Fire. And Water.

It was epic. Where to begin?

As many of you know, Melissa and I spent a year living on la Isla de Ometepe in Nicaragua five years ago while Melissa was studying the howler monkeys there for her dissertation. You can read all about it here. I didn’t actually do any running while we lived there (I took a 3.5 year hiatus due to my knee problems), though I did bicycle extensively. We also hiked Volcan Maderas once.


Volcan Maderas

A couple years ago I somehow heard of this new race on Ometepe Island, Fuego y Agua (fire and water). It was a 50K (and 100K) footrace from Moyogalpa (the big city on the island) to Merida (the town where we lived), traversing Volcan Maderas in the process. Since I had done a few ultras before (though all were slightly shorter than this), and I had hiked Maderas before, and I spent a year living at the finish line of this race, I thought this would be the perfect event for me. I looked forward to it for months. Then I learned the December 2010 race was canceled, so my plans would be put on hold. However, the organizers pushed the race from December to February and they were able to get it going slightly over a year later in February 2012.

I looked forward to this race for over a year.

I was running really well for shorter distances last fall when I began to ramp up my mileage. I ran into some hiccups along the way. I had some good long runs in October. I sat out for three weeks in November with knee pain, before a fairly productive December. I sat out for three weeks in January after throwing out my back. I got in one long training run and a medium length preparation race before proceeding to throw out my back again… three weeks before the race. At that point I was in a full-on panic. I would effectively have a six week taper prior to what would be the hardest race I’d ever attempted. That’s too long.

Even as we boarded the plane to fly to Nicaragua I was still experiencing the last remnants of this back pain. I felt kind of bad for asking Melissa to carry most of our luggage, but I didn’t want to chance any more problems (which would certainly have knocked me out of the race). Fortunately the back problems subsided shortly after we arrived, and I was even able to do a good training run a few days before the race.

Our entire trip was great fun for all of us. Melissa covered it all in detail in her blog here, here, here, here, and here. I’ll just focus on the race.

Pre-race dinner

Pre-race dinner

The 50K and 100K start at 4 a.m. In the dark. It may sound horrible, but I greatly preferred the pre-dawn start. The thing that scared me most coming into the race was how I would deal with the tropical heat (I’ve been known to have problems) coming from the midwest in the dead of winter. The 4 a.m. start meant that most of the running part of the race (the volcano is far too steep to run) would be over around the time the sun came up.

Race ready

Ready to race

I had been waking up early and going to bed early ever since we left Saint Louis. The night before the race I was about to crash right around the time the German tourists staying at my hostel started a techno-reggae-guitar-jam-singalong outside my room. I was so tired I fell asleep anyway. I woke up just as they finished around 1 a.m. and didn’t get back to sleep. Whoops. I got out of bed at 3 a.m., prepared everything, and walked one block over to the starting line of the race.

Fuego y Agua start

Starting line

There were 20 participants in the 50K and another 18 in the 100K. Headlamps ablaze, we started as some fireworks exploded overhead. Immediately three local guys shot off the front. I started comfortably, running the first mile in 8:30, at which point I could no longer even see the leaders. We immediately turned off the main paved road onto a dirt road I’d never been on before. So much for using my knowledge of the island to my advantage. The ground was a bit soft and mushy, with every runner in front of me kicking up dirt into the air. It was difficult to see with my headlamp reflecting off the particles. I didn’t really like breathing it in either. So I made an attempt to leave a bit of gap to the front and sides of me.

Things started to settle down and I found a few other runners going my same pace. 2.5 miles in I tripped on a tree root and went down. I was already sweating heavily by that point (I’m a heavy sweater), and the soft, loose dirt was now clinging to my knees and my hands. I spent the next few miles trying (with little success) to clean my hands and to catch up to my pack. I caught back up shortly before we hit the main paved road again, just before the first aid station. I introduced myself to Joe and John (both 100K participants) and we ran together for a while.

I vividly remember the hill coming out of San Jose causing my lots of problems the many times I biked it, but it wasn’t a problem on foot. It was actually my fastest mile of the race… which probably wasn’t a good idea. Anyway, Joe and I kept going while John was just a little ways behind. We turned again off the paved road onto another dirt road I didn’t know. We paid close attention to the reflective course markers that would guide our way. We almost missed an important turn while we ran on the wet sand along the shoreline, as the marker was more visible from the deep, mushy sand further inland.

Fuego y Agua 50K

We followed the trail for a while before coming to an intersection that wasn’t marked. There were three possible paths to take, none of them obviously the correct path, and none of them marked. We spent close to five minutes going a short distance down each path looking for markers, but we found none. By this time John caught back up with us and he had a gut feeling about one of the trails, so we just went with it. 300-400 meters later we saw a marker, confirming we made the right choice.

We went up a long hill and wound our way through some banana fields. There were five runners ahead of us at this point and we saw one only about 50 meters up the path. This was strange, given that we had just lost five minutes, but whatever. He disappeared soon enough. While climbing over a downed banana tree, about 13 miles in I had a cramp in my hamstring, which was a very bad sign. I was feeling great, I was staying hydrated, and, most importantly, I was staying on top of my electrolyte pills (which usually prevent the cramping). Maybe the heat calls for more? We’ll see.

Aid stationing

This is actually the third aid station, but you get the idea.

We soon reached the second aid station. I asked the volunteers how many people were ahead of us and they said four. There had been five, but (as I later confirmed) the guy we saw just ahead of us earlier got lost in the banana field. It was also around this time I was noticing a blister had started to form on my little toe. I’ve been running in Injinji socks (toe socks) for a few years and I haven’t had a single blister since I started wearing them. I didn’t know what to make of this development.

We made our way back out to the paved road again. We were now on the isthmus, where it was windier. The sun was rising and I no longer needed my headlamp to see. The breeze cooled us down a bit, but not really enough. Joe started to pull away from me and I didn’t really want to chase. I was slowing down, but I knew what was just a few miles ahead and I needed to hold back as much as possible.

Eating a banana

As I turned off the road up to the El Porvenir aid station I saw Melissa. She ran/walked with me up the hill to the aid station, offering me a banana as we went. Once we reached the aid station I sat down to examine the blister situation I mentioned earlier. It was really starting to bother me and I had one hell of a hike coming up. I couldn’t believe what I saw when I took my shoe off. Getting dressed in the dark in my sleep deprived state I put my two smallest toes in the same toe hole, leaving an empty toe hole off to the side that was just rubbing and rubbing my little toe. It was easy enough to fix, and that was the end of the toe problems… no blister.

Wardrobe malfunction

I picked up my trekking poles from my drop bag, said goodbye to Melissa, and began the long uphill journey to the 4000 ft peak of Volcan Maderas. It started off gradually so I convinced myself I could run for a while, but that didn’t last long. I was hiking. And hiking. And hiking some more. I didn’t feel great, but it wasn’t horrible. Yet.

Starting up the volcano

Fairly early on a few guys passed me. The further we went the more people passed me. As the climbing became more vertical, and there were lots of step-ups I started to have cramps. First in my calves. Then in my hamstrings. It got to the point where I had to do the step-ups as quickly as possible or my legs would cramp up and I wouldn’t be able to move. Every step was agonizing. And I was only a quarter of the way up the volcano.

1/4 the way up Maderas

I continued to put one foot in front of the other. While I was cramping fairly frequently, it never actually got worse. I can’t really remember what was going through my mind the rest of the way up the volcano. I was kind of out of it. It was all I could do to keep a count of how many people passed me. I kept eating, drinking, taking my electrolyte pills. The terrain got harder and harder. Then came the mud. First it was damp, then sloppy, then ankle-deep, then calf-deep. A few patches were literally up to my kneecap. When my foot sunk in like that I could only hope my shoe stayed on my foot as I pulled it out.

Another racer filmed the mud. I can’t watch this without laughing my ass off.

Closer the top I hiked a long way with a British guy named Andy. It sounds kind of awful, but it helped mentally to know that someone else was suffering as much as I was. Misery loves company. Eventually, he moved on as well, but that didn’t matter because I somehow managed to make it to the top. I can’t express how glad I was to see a wooden sign, presumably marking the summit, though, to be honest, I didn’t stop to read it. The glorious feeling was short-lived as the trail immediately (and steeply) descended into the crater. It was nice to switch from uphill to downhill for a change, but I knew I was going to have to climb right back up on the return trip.

Another racer filmed the top of Maderas.

A couple more people (including the first place woman) caught me right as I reached the final aid station in the crater. I had run the first 20 miles in a little under 3 hours, then the next 5.5 miles took slightly over 3 hours. I was the 6th person to start the volcano climb and the 20th person to reach the top. I spent a few minutes eating, drinking, refilling my hydration pack for the first time, and reflecting on my collapse. Then it was back up and out of the crater.

The trail coming out was different, and much more difficult. It was no longer possible to climb only with my legs while using my arms to stabilize me. Now I had to pull myself up with my arms as much as push with my legs. I had hiked the whole way up with my trekking poles, and I think they did help me (at least mentally, if nothing else), but now they were really getting in the way, as I needed my hands for climbing. Eventually, I just gave up on them, folded them up and wedged them between my hydration pack and my back. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was my only option other than leaving them on the volcano. I had planned to hike back down with them so I didn’t plan to store them anywhere.

The jungle gym

After some more deep mud I reached the jungle gym section of the trail where we had to climb over/under/through tree branches. Oddly enough, it was this point where I started to come back to life. I had resigned myself to feeling like shit for the rest of the race, so this was a welcome surprise. The more I descended the better I felt. I started hiking faster. Then I started trotting where I could, grasping trees with both hands to keep from falling over. I swung myself from one tree to the next the way I imagine Tarzan would if he were exhausted and descending a volcano. When the trail was straight for more than five feet I ran. I actually ran. A few hours before I was certain the next time I ran would be back in Saint Louis.

Meli & Simeon

Melissa and Simeón

Then I saw Simeón. Simeón was Melissa’s field guide in the forest. He helped her find the monkeys when she was getting started with her research. He helped her cut trails to follow them. He also takes tourists up the volcano. He had hiked nearly 1,000 meters up, apparently just to check on me. He shouted, “¡Rob! ¿Como estas?” (Rob, how are you?), to which I quickly (in broken Spanish) replied “No muy bien, pero mucho mejor que subiendo” (Not very well, but much better than climbing) as I ran past.

Around this same time I also started passing people–people who had blown by me on the way up. This was a truly unfamiliar experience for me. In most races I do well on the uphill sections and suck going downhill. My role was completely reversed now. One guy I ran with for a while was wearing Luna Sandals. It turns out he’s the CEO of the company that makes them. I couldn’t believe he had hiked the volcano in those, but he seemed to be doing quite well with them–a ringing product endorsement.

Finish line

The 50K finish line

As I got lower in elevation the temperature got hotter. There was less shade from tree cover, and more open fields to run through. I was running surprisingly well, given how tired I was and how rocky the path was. I really didn’t want to trip on the difficult terrain, but I was running so well I didn’t want to stop. It was approaching noon, and the heat was absolutely brutal the last two miles. It finally broke me and less than a half mile from the finish I had to walk some more just to cool down. This was the same trail we had hiked five years earlier, so I recognized where I was at this point. I ran the last quarter mile into the finish line where Melissa was waiting for me, kind of freaking out at how many people had come through with me nowhere in sight. The last 11 miles took me 5 hours, even with me running a few of those miles.

Crossing the finish line

Exhausted, hot, muddy

I finished in 7h55m. My average heart rate was 161, my max was 185. I burned 6762 calories. I consumed 1200 calories. My fastest mile was 8:12, my slowest mile was, well, close to an hour. Once you take out the 100K runners ahead of me I ended up in 9th place for the 50K. My first 50K. While this is quite a bit lower than my usual placings of the top 5%-10% in shorter races, I will gladly take it. This was the hardest race I’ve ever done. I was completely out of my element. It was epic. And I loved it.


I cooled down in the shade at the finish line, drinking and trying to eat. After a short while I actually convinced myself that I could go farther. I wasn’t completely dead. The rest of the day, yes I was tired, but I wasn’t nearly as sore as I typically am after a road marathon. The next day I had very little soreness. The second day after the race I had a bit more soreness in my legs and shoulders, but still not as much as I expected. Then, after that, I was fine. I had no long-lasting injuries and within a week I was back to running as normal, feeling better than I had in months. Rested even.

Fuego y Agua

After reflecting on the race for a couple weeks a few things are clear that I could have done differently.

  • The frequent injuries prior to the race and the six week taper were a problem. I didn’t have the base fitness to race that far.
  • I should have done more hill work. I did run hills, but nothing in the ballpark of the Maderas climb.
  • I should have started slower. Even though I felt great for the first 20 miles, I just didn’t have enough left in the tank for the climb.
  • I should have taken more electrolyte pills. Every 30 minutes just wasn’t enough for the amount of sweat I produced.
  • I should have started with a less-than-full hydration pack and filled up at the aid stations rather than carry all that weight for the entire race and only fill up at the last aid station. The day after the race my shoulders were more sore than my legs.
  • I probably should have climbed without the trekking poles. They helped me mentally, but I’m not sure they helped me physically, and they got in the way a lot.

Anyway, we’re already thinking about the trip next year. The race was a very unique adventure, and it was incredibly well organized. I got the sense that pretty much all the other runners had similarly great experiences. This race is going to explode in popularity. I wouldn’t be surprised if they reached their 100 participant-per-race cap as soon as next year.

Frozen Feet

Training for my upcoming 50K race debut at Fuego y Agua has, well, not gone 100% according to plan. I had knee problems in November and back problems (unrelated to running, but every bit as frustrating) in January. My back finally recovered a bit, I got a couple weeks of solid training in, and I decided I wanted to test myself with a race before Fuego y Agua. I picked the Wildwood Frozen Feet 12 mile “trail” race on January 28. Of course, all but one of those miles were on a paved trail, but I didn’t know that until just before the start. This is why it pays to check out the course ahead of time.

12 miles is a weird race distance for me in the same way as a half marathon. It’s short enough that I’m capable of running fast the entire way. But it’s long enough that it’s really going to hurt if I do. I’ve done very little speed work since October, so I knew I wasn’t going to run that fast. And I didn’t want to hurt myself either. My plan (here we go again) was to start relatively slow and speed up as the race progressed. I actually stuck with it. For about a mile. Which is about a mile longer than usual.

I let a bunch of people fly past me at the very beginning and I ran quite conservatively for the first mile. I was proud of my self control. Of course, that couldn’t last. I felt so good with 11 to go I decided to pick up the pace a little bit. Then a little bit more. And so on. I passed about 20 people, running the next two miles around 6:20-ish pace (much faster than I should have been going at that point). I made it as high as about 6th by the time we hit the actual dirt (mud) trail, which slowed me down a bit. And, as per usual, I never really recovered from there.

Half way in we hit a two mile long hill, which slowed me down. The temperature was 33˚F, and it had rained all night, so the pavement was wet. The shady areas were riddled with invisible icy patches, which further slowed me down. To be fair they slowed everyone down a bit, but I was already struggling. Half the people I surged past earlier flew by me (again). At least at the top of the hill we would turn around and have a nice two mile long downhill section, right? Oh right, the ice. It was worse on the way back down.

At the bottom of the hill we still had two miles left to run. Into a headwind. People were passing me left and right. I finished in a time of 1:22:55, not even close to what I was hoping to run. My 16th place finish was my second lowest finish in a foot race in the last 18 months. I didn’t even win an age group award.

Adding insult to injury, running the race left me with a sore back the next morning. It wasn’t as bad as the pain that kept me from running for 10 days earlier in the month, but it was impossible to ignore. And it was only the beginning. Two days after the race I had another back spasm (again unrelated to running) that knocked me out for another 10 days. This is absolutely not what I needed three weeks out from the big race. On the bright side it forced me to take a three week taper, which I wouldn’t have done if I were healthy. So maybe I’ll be super-refreshed at the starting line in Moyogalpa. Maybe.

Hello St. Louis

St. Louis Arch

As you may or may not have already read, Melissa has accepted a job at Washington University in St. Louis. We will be moving to the St. Louis area in mid-August. I will continue my current job, working from home (much as I did for the year we lived in Nicaragua).

It will be a little sad to leave Champaign-Urbana where I’ve lived for 13 of the last 14 years. However, this job is a really great opportunity for Melissa and we’re both excited to be starting a new adventure. Wish us luck.

The William Hammock

When Melissa and I lived in Nicaragua for a year, right outside our room at the hostel was this hammock. It had the name William knitted into the side of it in 8″ letters. We always wondered what the story was behind this hammock–why William was sitting right outside our door.

Lucy the squirrel on the William hammock

I couldn’t find a photo showing the William part of the hammock, but here’s the rest of it. Lucy the squirrel is resting, perhaps waiting to jump on me.

It must have made more of an impression on Melissa than it did me. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that she chose the name William for our child…


The iPhone

The original iPhone was announced at Macworld Expo in January 2007 while Melissa & I were living in Nicaragua. It was amazing, a phone that ran the same beautiful, wonderful operating system as my desktop and laptop computers. The crowd at the Macworld keynote was disappointed the device wouldn’t be available until June. No matter, I wouldn’t return to the U.S. until August.

I ordered my iPhone in July and had it shipped to my parents’ house so it would be waiting for me upon our return. Around the same time I also ordered a new (non-i) phone for Melissa. We arrived at my parents’ house on a Sunday evening. The iPhone was there, in all it’s glory, but I couldn’t actually use it yet. Apparently, because of the way I set up our account with AT&T, I needed to activate Melissa’s phone first. This required talking to AT&T customer service, which wasn’t open on a Sunday evening.

The disappointment only lasted a few short hours, which was nothing compared to the months of waiting I already endured. I got everything straightened out with AT&T first thing Monday morning and my iPhone was up and running. I loved it.

Cracked screen

Two months later, while I was locking up my bike at work, I dropped my padded carrying case about two feet onto the concrete. The phone slid out face down. I was concerned the concrete might scratch the glass. Even worse, the glass cracked. It was still usable, just less beautiful… but not enough to warrant $199 to replace the screen.

In April 2008 the iPhone (and iPod Touch) developer program was announced and I signed up right away. As a software developer I am exited by the prospect of running my own code on my phone/PDA (much as I did with three previous Palm OS devices, and three Windows Mobile devices). At first Apple highly recommended not using your primary phone for development purposes, so I bought a refurbished iPod Touch.

The iPhone 3G was unveiled in June 2008 to much fanfare. I didn’t really care that much as AT&T still does not offer 3G data service in Champaign-Urbana. I was excited about the built-in GPS and larger storage capacity, but not enough to upgrade. Fortunately, my employer acquired on which I have been able to use. Score. In the meantime I set up my old iPhone for Melissa.

Finally, earlier this month the iPhone 3GS was announced. More storage, better camera, video recording, built-in digital compass. My AT&T contract was nearly up so I qualified for upgrade pricing. It didn’t take much convincing for me to order one. It was Fig’s Father’s Day present for me. It arrived last night and I’ve been using it all day today.

All in the family

from left to right: my original iPhone (now used by Melissa), my iPod Touch (used for development), my employer’s iPhone 3G (soon to be returned), my new iPhone 3GS

The Keynote

As I write, Melissa & I are at Chicago O’Hare airport waiting on our (delayed) flight to San Francisco. I am attending Apple‘s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) this week. Melissa is along for the ride.

Since I started working full time as the primary Mac OS X developer of Mathematica at Wolfram Research in 2001 I have attended this conference every year except 2006. That year the conference was scheduled (Apple has been really bad lately at waiting until the last minute to schedule this huge conference) during the week Melissa & I were moving to Nicaragua, so I missed out. The conference is exciting every year, but none was more exciting for me than 2005 when I (along with my boss Theo Gray) participated on stage during Steve Jobs’ keynote address.

Note: some of this information was confidential at the time, but is now mostly publicly known. I can’t imagine any of the details I mention below would still be considered sensitive information.

On Wednesday night the week before WWDC I got a call at 9:30 pm from Theo. I was almost ready to go to bed. He asked if I would be able (and willing… but more able :) ) to fly to California at 6 am the following morning. I suppose I could, but why? Theo went on to tell me that Apple had a super secret project and they wanted our help, but he wouldn’t tell me what the project was.

I have since learned that he actually knew what the project was at the time of that call, but he couldn’t tell me. Stephen Wolfram, the founder and president of Wolfram Research wouldn’t sign off on the idea until he knew what was going on. Steve Jobs told Stephen Wolfram & Theo what the project was and they agreed to take part… but they couldn’t tell anyone else.

I spent the next two hours packing (including the Dahon, my folding bike at the time) before going to bed. Early the next morning I arrived at the Champaign airport. Apple purchased my one-way ticket to San Jose (by way of Chicago). An Apple limo picked me up at the San Jose airport and drove me straight to Apple’s campus in neighboring Cupertino. Luggage still in hand I entered 3 Infinite Loop (I think). A few minutes later I was in a meeting with Ron Okamoto, Vice President of Worldwide Developer Relations.

Ron told me what the secret was, that Apple was building a Mac which used an Intel x86 processor. They had ported all of Mac OS X to this new architecture (Darwin, the open source core of Mac OS X, already ran on x86). They intended to demonstrate this new x86 version of Mac OS X on Monday’s WWDC keynote. They wanted to demo a 3rd party application running on the x86 Mac. They chose Mathematica to be that 3rd party application. He asked me if I thought it would be possible to get Mathematica up and running on Mac OS X Intel by Monday.


That’s a potentially huge task. Our code is fairly portable (at the time Mathematica ran on several Unix platforms in addition to Mac and Windows), but supporting new platforms usually takes a fair amount of time. Ron told me Apple was prepared to provide significant resources to make this happen, including a small team of Apple developers and immediate access to any other relevant Apple developers. I was cautiously optimistic.

(Now 30,000 feet over Iowa)

We travelled across De Anza Blvd (luggage still in hand) to a different Apple building where I was ushered into a conference room with a single desktop computer sitting on the conference table. It was in the same metal case as Apple’s high end desktop computers at the time, the PowerMac G5. I think the case even said “G5” on the side. From the outside you couldn’t tell the difference between this machine and a G5 unless you carefully peeked through the holes on the front and noticed it didn’t have the huge heat sink the G5’s had.

I was greeted by the team of Apple engineers (Matt, Eric, & Ronnie) who would be providing technical assistance in the porting process. This place was not only hidden from the public, but it was hidden from the rest of Apple. Very few people at Apple were even aware this project existed. The four of us got busy.

I sat down at the Macintel and immediately began working. The experience wasn’t just familiar it was identical to any other Mac I had used. I was blown away by how seamless Apple had made the transition. The whole OS was there it all its glory, including every bundled application (even Xcode). I could just work exactly like I do on any other Mac.

But wait, sometimes I use BBEdit to edit text. I guess I won’t be able to do that since it (or any other 3rd party application) hasn’t been ported yet. “Why don’t you just go ahead and try it?” Matt said to me as he tried to hold back a smile. It hit me immediately. “You’re kidding, right?” I downloaded BBEdit, double clicked the icon, and it ran. I ran just like it does on any other Mac. Apple had incorporated (with technology licensed from another company) a PowerPC translation layer into the OS. This meant that nearly all existing Mac applications would run on the new Intel machine, with a slight performance penalty. This was amazing news, as it meant the new machines could be adopted immediately by users rather than waiting until all their applications were ported. Very exciting.

Back to work. We started with MathLink. This is a low level library used by both the Mathematica user interface (FrontEnd) and the computation engine (Kernel). With one set of flags MathLink builds for Mac OS X PowerPC and with different flags it builds for x86 Linux (or Windows, etc.). It only took a few minutes of experimentation with the Makefile and headers to find the right set of flags to treat the OS as Mac OS X and the architecture as x86. The elapsed time from entering the conference room to having a built, fully functional MathLink library was probably around 20-25 minutes. As we progressed our excitement grew.

Xcode target architecture

Next was the Mathematica FrontEnd. I normally spend all my time working on the FrontEnd, so this part didn’t worry me much. The FrontEnd is built with Xcode, which had a new “architectures” setting checkbox. We checked the checkbox for the Intel architecture (actually, we didn’t because Intel was the default target architecture when building on Intel… but we did verify the checkbox was properly set). Within 4-5 minutes the FrontEnd built with only a couple of minor build errors which were easily fixable. After 10 minutes working on the FE we had it built and running. It wasn’t running flawlessly, but it was a very good start. I had only been at the secret Intel machine for around a half hour. This was getting really exciting.

The next step was the one which caused me the most concern, the Mathematica Kernel. The reason for my concern was that I don’t often work with the Kernel. I knew how to build it (the build system is somewhat complicated) and I knew roughly how the code was organized, but there are all sorts of minor details which could really slow down the process. It relies on many external libraries (open source and commercial) and custom build tools. Fortunately, the Kernel, like MathLink, already ran on Mac OS X PowerPC and Intel Linux & Windows. It took a while longer to figure out some of the proper build flags, and some of the build errors weren’t entirely obvious.

This is where Matt, Eric, & Ronnie really came through. They had each spent a lot of time porting open source applications to Mac OS X Intel to learn what types of issues developers might run into along the way. Each time we encountered some sort of problem in an open source library one of them would go off on their own for a few minutes to resolve the problem while the rest of us kept hammering away. Every few minutes we would get further and further along in the build process with new issues popping up all the time. It was like an assembly line. In parallel.

After about 90 minutes (2 hours from when I entered the room) we had the Kernel running, the FrontEnd running, and the two processes were able to talk to each other through MathLink. Again, it wasn’t perfect, but nearly everything just worked.

News spread up the ranks. Within minutes we had high level executives stopping by to see the first 3rd party commercial application running on Mac OS X Intel. By early evening Theo (who took a later flight) arrived frantically asking what he can do to help. He was a bit shocked, and very pleasantly surprised, that it was mostly done.

Friday we worked to fix bugs and showed off the software to an ever growing number of people. Since Mathematica already ran on Intel processors on other platforms, most of our cross platform code was byte order agnostic. There were a few cases where Mac specific code was assuming big endian byte order, particularly related to Quartz (bitmap drawing) and OpenGL. There were also some issues with Quickdraw PICT drawing.

Friday evening some of the Mac rumors sites (original CNET article appears to have been removed) reported that Apple would be announcing the switch to Intel processors at Monday’s keynote. Rumors like this had been published for years, so it wasn’t that out of the ordinary, but this report was different. It contained many specific (correct) details rather than just wild speculation (like every previous report like this). It was clear someone in the know had blabbed. The conference room was silent for a few moments. Oh well. Until Monday, it’s still just a rumor.

Saturday morning we drove up to San Francisco to prepare for the WWDC keynote. We had a rehearsal where I met and shook hands with Steve Jobs. I had heard horror stories about his temper, but he was in a great mood when I met him… sitting perfectly relaxed, legs crossed, smile from ear to ear. I could tell he was excited.

Theo practiced his speech, asking Jobs for feedback along the way. The funny thing was that Steve was so happy he kept telling Theo “say whatever you want” or “talk for as long as you want.” Meanwhile I set up the demo machine (and backup demo machine) with our freshly built Mathematica for Mac OS X Intel.

Monday morning before the keynote Theo & I hung out in the VIP lounge. Woz (Steve Wozniak, the other co-founder of Apple) was there, Sergey Brin (co-founder of Google and former Wolfram Research intern) was there, along with many other influential people in technology.

Once the keynote started we sat in the front row on the far right side. Midway through the keynote Jobs called us up to the stage. Theo described our experience porting Mathematica to Mac OS X Intel over the previous few days. I drove the demo machine as he talked. It was a big hit. Theo captivated the audience. At one point Theo mentioned my name, which immediately caused 4,000 people to turn their heads to stare at me. It was a little awkward (which is quite evident in the video). Had I known that was going to happen I think I could have played it a little more cool. Anyway the demo was a success. Mission accomplished.

Note that a few minutes of the demo were edited out of this video for some reason.

That wasn’t all for that WWDC. On Tuesday I gave a 10 minute presentation during Bud’s science session about Mathematica on Mac OS X, detailing how we utilize various OS features. This went more smoothly for me as I had actually been preparing for it for a few weeks. Later that week I spoke about Mathematica for a minute or two in Ernie’s 64-bit session. I went from participating in zero sessions my first four WWDC’s to three sessions in 2005, back to zero sessions every year since. Perhaps that was my 15 minutes of geek fame (actually, the total time I spent on stage was almost exactly 15 minutes).

Last year I attended a reunion for the non-profit organization where I worked in college, ASP. A guy who I hadn’t seen in 8 years came up to me and asked me if I was in a Steve Jobs keynote a few years ago. “I thought that was you…”

Anyway, tomorrow’s 2009 WWDC keynote won’t be as exciting for me, though I’m sure it will still be exciting. I won’t be participating in the keynote. At least, if I am they haven’t told me yet. Always with the secrecy.

The PowerBook 5300cs

For many years I acquired (either inexpensively or freely) a lot of computer parts and other miscellaneous electronic equipment. I’ve been hanging on to these things just in case I ever needed to use them.

I never needed to use them.

A lot of this stuff was sitting around for years at our old house. Then it was put into storage when we moved to Nicaragua. Then it was moved into our new house. Close to two years later it still hasn’t been used. So it’s time we parted ways.

Today was the annual free electronics recycling event in Champaign-Urbana. Over the past few weeks I’ve been cleaning out my office so I could take this stuff to be recycled.

Box of electronics for recycling

The large box of items I took for recycling included:

  • 1 desktop computer (a Mac IIci)
  • 2 laptop computers (a PowerBook 5300cs and a PowerBook Duo 250)
  • 3 PDAs (including 1 smartphone)
  • 2 keyboards
  • 2 ISA-slot modem cards
  • numerous hard drives (all erased, one with a hammer)
  • more obsolete cables and connecters than you can imagine

You get the idea.

Of note, the box contained my first PDA (a Palm iii) and my first smartphone (a Samsung SPH-I300).

Samsung SPH-I300

The most sentimentally valuable obsolete item in the box was my old PowerBook 5300cs. This was my second computer and my first laptop. I got it in the fall of 1996 and used it regularly until the fall of 2000, when its duties were usurped by my work-issued PowerBook G3.

PowerBook 5300cs

Everyone has a laptop now, but in 1996 it was somewhat rare. I took it to most of my college classes to take notes (I can type way faster than I can write). Being the only person with a laptop in a lecture hall with hundreds of students meant that I stood out like a sore thumb, but I didn’t particularly care.

PowerBook 5300cs

One funny story about this laptop occurred in the summer of 1998. I was finishing up coursework for my Math 285 class (differential equations) while I was working for ASP in southeastern Kentucky. I must have tripped over the power cord or something, because the power connector inside the laptop broke off from the motherboard. I had course work that had to be completed (using Mathematica, on my laptop) by a certain date… and I had about two hours of battery left and no way to recharge the battery.

I used what precious little battery power I had left to connect my external modem to the internet via a long distance phone call. I shopped online for 20-30 minutes until I found a replacement part that would solve my dilemma (an expansion bay power supply). I ordered it and received it a few days later via FedEx. I completed my work and received an A in the class.

This computer and I have been through a lot together.

The Fall King

I never rode a mountain bike before moving to Nicaragua two years ago. Then I rode nothing but a mountain bike for a year. I learned quickly. After a couple weeks of shorter rides, one weekend I rode around Volcan Maderas. It took 3h (I later did it as fast as 1h45m).

The next weekend I rode around Volcan Concepción. It took 4h30m. As I was riding the last kilometer through the village of Mérida I approached a very small ditch. Rather than move 10 feet in either direction I decided to roll right through it. I was tired. My front wheel rolled down one side of the ditch. Just as I was expecting it to roll right up the other side my bike came to a complete stop. Before I could get my feet off the pedals I just fell over sideways.

It didn’t hurt. But there were a lot of locals around, and many people saw this. It wouldn’t have been so bad had there not been a group of half a dozen adolescent boys right in front of me. Of course, they laughed hysterically at the sight of a gringo falling over on a bike.

One of them somehow knew enough broken english to explain to me what had happened: “You fall! You fall! You the fall king! You fall!”

I fell one other time in Nicaragua, under similar circumstances. I reached a steep uphill without enough momentum. I came to a stop, couldn’t put my foot down fast enough and fell over sideways. This fall had a much smaller crowd, thank goodness.

Today I fell while mountain biking. Well I wasn’t actually mountain biking. I was standing still in the gravel parking lot ready to start mountain biking. I had one foot on the pedal, shifted my weight that direction, couldn’t get my foot off the pedal fast enough, and fell over sideways mid-conversation with a friend. This one actually hurt a little bit more than I initially let on. Now my leg is scraped up and my knee is bruised. ¡Que terrible!

I am the fall king.