeks studying for the Structural Systems exam, learning about coefficients for the flexural design of wood, and I think it was a waste of time.  I simply don't need to know most of that stuff; it's the province of structural engineers, and I will never, ever feel comfortable designing structural members for a project on my own, no matter what I learned for the ARE.  Good for the test designers if they're updating the exams to what architects truly need to know, not what we "ideally" or "sometimes" need.  In an unusual case, we're going to look it up anyway, not design buildings based on what we vaguely remember studying years ago.

I think it's great that the new exams are going to follow the standard format of project management phases, from programming to design development to construction, instead of the subject-matter tests.  I'm happy that there will be fewer exams, because seven is just so many.  I think they could probably cut it down to five, but no one asked me.

What worries me is that there will be a backlash, although hopefully a short one, against new architects who get licensed under the revised scheme.  Older architects may feel upset that newcomers get this "easier" track to licensure.  NCARB needs to be open and honest about the new content and its difficulty.  If it's actually easier, just say so, and explain why the changes were needed. I don't think it does anyone good to pretend that the new exams are "comparable" to the old ones, if in fact they are not.  In a couple of years, no one will care anymore anyway.  The old exams are long, overly difficult, contain a lot of irrelevant information, and are based mostly on rote memorization; I agree with NCARB that it's time to move on.  And please, in the name of all that's good, ditch the 1990s pseudo-CAD vignette software!  Just please don't replace it with something equally horrible.  I think we've suffered enough.


The End is Nigh: Finishing the AREs

I'm still not sure how it happened, but last weekend I took my seventh (but not final) ARE, bringing me up to all seven exam attempts in the span of one year.  The good news is that I passed, which means I have only one exam left to pass!  In all, I'm pretty pleased with my progress; aside from failing Site Planning, things have gone relatively smoothly, although it's been a grueling and painful experience.  I don't think there's a better way to do it, though, and I'm glad I pushed myself to get it done in a year, rather than drag it out over a longer period of time.

Here's the original schedule I set myself, which would have had me complete everything last year:
March - PPP
April - SPD
June - Structural Systems (SS)
July - Schematic Design (SD)
September - Building Systems (BS)
October - Building Design & Construction Systems (BDCS)
November - Construction Documents & Services (CDS)

And here's the schedule I actually followed:
March (2014) - PPP
April - SPD
June - SS
July - SD
September - BS
November - BDCS
February (2015) - CDS
March - SPD re-take scheduled

The delay was partly due to a lack of available test dates on weekends (after taking SPD and SS on weekdays, I vowed to take all the other ones on Saturdays to lower my stress levels), and mostly due to my decision to take a break over the holidays.  I didn't study at all in November or December, and then started back up in January this year for the final two.  This gave me a much needed mental break, and I'm glad I spaced it out.  I also needed more time to study for BDCS than I initially thought - it was a pretty difficult one.

I'm finally starting to think about what I want to do once the exams are over, and it's hard to decide!  There are so many interesting projects I could tackle now that I have my weeknights back.  I just hope that I can motivate myself to spend my time well, rather than languishing on Facebook as it's so easy to do.  

To my architecture friends who are still on the journey, I wish I had some humorous wisdom to dispense, now that I've taken all the tests, but I think the fun has been beaten out of me.  Here's the best I can do to sum up my recommendations:
  • All you have to do is pass.  For each test, I aimed to get about 75% of the questions correct; as long as I was getting roughly 75% right on the practice tests, I figured that would be sufficient, and it was.  Don't over-study so you can get every question right - there's no gold medal for acing it, and you won't even find out how you did beyond pass or fail.
  • Don't neglect the vignettes.  Those "fatal errors" are for real, and I think that's what killed me on Site Planning.
  • Most of the content is actually relevant, so think of the exams as a crash course in applied architecture, rather than a waste of your time.  I have experienced most of what I studied on real projects in the field, and if you think of it as a way to get exposed to many different parts of architectural practice, rather than just a hoop to jump through, you won't go crazy as fast when you're on your 50th week of studying.  (This is in contrast to LEED and AIA continuing education, much of which really is a waste of time!)
  • Take breaks when you need them.  Don't make yourself crazy.
  • Use the study materials that work for you, and don't waste time on the rest.  For me, that meant I ignored all the flash cards, but took every practice test I could find.  It was enough.
  • Remember that there are ADA questions on every exam!
I'm not quite home free, but I can see the light at the end.  I can't wait to find out what post-ARE life is like!  In the meantime, I'm happy to answer any non-test-content-specific questions that you have; send me a note, and good luck!


New Resolutions and Going Carbon Neutral

Maybe it's because I live in the hippie San Francisco Bay Area, or because there's simply no escaping it, but no conversation among friends here can fail to come around to climate change and the environment.  (And also the cost of housing and lack of decent public transit, but I digress.)  It's a big topic, and one that cannot be addressed without systemic change in our agriculture, industry, and transportation policies, but there are at least symbolic things one can do in one's own life to show that living smaller and greener is the way to go.  The newest hurdle we've tackled:  achieving carbon neutrality by buying carbon offsets.  This was something I'd considered and discussed here before, but this year (for 2014) we finally made the decision to do it.  We bought them through a program for Google employees that allows you to buy the same offsets that Google buys, so we knew that the credits would go to reputable groups and actually be used as offsets.

As described in the post I linked above, we used an online carbon calculator to determine how much carbons (in tons) we needed to offset, then what the dollar amount would be.  Unsurprisingly, the biggest part of our footprint comes from air travel, since we make multiple trips to the East Coast each year to visit family.  Even having two cars doesn't make much of a difference compared to air travel, since we don't drive either of our cars very much.

If you're wondering whether living the carbon neutral life has had a big impact in our day to day existence, the answer, of course, is no.  But I think that symbolic acts, even ones that are relatively small, like this one, are still important.  Maybe I will convince at least one person to do the same, or change one person's mind, and that would be enough for me to believe that what we did was worth it.  At the very least I can write this post about it and feel slightly better about my own privileged existence in the world.

Looking back at my resolutions from 2014 and from 2013, I recall that several of them were related to keeping a low environmental profile.  I think I've made fairly good progress with many of them.  I'm at the point where I'm trying to buy only replacement goods rather than totally new ones (ie, keeping my total quantity of stuff, especially clothes, shoes, etc, the same over time), except when it comes to kitchen gadgets, which we seem to have a special fondness for accumulating.  I'm still biking roughly twice a week, except for December, when it rained for several weeks straight.  We're still composting, cooking at home weekly, and cooking mostly vegetarian food.

We even managed to grow our own grape tomatoes in our tiny apartment-landing garden this past summer.  The tomato plant became Justin's special pet; we'll have to try again this year.  Besides, "urban homesteading" is all the rage now so we're like totally cool.  Since we can't have pets, plants have become our surrogates, and we're steadily adding to our collection of weird succulents.  We also grew some mint, cilantro, thyme, and chives this summer, none of which Justin wanted to let us eat.  Come spring, we'll probably replant our box, and maybe go big with peppers or a squash of some kind.

Our tomato plant, before we killed it by moving it inside while the building was painted.  It still produced tomatoes into September despite being mangled and ripped into several parts!

Biking, composting, cooking, etc, have now become habits, which means that those past resolutions have been successful.  This year, I've been thinking about what other kinds of habits I'd like to have.  I want to make sure I maintain my writing and researching skills, despite having few opportunities for this at work.  Thus, I give you my resolutions for 2015.  (I'm going to leave off "finish the AREs" since I'm nearly done anyway, and it seems silly to make a resolution for something I'm going to do for sure.  So count the two exams I have left under last year's resolution.)

1.  Write monthly.

2.  Complete an independent, research-based project with a visual component before the end of the year.

3.  Complete all those arts & crafts projects I've started and left lying around the house.

4.  Find a new exercise routine in addition to biking.  Because of concerns about injury and level of commitment, I decided to quit Quidditch.  (Very sad, I know.)  So now, quidditch-less, I am struggling to find a replacement activity.

Wish me luck!


Happy 2015!

In honor of the new year, here's some stuff I made.

For my sister, freehand painted Toms Classics, inspired by a painting of her choice:

I used regular acrylic paint, then covered the painted areas with a few layers of matte Mod Podge to protect them.  Now I just need to decide on what to paint on my own pair!

For my family, 3D-printed holiday ornaments:

I used the Makerbot Replicator 3D printer at my office (thanks, CAW!) to print the text.  I chose fonts in Illustrator, exported to Rhino, edited the text so the letters would form a continuous piece, then made them 3D and imported them into the Makerbot software.  The ornaments themselves are generic wood ornaments I bought on Amazon, with holes pre-drilled, then painted with acrylic.  The hangers are jute twine.  I thought they came out pretty well!  I was inspired by these ornaments from Crate & Barrel, which are ceramic, not wood, but maybe next year I'll get fancier.  These were inexpensive and easy to make, plus they used 3D printing!

And I nearly forgot: from earlier this year, my very first 3D printed object, a TARDIS.

Extra thanks to Jon at my office for helping me learn how to use the Makerbot.  I can take no credit at all for this one, since I downloaded the TARDIS object file from the 3D warehouse online, and simply hit "print."  But it's so adorable!

Hopefully coming soon: some posts with more thought to them.  Til then, Happy New Year and my apologies for lame cell phone photography!