Sunday, March 22, 2015

About that Iditarod post concerning Siberians

Over the years I've been a bit baffled by Iditarod fans being so enthusiastic on the one hand but knowing so little about the sport on the other.  This year it finally dawned on me that the likely reasons are: 1) many of the fans are fans of the race, not of distance mushing more generally, and 2) if you rely on Iditarod for most of your information you're going to find yourself in the weeds fairly often.  Yesterday's "Eye on the Trail" post on Siberians and Siberian mushers was a pretty stellar example of the latter.

There were a number of smaller problems (misspelling Yvonne's name, identifying Lev as a purebred musher) and some enormous ones.  Failure to mention Lisbet Norris, who finished earlier the same day, is the scion of the oldest Siberian Husky kennel in the world and one that's been incredibly influential, and whose grandfather ran the Iditarod with dogs from the same kennel back in the 1980s, is probably the most glaring error in judgment, but a nod absolutely needs to have been given to Isabelle Travadon, who also ran a purebred team and who did a very creditable job when things got difficult under circumstances that led others to scratch.

Also: YES, Rob Cooke became the first Siberian musher to finish both the Quest and the Iditarod in the same year.  He did it with substantially the same dogs in both races.  Rob is a friend and we are so proud of him we could bust.  This is a big deal, and the author of that blog post should have known it.  I think it's also worth mentioning that Rob did not have a good Quest, that it started out badly and he worked through it, solved his problems and got his team to the finish.  That, I think, is a huge deal and speaks to the kind of dog man he is, which brings me to my real beef with the Iditarod post.

Shortly after I moved up to Two Rivers and before Chris arrived I needed to travel for work, so I boarded my eight (!) (at the time - I'm up to 20) Siberians at a kennel in the neighborhood.  The fellow who owned the place was chatting and said "I used to run Siberians," so I said "oh?," curious to see where this was going to go.  He went on to say "but Siberians have too much sense of self-preservation.  They'll sit down on you.  Alaskans will just go until they drop."  That was a bit of an exaggeration but not completely.  Siberians will leave a little in the tank (okay, sometimes a lot in the tank) when calling a time-out, and it takes a certain kind of musher to successfully run a Siberian team 1000 miles.  It is not a coincidence that Mike Ellis in particular but also increasingly Rob Cooke and some other up-and-coming purebred mushers are known for exceptional dog care.  The people who successfully run Siberians in 1000-mile races tend to be very fine dog people, in part because they have to be.

At this point it should not be a secret that the two things that what people who don't know better say about Siberians, that they're slow and they're pretty, annoy a lot of Siberian mushers.  Siberians have some traits that are highly valued in sled dogs: they have excellent feet, they're easy keepers, and they do extremely well in genuinely frigid conditions.  They're tough dogs, but with an enthusiasm a friend describes as "joie de husky."  And yes, they're pretty, but focusing on that is a bit like saying "What a pretty face!" or giving someone a Miss Congeniality award.  It's a bit condescending and it's failing to acknowledge their qualities specifically as sled dogs.  These are great dogs and tricky dogs and they're often being driven by great -- and underappreciated -- mushers.

I think this is a really great time for working Siberians and that it's just getting better, and I'm excited to see more purebred teams running Quest.  In the meantime, when you see a purebred team finishing a 1000-mile race looking happy and ready for more, do not say "What pretty dogs."  Instead, say "What a fine, fine dog musher.  And wow, those dogs are pretty."

Thursday, March 19, 2015

On Iditarod, justice, and "two-way communication" devices

As I wrote on my Facebook page, I haven't been saying much about Brent's disqualification because I am nauseated by it.  I haven't wanted to participate in some of the technical nitpicking that's been going on because I think the real issue is justice.  Whether or not there's a network available is irrelevant - nobody, including the race judges, think that Brent had any intention to cheat or had taken any actions that would give him an unfair advantage.  At the same time they acknowledge that there are other mushers on the trail with similar devices and they're not going to seek those people out for punishment.  So, unjust rule unfairly applied.

That said, I do think it's worth talking about the technology a little bit, because another problem is that the rule is very, very poorly specified and I suspect a competent lawyer with some technical expertise or who had access to expert technical witnesses could have a field day.  The real question from where I sit isn't whether or not there's a network that a musher could access, but rather what constitutes a two-way communication device.

By way of context, one of the things I do to earn my dogs' kibble is develop internet protocol specifications, as a participant in and chair of several working groups in the Internet Engineering Task Force.  We develop the core protocols that are used on the internet, including things like routing, security, transport, and so on.  We are an organization of fuss-budgets, and our work consists of specifying protocol and device behavior to a level of detail that would make most people comatose.  So, I feel pretty comfortable looking at something like the Iditarod's rule 35 and trying to figure out whether or not it makes sense.

The bottom line is that I think it probably does not, for several reasons.  The primary reason is that it's overly broad and would exclude devices like Bluetooth headsets, which perform a (two-way!) negotiation with another device in order to pair.  It excludes special-purpose radio/wi-fi devices which cannot be used for anything but the purpose for which they were developed (for example, Nikon cameras speak PTP/IP over 802.11, with the camera acting as the access point/hotspot - completely useless for anything but camera control and transferring images/video).  They also incorrectly identify a SPOT and other trackers as a one-way communication device.  Technically, they are two-way - they receive radio from satellites and uplink back to the satellites.  They only uplink if they "know" they're in contact with the satellites.  A DeLorme InReach Satellite Communicator, which falls generally within the same category as SPOT devices, allows the person with the device to send arbitrary messages.  And what about a Fitbit?  Technically, those are two-way communication devices, since they swap messages with your computer, tablet, etc.

And then there's the more general problem of keeping up as technology changes and develops.  For example, what about the Apple watch and other "smart watches?"

This probably sounds like nitpicking, and it is.  There are a lot of two-way communication devices that don't provide general communication facilities.  You can't send and receive email with a Bluetooth headset and you can't browse the web with a Nikon camera (yet, as far as I know).  The problem is that this is the rule under which Brent was disqualified, and the rule is a mess as far as the specification of communication capabilities.  Because this is the rule that was used and because the penalty was so severe, its technical correctness matters a lot.  As I said I think a competent attorney (and likely even an incompetent one) could have a field day with it.

The Iditarod organization has repeatedly demonstrated itself to be technically unsophisticated.  Usually this comes out in the form of making bad decisions about writing their own tracking system, having their social media people provide technical support (badly), and so on, but here's a case where their lack of ability to describe what it is that they'd like to prevent has caused material damage to someone who even the race judges who made the disqualification decision agreed wasn't cheating.

Given that the problem that they're trying to solve isn't really a technical one, although it could be instantiated using technology, I think they are probably much better off trying to define disqualifying behavior rather than disqualifying devices.  Their technical incompetence has led to considerable injustice against someone who did nothing wrong,