Archive for November, 2010

My adventure by the numbers

No adventure can be reduced to a mere set of numbers. The experiences of a year in the outdoors, the endless variety of scenery and people I encountered defies a purely numerical description. That said, I kept a spread-sheet with daily information about distances, times, elevation, accommodation etc. It is fun and interesting to look at some aggregate charts and get some trends and insights from those thousands of data points.

My trip began with the flight to Mount Logan in Canada in May 2009 and ended with the climb of Chimborazo in Ecuador in June 2010 after a total of 415 days or about 14 months. There were several interim ‘vacations’ during this time to reconnect with my family. For example, I flew back home from Mexico and from Argentina for 1-2 weeks of rest, as well as from Panama at the midpoint of the journey for Christmas and New Years. I also spent a lot of time with travel by plane, bus, ferry, train or rental car. Much of this was caused by the logistics to align all the mountains on time as well as the decision to ride South-America from the bottom-up to take advantage of the Southern summer. When I was not on vacation or in transit, I spent my days either riding, climbing or resting as follows:

  • Ride: 185 days (45%)
  • Climb: 78 days (19%)
  • Rest: 46 days (11%)
  • Vacation: 66 days (16%)
  • Travel: 40 days (9%)
  • Total: 415 days (100%)
  • Here is a break-down of the 263 days spent either cycling or climbing by country:

    Number of days spent climbing or cycling by country

    Number of days spent climbing or cycling by country

    This shows the long time spent in Argentina and all the large countries of North-America. There were 4 expedition-stye mountains with 10 days or more: Huascaran (Peru, 10d), Aconcagua (Argentina, 13d), Denali (Alaska, 15d), Logan (Canada, 16d). I chose to spend much more time riding in Argentina as compared to Chile due to the rainy weather in South-Chile and the hostile Atacama desert in the Northern part of Chile. The smaller Central-American countries took less time, as expected. In Peru I started to take bus transfer to reduce the distance, and in Ecuador I only rode 1 day for the same reason. I skipped Colombia for reasons explained before on this Blog.

    How far did I ride each day? Looking at the cycling portion, the total distance is as follows:

  • North-America: 10850 km (54%)
  • Central-America: 2916 km (15%)
  • South-America: 6297 km (31%)
  • Total: 20063 km (100%)
  • Here is a break-down of the average daily distance by country:

    Average distance (in km) per day by country, grouped by continent

    Average distance (in km) per day by country, grouped by continent

    A couple of comments (Ecuador is excluded since I only rode 1 day there):

  • Average distances riding in South America were shorter than in North-America. The main factors were the rough terrain (Andes), weather (rain), and longer daylight hours in North-America.
  • Chile stands out as the toughest country. Riding in the cold rain of South Chile is no fun, and getting started again after a rest is even worse, so I often called it a day after just 3 or 4 hours. And I didn’t even attempt the more extreme routes with multiple Andes crossings and rougher gravel roads!
  • Canada saw the longest rides. The weather was excellent and the long daylight hours allowed me to ride, rest, and ride some more until very late at night. The terrain is also sparsely populated, and in order to get a great meal at a restaurant I usually tried to reach the next village – resulting in many long days of cycling.
  • How often did I sleep in my tent? Before my departure I described my approach as follows: I prefer to sleep in the tent if the weather is good and if the place is safe. I started the ride in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska on July 1st. Guess how many times I slept in my tent in July? Answer: 31 times! The (Northern) summer 2009 was just great, with very little rain and lots of sunshine and sheer endless hours of daylight. Who would not want to spend time outside and stay in the tent? Besides, the inside netting kept the mosquitoes at bay, a distinct advantage over many a sticky hostel room. Here is how my nights stacked up tent vs. hostel vs. other (at a friend, in a plane or bus, a police or fire station, etc.):

    Type of accommodation (tent vs. hostel) by country

    Type of accommodation (tent vs. hostel) by country

    Again a few comments:

  • The nights in Alaska and Canada were almost entirely spent in the tent, during the expeditions on the mountains for obvious reasons, and on the road mostly due to the sunny summer weather. The only times I stayed in a hostel were in Whitehorse and Anchorage just before departing for and when returning from the mountain expeditions. This way I could leave my bike and other gear at those hostels as well.
  • Argentina and Mexico were a mixed bag; while mostly dry and sunny, there were many stays in cities without camping facilities, so pitching the tent just would not have been safe.
  • In most of the other South- and Central-American countries I was more often staying in hostels. For one, they are cheap and fairly safe, especially compared to the tent on the soccer field in town. The majority of the tent nights in places like Peru, Chile and Bolivia came from the mountain climbs.
  • About half of the countries saw 10 nights or less. Even with the time required to climb the mountains, in Central America it is a good rule of thumb to assume that you’ll be in a new country every week!
  • Frequency of accommodation (tent vs. hostel) by continent

    Frequency of accommodation (tent vs. hostel) by continent

    The same data displayed in relative terms reveals the different situations by continent. The tent-to-room ratio can be summarized as follows:

  • In North-America the tent nights outnumbered the hostels about 4 : 1.
  • In Central-America, it’s about 1 : 1. Here I was more often staying at some unusual place, for example a fire or police station, a private home invited by a friendly local or a hut in the mountains.
  • In South-America, the ratio was almost 1 : 2. Again, bad weather, cheap prices and better safety made hostel rooms win out over pitching the tent.
  • There are many more aspects and averages one can draw from this data-set. For example, my overall daily average on the bike was this:

  • Time: 6 hrs
  • Speed: 18 km/h
  • Distance: 108 km
  • In terms of elevation gain on the bike, there were big differences by country and region. The Dalton Highway in Alaska is a roller-coaster with up to 2000 m vertical per 100 km. Similarly Mexico had more mountain passes than I had expected. On the other hand, there were very flat days in the Baja California or in the pampas of Argentina with less than 50 m per 100 km. Even without big mountains, many small hills do add up as well. Overall, I had about 800 m elevation gain per 100 km, resulting in about 165,000 m vertical gain over the entire trip. That’s more than 18 times by bike from sea-level to Mount Everest! Since riding uphill is one of the least comfortable things on the recumbent bike, and carrying/towing a lot of weight makes even a slight uphill into a serious challenge, I often tried to avoid big hills when choosing between alternate routes. For example in Costa Rica, I didn’t follow the Panamerican Highway, as it leads through the capital San Jose (bad) and over at least two 3000+ m passes (very bad). Aptly, one of those is called ‘Paso de la Muerte’ and features the highest point of the Panamerican Highway at over 3400 m ASL! Instead I stayed near the Pacific Coast, as do most of the long-distance cyclists. After all, who wants to take a chance when you can avoid the pass of death!

    Add comment November 12th, 2010

    On size, strength and value of social networks

    It’s my son’s birthday today and he is turning 13 – ah, those teenage years ahead! When I drove him to school this morning he was obsessively checking his email and text messages on his new iPhone. He bragged about how many Birthday related texts he was getting on Facebook and thus how ‘popular’ he is. “So how many ‘friends’ do you have on Facebook?” I asked. “About 500.” I raised my eyebrows. “And Sarvenaz (his 20-year old sister) has over one thousand!” he adds to my astonishment.

    1000 friends? I may barely remember 1000 faces, and I certainly could not even remember all their names, or have a meaningful relationship, much less a true friendship with that many people. Inflationary times for the friendship currency? The number goes up; the value goes down? Certainly some people are far better than me at remembering names or details about the social life of others. But what does the notion of ‘friend’ mean when it comes by the thousands?

    I remember Dunbar’s number of about 150, named after anthropologist Robin Dunbar. According to Wikipedia, this number “is a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person”. On my LinkedIn network I used to only accept invitations from people I knew well enough that I could make meaningful statements about them, say to a headhunter who was checking a reference. And indeed my number of 1st degree connections – a better term than ‘friend’ – is currently 154. The average number of their connections is also similar to that (159), thus spanning a number of around 25,000 2nd degree connections. That’s a lot of people you could get introduced to by a mutually well-known person. And for the purposes of finding a job (as I am trying to do now) or experts in certain areas, this is very helpful.

    While Dunbar’s number limits the number of strong ties, thanks to social networks we now have the tools to maintain much larger networks of weak ties. And as sociologist Mark Granovetter has pointed out in his influential paper ‘The Strength of Weak Ties‘, in marketing or politics, weak ties enable reaching populations and audiences that are not accessible via strong ties. We stand a good chance of finding the next job via an unexpected source, a person who knows other people and companies neither we nor our strong ties know, hence the strength of those weak ties.

    It is interesting how many people seem to appreciate maximizing the number of their Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections, and Twitter followers. People love getting attention, and the size of their network seems to boost the size of their ego. While it is true that someone with a million followers will be heard more than someone with a hundred, a big following is not the same as big influence. In a rigorous analysis of Twitter data, authors from the HP Social Computing lab point out that popularity is not the same as influence. To quote from the conclusion of their paper on ‘Influence and Passivity‘ paper: “This study shows that the correlation between popularity and influence is weaker than it might be expected. This is a reflection of the fact that for information to propagate in a network, individuals need to forward it to the other members, thus having to actively engage rather than passively read it and cease to act on it. Moreover, since our measure of influence is not specific to Twitter it is applicable to many other social networks. This opens the possibility of discovering influential individuals within a network which can on average have a further reach than others in the same medium, regardless of their popularity.”

    Networks are certainly valuable for each of us individually. Likewise, a network’s value increases with its size. Hence a social networking company’s valuation correlates with the number of members. I thought it was interesting that analysts have put an average value of $50 per member – hence the astronomical valuation of Facebook with 500+ million members leading to $25+ billion. I don’t know how this number is arrived at. When I think back to my bike trip through the Americas, seeing those predominantly young and poor kids in Central- and South-America updating their Facebook accounts at Internet kiosks, assigning a monetary value of US$50 to their free membership seems optimistic, to say the least. I can’t help but thinking that some of these valuations will undergo a ‘correction’ just like many of the hyped business models of the era came down for a hard landing around 10 years ago.

    Lastly, dealing with average value in large number of connections is complex and often surprising. In their excellent book ‘Making Great Decisions‘, the authors Henderson and Hooper give us something to think about: If your business has, say, 100 customers, then statistically 80% of your profits come from just 20% of those customers. So numerically, each one of the ‘good’ customers is on average 16 times as valuable to you as any of the ‘other’ customers. (1/4 of the number bring in 4x profits, that’s 16x profit per customer). I suspect the same is true with regards to influence and value in social networks as well. As with customers, so it is with friends: It’s important to know who the ‘good’ ones are, because they matter so much more.

    If business contacts are about making money, social contacts are about making a difference. Which brings me back to family and close friends. Regardless of the size of our own social network, we will always have a much smaller number of strong ties, and those we value disproportionately because they make a big difference in our life just as we do in theirs!

    Add comment November 5th, 2010


    November 2010
    S M T W T F S

    Posts by Month

    Posts by Category