Cycling Resources: Google Maps by Erin Wade

One of the tasks that goes with cycling is sorting out routes to ride on. While it’s fun, at times, to simply pick a direction and see where the road takes you, much of the time it’s good to have an idea of where you are going, and how you are going to get there. This is especially true when you are trying to add distance to your regular routes. It’s pretty easy to use any mapping software or - if you still happen to have one about - a paper map - to sort out a five or ten mile ride. But as ride distances climb it becomes valuable to have a way to lay out clear routes that will work for the desired distance, and, particularly when riding on public roads, for safety purposes (it’s not fun to suddenly find that you’ve come to a point where your only choices are to either ride along a heavily traveled highway or backtrack).

Google Maps offers a free, readily available resource for this.

The first, simplest thing that it offers is cycling directions.

Cycling Directions

Usually this results in a route that avoids higher traffic areas, and it provides other information in a fashion that is specific to cycling - for example, travel times are at cycling speeds, and it gives a general impression of the terrain over the course of the route.

It also includes maps of biking trails and routes, identified in various shades of green lines on the map. The picture below shows biking trails in and around Rock Cut State Park in Rockford, Illinois.

Rock Cut Biking Trails

Unfortunately, it doesn’t provide a key, so you are left to interpret on your own, but the Google blog says the following about the key:

  • Dark green indicates a dedicated bike-only trail;
  • Light green indicates a dedicated bike lane along a road;
  • Dashed green indicates roads that are designated as preferred for bicycling, but without dedicated lanes

Some of the maps also show red, or perhaps brown, lines which were perhaps added in later (?). Based upon some familiarity with one of the areas they show up in, it appeared to me that these were either hiking or off-road trails, and that seems to be supported by this article on using Google maps for cycling on Lifewire.com. That article also offers step-by-step directions about how to use the cycling directions, though they appear to be specific to a desktop/laptop interface. In Google Maps for iOS, you tap the layers button in the upper right-hand corner:

Tap the Layers button...

Then select the cycling option in the menu:

...then select the cycling option

This will turn on the cycling route overlay so you’ll see bike trails and such on the map. You also want to make sure you select "biking" for the directions when you punch in your destination. This means that your directions will be set for cycling rather than driving, so if you use Google Maps for driving directions, you’ll want to remember to switch it back when you are in the car.

That Google Maps offers cycling directions isn’t new - it’s been around as a feature since at least 2010 - but it’s one of those things that you only really notice when you have a use for it.

The cycling specific directions are a great feature when you are trying to determine how to get from one specific location to another, but Google Maps offers another feature that is extremely helpful when trying to add distance to routes: the Measure Distance mode.

To turn this on using Google Maps for iOS you want to find your starting point on the map, and do a long press to drop a pin. This will bring up a menu on the left that includes "measure distance":

Measure Distance

(Note that, if you accidentally tap on a notable feature, it may not offer this option, so you may have to re-adjust your starting point slightly. I had to do that for this example, because I apparently tapped on just the right spot for Lock 2 of the Hennepin Canal for my first try).

Once you’ve selected this option, you’ll get a blue circle with a dotted line, and a distance readout at the bottom left hand corner. The trickiest part of this to get a handle on is that you don’t move the blue dot, you move the map under it. As you move the map the dotted line will extend. When you reach a turning point in the route you are exploring, you tap the "add point" button in the lower left-hand corner. This sets a marker and allows you to move the line in another direction (without it turns will get lost and the line will move at a diagonal direction - cool if you a traveling as the crow flies, but otherwise doesn’t work for the rest of us). This means that you’ll only need a few points set for a route with a few turns and mostly straightaways, but a lot more for routes that curve and turn. My example below marks out the distance for the Hennepin Canal Trail, which has a combination of straights and curves:

Hennepin Canal Trail

I’ve zoomed out a bit to give a larger picture here, but you can zoom in pretty close to make the map more precise as you are making it.

Ultimately, this lets you lay out a route for the distance you want. I find myself using it often to select routes for the distance I want in a way that avoids major thoroughfares, and takes me in a circular route from start to finish while avoiding re-covering the same territory as much as possible.

I don’t necessarily love Google products as a rule - I use Apple Maps on iOS for driving directions, don’t use their office software at all, and don’t generally use them for search. But I do generally try to use the best tool I can find for the job, all other things being equal. For cycling routes and directions, and for finding cycling trails, Google Maps is absolutely a step above.

Roadside Repairs by Erin Wade

About three miles into my Sunday ride last week I had a bit of a surprise when the brake caliper dropped off of the right side of my trike and started dragging along the asphalt.

them’s the brakes

This occurred following a bump in the road, and it was followed by a rather sickening metallic dragging sound - the sort of noise that you just know is potentially expensive.

I had started out with the intention of going for a longer ride - in this case, about 28.7 miles, so longer for me, anyway. I wanted a good time on the distance, so I lubed up the trike and pumped up the tires to make sure we were running at peak efficiency. Clearly it did not occur to me to check the connections on the brakes...

After getting over the initial surprise I scooped up the caliper (dragging by its cable) and, with it in one hand and the other hand on a handlebar, turned around to go back and look for the missing bolt. Of course, the bolt is black, the asphalt that I was looking for it on on was black...

The miracle is: I found it.

There it was, just laying there, a couple of feet from the side of the road, waiting for me. (The caliper is actually held in with two bolts, but I’m guessing the first one took it’s leave earlier on. Either way I was lucky enough to find one...). I picked it up and found a spot to effect a roadside repair. One of the nice things about riding in farm country is that one is never far from a pull-in for a field (or similar), so its relatively easy to get sufficiently off the road to allow one to safely focus on dealing with an issue.

Thank goodness Allen let me borrow his wrenches

The repair was simple enough. The bolt was undamaged and it went right in. I was also extra fortunate in that, although it mounts with two bolts, one seemed to be enough to hold it in place well enough for it to function. What’s more, it functioned well, with no noise or trouble, and I was able to finish my ride. I realized later in the week that this was a fluke. Going for another, shorter ride, it started to come loose, and I was unable to tighten it up in a way that left it lined up properly such that it didn’t grind or otherwise make noise. That I was able to get in the remaining 24-or-so miles in without a problem is pretty amazing.

While I experienced all of this good fortune, it did make me realize a few things:

  • Although I use it rarely, it turned out to be very fortunate that I have a repair tool in the saddlebags on the trike. My ride would likely have been over without it, and I’d either have been riding back the three miles holding a caliper in one hand, or calling for help.
  • It pays to listen to what your machine is telling you. In this case, that brake has been making a “clunk” on engagement for the past three or four rides. In retrospect, it’s clear that the caliper was loose and/or I’d already lost bolt number one.
  • Probably, doing periodic checks of such connections would be a good thing as well. I’m usually eager to get out and ride, and so looking over these sorts of things hasn’t been on my mental list. And, to be honest, my Pocket hasn’t really had any issues like this before, and I’ve put over 1400 miles on it since I got it over a year ago. So yeah - it’s the trike’s fault for being so reliable; its gone and made me complacent.

Since then, I’ve gotten my little Catrike Pocket in to Meads Bike Shop to get the caliper properly re-connected, and while it was there I had them do a tune up (I usually have that done at the beginning of the season, but time didn’t make that an easy option this year. Plus, Tempo Velo’s Farmondo is coming up next month, and given that bits seem to be falling off of my trike, it made sense to have the professionals give it a once-over ahead of the event.

Alexander The Great by Erin Wade

I have a long-term Audible subscription that gives me two credits per month towards audiobooks. When I say "long-term", I mean that this is something that has been in place since well before Amazon purchased Audible. In fact, according to my account information, I’ve been a member since January 2001 - not quite since the beginning of its existence in 1995, but still pretty early in its lifespan.

I listen to a lot of spoken word content in a blend of podcasts and audiobooks. At times, the volume of podcasts means that it takes a while to get back to the audiobooks, and from time to time I’ll hit a point where I have to use some of my Audible credits or I will lose them. Long story short, this is how I came to purchase Alexander The Great by Philip Freeman. It reflected an area of interest - I do enjoy history and biographies - but a mild one. It was something that I figured it wouldn't hurt to have, but I wasn’t sure when I would get to listening to it.

I should not have put it off. The worry, with a biography on a long-past historical figure like this is that it will be a series of dry facts, that it will be an experience more like taking one’s medicine - it’s good for you, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean that you enjoy it. The approach taken for this tome, however, was different. Rather than simply providing a series of facts, Freeman takes a cue from David McCullough. This book reads more like a novel than a history book, with the author providing descriptions of the locations, and offering (perhaps speculative) insights into the feelings and minds of the many players in the life and times surrounding the legendary man. That he is doing so is addressed early on in the book - there is no pretense that he actually knows what the people of the time were thinking, but rather the author notes that he intended to make a more picturesque tableau, and he does so quite nicely. The reader gets a sense of what it may have been like to be there marching through Macedonia, Greece, or Asia with Alexander.

Not that this should suggest that historical facts are left out of the picture. In fact, the book does a fine job of giving an impression of events during, after, and before the rise of Alexander. For myself, having a passing interest in his story with little to no specific background information, I found this book a wonderful introduction.

To provide clear context of the events that lead to the rise of Alexander, the author chooses to begin with going into detail on the rule of his father. I’d known that Alexander was not actually Greek, and that he was the son of Philip of Macedonia, but that was honestly all I’d known, a tiny bit of trivia retained from my undergraduate Western Civ class far more years ago than I’d care to admit. Who Philip was (the hard-won king of Macedonia) or how that provided the ground work that made Alexander’s conquests possible was something that, frankly, I’d never even thought to consider. Understanding that Alexander learned at the feet of a political and strategic mastermind who did considerable consolidation of the lands of Macedonia and Greece certainly provides a clearer picture of how the events surrounding the man himself are possible - such legendary figures do not simply appear, pristine, from the ether. Rather they rise up along the steps provided by those who come before.

Among the other things this book helped to provide was some clearer context in terms of the historical timeline. I’ve always though of Alexander as ancient, and he was, but my picture of him lacked context. This telling clearly puts him in a context with respect to other events in history, with touchstones such as battle between the Spartans and Xerxes (as reflected in 300), his relative presence to Greek philosophers, and the existence and his experience with the great pyramids in Egypt. At one point Freeman notes that the distance in time between Alexander and the builders of those monuments is akin to the distance between our time and that of Alexander. It makes one realize that the ancient world was a long time ago, but that it was also an incredibly long span of time itself, with huge swaths of history already past by the time this conqueror’s sandals trod the earth.

The narrator for this book is Michael Page. He sounds to be a British reader, and he is pleasant company for the journey in the book. The only caveat I’d make for this is that it may be beneficial for the American listener to visit the Wikipedia page on Alexander The Great to look at the spellings of some of the names and terms. Page has a delightfully English pronunciation style that will be different than we’d expect. The most frequent example is his way of reading the name of Alexander’s primary foe in the book - Darius the Third. Most of us in the States would likely say "Dare-E-Us", but Page pronounces it "Duh-Rye-Us". For the record, Dictionary.com agrees with him, as does Merriam-Webster, so perhaps I’m just off on this, but I suspect others may find it a bit confusing as well.

This book is a survey of the times, and rolls past like a story rather than a text, so it will likely be unsatisfying for someone well-versed in the lore of Alexander the Great. But if this is an area of interest for you, and particularly if you’ve wondered how to start in this, this book provides a very nice entry point.

Rokform Comes Thru... by Erin Wade

I was a relatively early adopter of the iPhone - I had a first generation model, and I’ve had at least every-other model since (e.g. I didn’t have an iPhone 3G, but I had an iPhone 3Gs, no 4, but a 4s, etc). I also have a couple of personal characteristics that make me a danger to such devices - I have a tendency to drop things, and a tendency to put such devices directly into harms way (by doing things like using the phone to track cycling speed and distances, etc), which turns out to be a potentially dangerous and costly combination (I managed to break the screen on my 3Gs within a day or so of getting it).

I’ve tried a variety of cases over the years, but when it became clear that I was going to need something protective, and something that would support mounting in my car and on my bike/trike, my search narrowed. Otterbox had already established itself early on as a leader in the protective case market, but I did not care for the bulk that it added on to the phone itself, and it left me high and dry for mounting options. And then I discovered Rokform.

I don’t recall how I came across them - likely through an internet search. But what they offered was a considerably sleeker protective case option, with a combination of both a bespoke mechanical mounting system, and a magnetic alternative or backup. And they offered mounts that worked with this in the car, and specific mounts for cycling, motorcycles, etc. I bought my first Rokform case for an iPhone 4s, and paired them with both the car mounting system and a mount for my road bike. I had to use the motorcycle mount and attach it to the handlebar, since Rokform’s bike-specific mount is designed for bikes with a 1 1/8" stem, something that hadn’t come along yet when my 1987 Cannondale SR400 was built. But it worked nicely once I’d sorted that out.

When I got my Catrike Pocket, I first installed the bike-specific mount on the 1 1/8" stem on the right handlebar (I’d purchased it for the Cannondale before I realized it wouldn't work, so it was already around), but then later decided to transfer the motorcycle mount from the Cannondale to the Pocket (I very rarely ride the Cannondale any more). This is mounted to the front accessory mount, which puts the phone front and center, but below my traffic sightlines. I can see my speed, distance, etc, readily when I want that information. Between the Cannondale and the Catrike I’ve been using the motorcycle mount, trouble-free, since at least 2015 or so.

But I came in the other evening after a ride, pulled my phone out of my pocket and sat on the couch, and saw a piece of plastic fall out of the back of the phone. Upon closer inspection it was clear that this was one of the tabs off of the motorcycle mount’s RokLock - the plastic holder that physically connects the phone’s case with the mount.

When I looked at it later, it was pretty substantially broken:

Broken RokLock

To the credit of the device - likely due in part to the magnetic backup - the phone stayed in place the entire ride without incident. I hadn’t noticed this till I got back.

Still, I was frustrated. Yes, I’ve had this mount for three years, and it gets pretty regular use. But Rokform’s products are not inexpensive, and I’ve viewed them as falling into the category of getting what you pay for. I didn’t relish the idea of shelling out for another motorcycle mount, but I pulled out the iPad and navigated to the company’s website.

What I noticed, as I was looking over the page, was a link in the menu for replacement parts. Following that, I discovered that, in fact, you can get a pack of three RokLocks, along with the torx screws that hold them on, for $2.99. That’s a buck a piece before shipping, and leaves me with two additional pieces for repairs down the road if I need them.

I ordered away. Once they came in, the repair was straightforward - unscrew the screw from the back, remove the old RokLock, mount the new one, and screw it back in. Honestly, the part of the activity that took longest was locating my torx screwdriver (this is not an item for which find regular use - I’m probably fortunate I was able to turn it up at all). Once the new one was mounted one could see why it’s important for the RokLock to be intact:

old and new

The upshot of all of this is that, by making these replacement parts available at an incredibly reasonable price, Rokform retains, for me at least, the worth-what-you-pay-for status. If one is going to step out and invest in a high-end system for protecting and mounting electronics in harm’s way, its good to know the company has recognized where their products might fail, and has devised a reasonable, low cost and low effort way to get them back up and running. Kudos to Rokform!

Catching the Signs by Erin Wade

It’s probably safe to say that riding a recumbent trike gives one a different perspective on the world. What I didn’t realize until I started was that this isn’t just a metaphorical difference.

Riding out on country roads things simply look different. Because of the position on the trike, one is at eye level with the long grass in the ditches, and a little extra care must be taken at the corners. It also means you get a different point of view on the wildflowers of summer:

Ditch Lilies

I’ve also started noticing something that was hiding in plain sight, albeit a little lower than typical eye level. Riding out here in rural northern Illinois one encounters a sizeable number of small waterways. Some of these are natural, while others are man-made (you can often tell by the course that they take - natural waterways tend to meander, while the man-made ditches tend to flow in straight lines and sharp angles). Some flow year-round, while others are intermittent. However, they have a commonality when they meet the roadway - they require a bridge.

I’d ridden my bike all around the area when I was young, and since moving back I’ve literally ridden hundreds of miles on the local roadways. Between those two time periods I’ve crossed bridges over these streams more times than I can count. But a week or two ago I noticed something that I’d never seen before: some of the bridges have plaques on them.

The first one I noticed was a bridge over Willow Creek on Beemerville Road (and folks, let me tell you that, despite the name, I see no evidence of any "ville" along this path). Neither the bridge, nor the road itself, are a fancy affair, though both suit their purposes and location. But as I was riding along it I caught notice of the plaque:

Plaque on the bridge over Willow Creek

Willow Creek (that’s pronounced "crick", incidentally) itself is an small, but ongoing affair:

Willow Creek

And the bridge and road are relatively rustic affairs - most of Beemerville road is gravel. This is a fact which, incidentally, I think I’d known and actually forgotten, or I likely would not have chosen it. Gravel is easier to navigate on a trike than on a road bike, but it’s still not, you know, pleasant to ride on).

Willow Creek bridge and Catrike Pocket

Of course, once one has seen a thing, discovered that it exists, has existed in the world despite one’s ignorance, one becomes primed to find it elsewhere. I had now begun looking for the plaques on the myriad other bridges I cross. And they are there, though certainly not everywhere. But they appear to have been present on a couple of bridges I have ridden across many, many times. I came across this plaque, which suggests the bridge it adorns has its own name:

Faber Bridge

Faber Bridge Plaque

This, then, is Faber Bridge (apparently). Faber is a common family name in the area, and the town of Mendota used to have a hotel by that name downtown, across from the train depot.

Hotel Faber

The hotel was still standing, albeit empty and unused, when I was a kid. Now only a gravel parking lot commemorates its location. But I digress...

The third plaque I came across is on one of the many bridges over Bureau Creek:

Trike at Bureau Creek

Plaque at Bureau Creek

Bureau Creek is large and long enough to garner its own Wikipedia Page, running some 73 miles across at least two different counties. It is the creek that used to run under the Hennepin Canal aqueduct at Lock 12, on its way to empty into the Illinois River. There are times of the year where, depending upon the amount of rain, it would be navigable by a small canoe or kayak.

Given all of that, you can perhaps see why a bridge over this waterway might have a plaque on it. But the others?

The Faber Bridge covers the Little Vermillion River, a waterway that eventually empties into the Vermillion River), and then the Vermillion into the Illinois. Willow Creek looks, according to Google Maps, to flow into the Green River), which later feeds the Rock and that the Mississippi. And so one might think these plaques go on to bridges that cover more important tributaries. But no - there are at least dozens of bridges over Bureau Creek, for example. I’ve crossed more than a couple of them either by cycle or auto, and most of them are not similarly adorned. They do carry load ratings, so perhaps they were meant to be informative, but they are not placed in a location that would be easily read by a truck driver prior to crossing; and, again, you’d think if that were important, it would be marked on all of the bridges.

Ultimately, to me at least, their purpose remains a mystery. (There may well be a bridge engineer out there right now, reading this, saying "well actually" aloud as he comes across this section...).

What it does help reveal is the effect of that difference in perspective. Riding on my upright road bike the physical position places one’s body such that the head and eyes are oriented down, towards the handlebars and the road. The head is craned upward to see ahead unless leaning back into the seat (and often with the hands off the bars). Ion that machine my head is five to six feet up off the road, depending upon position.

Riding on the recumbent trike these plaques are at eye level, and one is comfortably able to look forward - indeed is oriented forward - the entire time. That I’ve not noticed these before I suspect is simply due to not having them easily accesssible. I’ve enjoyed years of riding my upright bike through the countryside - I’m certainly not trying to imply otherwise - but it is sometimes surprising how a relatively small change in approach can provide a very different point of view, and access to a different way of seeing things you’ve looked at many times before.

Bubble Podcast by Erin Wade

Bubble

I love podcasts. Much of my audio-listening time is split between podcasts and audiobooks, and that split is about 70/30 in favor of podcasts. I’d prefer it were closer to 50/50, but the recurring nature of podcasts means that, each time I step away to listen to an audiobook, the podcasts stack up. I really shouldn’t care about that, but there’s a little voice inside of me that wants things to be completed, and a stack of unlistened-to podcasts is anathema to that.

All of which is to say that, while I love podcasts, I was not looking to add anything to my existing subscriptions - I have enough to keep up with. But then John Hodgman tweeted about Bubble...

Many podcasts -and certainly most of the ones I listen to of late - are just a couple, or a few, people talking, often around a loosely defined theme. That theme might be a movie review, a sport, or an historical or cultural phenomenon. But there are cases where people have decided to tackle the ambitious feat of putting together an honest to goodness, scripted radio play (or perhaps we should just say “audio play”, since there’s no radio involved).

Enter Bubble.

Bubble is a new, eight part audio series from Maximum Fun. It is written by Jordan Morris, and each episode (thus far) runs about a half hour. When I say new, I mean it - the first episode dropped on June 12th, and the second on June 20th. This is brand-spanking new.

There are multiple voices in the play, some perhaps familiar to the entertainment and podcast savvy. This is set in our time, but in a different place - in a world where the outside world is a harsh environment full of monsters - “Imps” who want to kill you, but where there are cities (or at least one city - Fairhaven) under protective domes, or if you prefer, in a bubble.

What quickly becomes clear, however, is that Fairhaven’s bubble is perhaps not so secure as one might think. And this is where the tension, and your lead characters - Morgan and Mitch - come in.

That description, of course, suggests this might be sci-fi horror, and I suppose it could be considered that, but with a hearty, healthy nod to shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer with a little Portlandia thrown in. The dialogue is fun and fast, and the characters are a lot of fun - you know these people already, and you enjoy hanging out with them. Well... with some of them...

I always prefer to refrain from spoiling much of what is to come when you listen to or watch a thing, so I’ll stop here with the description. Suffice it to say this is now on my regular listen list - its a weekly release, and I really could not wait for episode two to drop. And given that it’s only slated for eight episodes, it promises to be the sort of show you keep in your pod catcher for repeated listening (I’ve already listened to the first episode twice).

Enjoy!

Spring Surprises by Erin Wade

Into the Mist

One of the downsides - if there truly is a downside - of having a regular Sunday ride is that Sunday is sometimes recalcitrant. Spring is doing her thing with the rain, and we’ve had enough over the past few days that the vernal ponds have emerged along with opportunistic streams. Still, the weather report for today claimed that the middle of the day would be dry, and the radar seemed to agree.

Opportunistic stream

Trusting in these sources, I geared up, pumped up the tires, and rolled out on my trike. The persistent cloud cover at least meant that the risk of sunburn was low (though I still sprayed on my exposed areas with SPF-as-close-as-I-can-get-to-1000 - have to maintain my alabaster complexion...). The cloud cover also allowed for temperatures in the 60’s, which is quite a gift for any point after Labor Day in Northern Illinois.

Strictly speaking, I did not encounter rain. No droplets fell from the sky in any noticeable form. It was clear, though, that I’d not considered the ability of midwestern air to hold water vapor in solution. As the ride went on everything just became progressively more... moist.

It’s rare that I wish for a set of glasses with built in wipers, but here I was, trying to decide between wearing them and not.

Wet Goggles

I ultimately went with the strategy of removing and violently shaking them off periodically as I went. By the time I arrived back home I was soaked through. Still, none of this is to say that it was a bad ride - any day with the opportunity to get out on the trike is better than a day without. My child is, no doubt, tired of hearing me say that if you wait for a perfect day to do something it will never happen.

And, true to form, it did offer a thing or two to see. As noted above, this time of year often results in opportunistic waterways emerging, the vernal ponds. And it offered up this as one of my final sights along the roadway:

what is that?

For those struggling to sort out what that might be, a closer look might help:

yes - that’s horseshit

Reminds you that you really are out in the country...

Trying out Bike Sharing in San Diego by Erin Wade

We’ve had the opportunity over the past weekend to spend some time in San Diego. If the Bay Area of the city is representative of the overall, this city has readily embraced the bicycle as an alternative to automotive travel. In the bay area we’ve counted at least four different bike sharing services - OFO, LimeBike, and Mobike offer dockless bike sharing services, and a Discover (card) branded bike using a docking station is also present. In addition, there are a handful of electric-supported or simply outright electrically operated options - LimeBike offers e-bikes in the area, as well as electric scooters, for example, and there appear to be a couple of other scooter options in the area as well. This appears to reflect a flavor of the city in general, which also sports pedicabs and electric transports, and within the first two days we’d already seen a couple of tandem bikes in operation.

bikes ready to go

What this means is that it is a simple thing to grab one of these machines when one is wanting to move about the area. Literally, once one has navigated the process of setting up the app to interact with the cycle (which does take a few minutes in each case - entering a credit card number is still a pain in the ass) getting up and running is really as simple as opening the app and scanning the QR code on the machine. Then you are off and rolling.

The volume of bikes and scooters in the area is such that one can reliably trust that there will be a machine within a block or so when one is in need. I can easily see a system like this being a reasonable transportation option for a person living in an urban area that also does a decent job of supporting cycle-transport with its infrastructure.

limebikes and mobikes and...

For my part, I have primarily been using the OFO bikes. These are easily identifiable given their bright yellow color. They are a standard three-speed “cruiser” style bike. The model is selected with an eye toward durability - internal gear hubs and drum brakes make for limited maintenance. Each bike has fenders, a chain guard, and a front basket to make them friendly towards the utility rider. The OFO app also offered the first week for free which meant, given my time limited trip, I would pay nothing for my usage on this particular trip.

OFO

The city itself does offer cycling lanes in some of the streets, but otherwise offers a somewhat confusing picture of where cycles can be ridden. In the gaslight district, for example - an historic potion of town offering multiple shops and restaurants - where to ride is unclear. There don’t appear to reliably be bike lanes in the streets, but the sidewalks offer no visible prohibition on bikes either. There are areas where signs are placed forbidding cycles, but these often occur suddenly in pathways that appear to have welcomed the machines just prior, leaving one with uncertain choices. In addition, when one dismounts to walk a bike, and is then passed by multiple people on electric scooters riding along on the same path it’s hard not to feel a little bitter - do they not qualify for the same restriction? (spoiler alert - they not only qualify, but more so...)

This article from the San Diego Union-Tribune from this spring suggests that non-electric bikes are allowed on sidewalks, but that electric items - scooters and e-bikes - are not. That article was published in March of 2018, suggesting that the dockless Bike sharing programs are a relatively new phenomenon for the city.

In general, it’s better to ride in the street where one can, to be certain, and I’m honestly surprised to find that San Diego doesn’t ban bikes on the sidewalks - this is certainly common practice in the Midwest. It will be interesting to see how the city adjusts to the influx of casual riders (who, one suspects, are probably more likely to want to be on the sidewalks) having ready access to a bicycle at whim. One suspects that the local laws may be adjusted as their experience with these questions increases.

For my part, it was nice to have a ride readily available while away from home. Of course, it would have been ideal for me if one of the companies would have offered a recumbent trike to rent, but that might be a bit much to ask. I suppose I can get by on an upright for a few days.

Hennepin Canal State Park Trail - Lock 2 to Lock 13 by Erin Wade

In rural northern Illinois there is a hidden gem of a state park. It’s long and narrow, and follows along the man-made waterway known as the Hennepin Canal.

Narrow to be certain - the park is generally the width of the canal and it’s towpaths, give or take a few expanded recreation and/or information areas. But also long to be sure. The Illinois DNR website indicates that the park occupies 104.5 linear miles, with 155 miles of towpath for riding/walking, etc. The canal runs from from the Illinois River just east of Bureau Junction to the Mississippi River near Rock Island. There is also a feeder canal that runs from Rock Falls southward and meets the main canal near Sheffield. The feeder itself runs nearly 30 miles, and provides water from the Rock River to the canal.

The eastern trail head is located in the tiny town of Bureau Junction, at the site of Lock 2.

Catrike Pocket at Lock 2 Trailhead

There is a Lock 1, apparently a little further to the east, but the towpath was not maintained between Locks 1 and 2, and Lock 1 is underwater during the summer months, making it hard to access and hard to see.

Driving to the trail head brought back a lot of memories. When I was a kid my family spent a lot of time on the Illinois river and its tributaries in this area. This included fishing trips with my father and grandfather, and weekend days at a beach along the river, swimming and waterskiing and watching the barges pass by. We’d marvel at the (relatively) tiny tugboats pushing row after row of shipping barge ahead of them. We’d have to stop and marvel because they also kicked up a significant wake that made you want to clear out of the water until they passed. And each trip we’d have to have at least one discussion about how it was odd that they were called tug boats, when they were actually pushing their cargo...

Driving to the trailhead brought back these memories. The geography of the roads changes as you get into river country - the formal grid of farm country yields to the twisting nature dictated by the rivers and streams - and the smell of the air shifts to reflect the presence of the waterways even when you cannot see them.

The trailhead is set at Lock 2, and it literally begins at the lock.

Catrike with Lock 2 in full view

Lock 2 facing west

Lock 2 facing east

I decided to ride from the trail head to Lock 13 and back, a round trip a little over 22 miles. The surface of the trail varies considerably over that distance, from what appears to be older asphalt to crushed stone to dirt. One section, maybe 3/4’s of a mile long, is white chip gravel, with all the slow-going that entails for any cycle without wide tires (even a trike - you don’t worry about falling over, but you do still get to experience all of the bone shaking joy). Portions of the trail had late spring grass growing in abundance.

The trail ahead - taken at Lock 3

Traveling this direction takes you past the locks in ascending numerical order. As such, Lock 3 is the first you encounter, just a short ways down the trail. While Lock 2 is the beginning of the trail, Lock 3 may be the preferred starting point for the non-completist. This point in the park has a large cement parking lot (compared to the small affair at the trailhead).

A couple of weeks ago I ventured out on the Illinois and Michigan Canal Trail, which was part of what made me think of this trail, which is a little further from home. Given that both are trails that run along the towpath of a canal, you’d expect riding them to be similar experiences. This is true, to some degree, but there are important differences between the two, at least for the sections that I’ve ridden.

The I&M Canal runs through multiple towns along its course. The section I rode began in LaSalle, went through Utica, and I stopped just three miles shy of Ottawa. Each of these locations offers opportunities to stop and eat, have a drink, all within a short distance from the path. As a result, you are also riding, albeit briefly, through settled areas.

The Hennepin Canal is decidedly more remote. Though the towpath crosses roads, for the 11 mile stretch that I rode it was mostly just me, the trail, and the canal. People fishing were encountered along the trail, typically within walking distance of the road crossings, but otherwise I was mostly alone.

The Canal itself is still almost entirely open water. This means that riding along it provides a view that includes water throughout, including the requisite wildlife; And the wildlife abound. Fish surface and jump in the canal, frogs wait alongside the trail, and I saw more herons in this single two and a half hour ride than I’ve ever seen on a single day before. I also frequently caught sight of a small dark yellow bird I did not recognize - not bright enough to be a goldfinch, but of similar size. My best guess, based on my Peterson Field Guide, would be a Common Yellowthroat. If so, common or not, it was new to me.

The Canal is almost entirely open water. There were multiple sections with land bridges intersecting the canal. The canal still flows past them, through culverts, but they appear frequently along the way.

Land bridge

If you look at the satellite view from Apple or Google maps you get a sense of how these re-occur along this section of the canal.

Satellite pic of land bridges

In some cases roads run across them, but in others they are simply grass covered. One assumes these were filled in to allow easy passage perhaps to farmers and others attempting to cross from one side of the canal to the other. This has little impact on biking other than to provide a short variation to the scenery. However, if one were canoeing or kayaking along this section of the canal, between the land bridges and the locks one would have to expect to portage frequently. Looking at the map the feeder canal appears to be free of either land bridges or locks, so that section might be the better choice for paddler.

In fact, at one point I did have to do my own, cycling version of a portage...

Tree Down!

One might expect a canal towpath to be mostly level. However, on this section there are elevation changes, some of them abrupt, particularly as one goes under bridges.

Trail under bridge

It is also the case that, from Lock 2 to the point where the feeder canal joins near Sheffield, the canal is rising. This isn’t easy to see, but one can feel it when riding. I was definitely faster on the way back.

In most cases the trail rises up to cross roads, but in one case it has a tunnel that runs under the roadway.

Tunnel

One wants to take care entering the tunnel. It’s not long, but the trail surface inside is dirt, and considerably less dry than the surface outside. I had to pick my way along it carefully to not end up with a back full of muddy water.

The other distinction of this canal is the locks themselves. Perhaps because it is younger and was in service later than the I&M Canal (still an active waterway until the early 1950’s) the locks are present and visible along the way. Their presence gives a feel for something very different than just riding along a river, and they provide more interesting markers of distance than a simple mile sign. Each of them has been set up now with a cement wall in place of the old lock hardware, causing a waterfall at each transition.

Lock waterfall

And the locks are each marked with depth measurements, likely to guide the lock tenders as they filled the lock in.

Depth Marker

Depth Marker circled

When you reach Lock 11, you’ll find a picnic area, as well as some weathered information signs to give you some of the history of the canal:

info sign

More info sign

And still more info sign

While I rode out to Lock 13, my actual goal was to reach Lock 12. This is due to a personal connection there - as I understand it, my Great-Grandfather Percy worked as a lock tender for this particular lock. I’d heard this before, and always pictured him coming from his home to work at the lock, one of probably multiple shift workers tending to it to facilitate barge traffic. It turns out this was a much bigger job than I’d imagined - the lockmen lived on the canal, provided with houses and outbuildings to support their work there. It was a year-round job, and in the winter they would cut ice from the canal and sell it to help fund its operation.

Trike at Lock 12

Lock 12 was also the site of one of the canal’s aqueducts - essentially a huge cement water bridge that carried the canal over existing natural waterways. In the case of Lock 12, it carried the canal over Big Bureau Creek. According to Wikipedia, of the nine original aqueducts, six remain while the other three were removed with piping put in to carry the flow of the canal water under the waterway it crossed. Lock 12 is one of the three that were removed.

On the western side of the bridge you can see the water reach its end...

Canelus Interruptus

...and there is a large drain gate for the water to descend.

Down the water goes...

Looking closely at the eastern side you can see the water burbling up inside the lock.

Water burbling

Bureau Creek is far below, with some of what must the the original pilings to support the aqueduct still present.

Bureau Creek and Pilings

Bureau Creek is actually a recurring companion along the trip, often visible on the trail opposite the canal. It is visually distinct, being a winding, twisting affair as it works its own path down to the Illinois River. This periodically gives one the sensation of riding along a causeway just above the water, which is a pleasant experience.

Bureau Creek Pano

There are campgrounds along the trail. They must be well-hidden, as it appears that I passed two of them, at Lock 6 and Lock 11, and did not see them. In both cases it appears they are on the opposite side of the canal from the cycling trail. If one wanted to do a multiple day trip along the canal, it appears it would be friendly for bikepacking.

If you go, you’ll want to bring along your own supplies. I’ve already mentioned that it’s remote, and the DNR website notes that the only drinking water available on the route is located at the visitor center. I actually wished I had brought along a second bottle of water for myself on this go-round. If you look at the canal along the map, it’s rare that it travels through settled areas of any size. You are on your own for drinks and snacks.

However, if you are looking for an opportunity to ride out alone in the wilderness - something that can be challenging in our well-settled times - this trail definitely offers the opportunity. You’ll come across the occasional fishing folks, and the sighting of them generally signals that you are close to a crossroads or trail entry point. Otherwise, if my trip was any gauge, you can expect long stretches of solitude in company of nature.

I&M Canal Trail - LaSalle to Buffalo Rock State Park by Erin Wade

Last weekend offered up an unexpected opportunity. It took a while to get the requisite everything else done ahead of my Sunday ride, so it was afternoon before I got my trike out to hit the road. Unfortunately, while the rest of the trike was game, the presta valve in my right front tire saw its opportunity to escape, and shot out across the driveway as soon as I popped the cap off. This was, of course, followed by the disheartening sound of all of the air in the tube rushing away, never to return.

Given my own previous experience with my tube changing skills, I quickly looked up the Sunday hours for Bike Works in Peru. It was about 2:00, and they were open till 3:00, which gave enough time to get there with room for a tube change before closing. The folks there were, as always, gracious and quick, and my trike was soon back in working order.

I had originally planned to head back home and ride one of my country road routes, but as I walked around the shop and waited, it occurred to me that I was only a mile or two from the Illinois and Michigan Canal trail along the Illinois River. Despite the fact that it’s less than a half-hour from home, I’d never ridden it. So, in the spirit of lemonade from lemons, I figured I ought to take the opportunity.

I entered the trail off of Joliet Street in downtown LaSalle. The trailhead is a little bit further to the west, in Peru, but I found this entrance first, and I didn’t want to waste daylight looking for the other entrance, so I went with it. This site also retains one of the original locks from the canal itself.

Lock High Side

Lock Low Side

You can get a feel for the change in elevation that the lock system facilitated by looking at the difference in levels on either side of the lock. Unfortunately, the lock doors do tend to gather gunk, but that doesn’t take away from the historical presence of the location. And, one assumes that, when the locks were in operation, that gunk would routinely be washed away.

The site is marked with information signs as well to let you know a thing or two about what you are looking at.

North Meets South

Rough and Ready

The trail itself runs along the canal, mostly on the original towpath (in fact, part of the trail turns out to be a side street called Towpath Road). This spot in LaSalle appears to be a popular one, with plenty of people walking the path and fishing at the side of the canal. One quickly finds that, in the LaSalle area section at least, the path is in need of some attention from a maintenance crew. Potholes abound, and avoiding them required focus on the trail ahead. This is (fortunately) not the case throughout. This first part of the trail was failing asphalt, but the surfaces varied throughout, including crushed stone, dirt, and grass.

Since it’s on the towpath, you are generally in view of the canal. However, this doesn’t always mean what you might think it means. The canal has been out of service for about 85 years. This means that, while sometimes it’s open water...

Open Water

...other sections are essentially completely filled in.

Grass where water used to be... .jpg

There are portions of the trail where, if one did not know there had been a canal along the way, one would not guess that it had been there. This is spoken to by handy mile markers along the way that tell you which mile of the trail you’ve hit, how far you are from the next major point in the trail, and facts about the trail itself.

Mile Marker

The trail travels through the town of Utica, a charming little town that offers up a potential resting point along the way.

Utica downtown from the trail

Info Marker at Utica

The town itself has a tavern or two, a winery, and styles itself as the gateway to Starved Rock State Park, which is on the other side of the river from the canal. And being in the region of the park means that there are scenic bluffs on view during the ride. Sometimes these are glimpsed through the vegetation...

Bluff thru the cattails

...and other times they are right there in front of you.

Split Rock

While there are sections of the trail that run adjacent to, or directly through towns, other sections feel much more remote and rustic. As I moved into the remote and rustic portions foot traffic - and bike traffic for that matter - dropped off considerably. It was possible through some of these sections, overgrown and covered with trees, to feel completely alone.

Alone Time

And speaking of rustic, I came across this set of signs on the section of the trail about halfway between Utica and Buffalo Rock State Park:

Caution Signs

As one proceeds (cautiously) past the signs, this is what one finds:

Foot Bridge

Fortunately the trike only comes in around 35 pounds (33 without accessories) so it was easy enough to carry across the footbridge. That bridge is just laid in place, and some thoughtful soul has tied it off to a tree so it doesn’t wash away. While this was fun to come across, presents in stark contrast to other sections of the trail, where the bridge construction is at a somewhat higher level.

Bridge across the canal in Utica

As it says in the title, I followed the trail to Buffalo Rock State Park. As you start to enter park area you begin to come across picnic spots that range from basic...

Trailside picnic spot

...to advanced.

Picnic shelter

At Buffalo Rock itself there is a parking area for entering the trail. This sits just outside the entrance to the park itself, so if one wanted to ride into the park that option is available.

Arrived at Buffalo Rock

The park is about three miles from Ottawa, so one has the option of riding further and heading in to Tangled Roots for a draft and to fill a growler, or maybe swinging by BASH for a bit of sushi. For my part, I rode just a bit past the park entrance to round out the ride to 10 miles (I like round numbers where I can get them) and then turned around.

The rough condition of the trail around LaSalle aside, most of it is in good shape. Being along a canal there are very few sudden changes in elevation, so it’s the distance rather than any hill climbing that one has to take as the challenge. I could absolutely see taking the opportunity to bring along a picnic lunch, or maybe stopping along the way in Utica for a drink and a snack. The quiet moments along the trail give a feel for what it must have been like, 85 years ago and more, working the mules to pull the barges along the canal. I don’t know why I waited so long to go out and ride this trail, and I’m certainly glad that I took this opportunity.

What to Wear? by Erin Wade

This past Wednesday saw temperatures here in Northern Illinois virtually double from the day before, hitting a high in the mid-60’s - a thing virtually unseen thus far this spring. Obviously it was necessary to take advantage of the weather with a ride. But I ran into a brief snag.

I’ve been riding all winter. As I’ve mentioned before, cycling in the winter isn’t really a cold activity. Once you get working you warm up nicely, all assuming that you’ve dressed properly in the first place. Dressing properly is the trick, and the trial and error part of learning that is sometimes a little uncomfortable, to be sure, but once you sort it out the riding is a lot of fun.

The thing is, the day was so much warmer I suddenly realized: I was not sure what to wear.

I’ve been dressing in two or three layers for so long that I was having trouble remembering what I usually would wear on a ~65-ish degree day. Wear too much, and the ride would quickly become unpleasantly hot. Still, under that circumstance one can still take off a layer or two and continue. But wear too little, and one gets irretrievably uncomfortable.

I ended up going with my noisy pants - Columbia heavy-duty nylon pants that are wind-resistant, and that usually serve as my outer layer thru the colder months - and a Nike high-visibility (read: yellow) long-sleeved top with a zipper turtleneck and thumb holes on the sleeves. I wasn’t confident, getting on to the trike, that I wouldn't be too warm, but I was pretty sure I wouldn't be too cold.

Also - this was the first outing for my Keen sandals (yay), but I brought along a pair of wool socks in the saddlebags just in case.

The verdict - it was maybe a mile before I had my sleeves rolled up all the way, the v-neck on the shirt completely unzipped, and began to wonder if it would be too uncomfortable to pull the bottoms of the pants up over my knees.

It’s odd how this happens - a season is just a few months, and yet we get so adapted to one that dealing with the next can be a challenge at first. It’s clear to me that I would have been fine in a t-shirt and shorts for the ride, but it was a struggle to even picture that, particularly given that there had been snow on the ground just a few days before.

And of course, as I write this from my comfy chair this weekend, we just came off of a windswept Saturday, which leads into a high today of 35° with very gray skies and possible snow in the offing. But I’m sure that, at some point in the near future, this season will right itself and sail smoothly forward.

Right?

Mind the Gap - The New Mutants on Marvel Unlimited by Erin Wade

Over the past couple of months I have been working my way back through the first run of The New Mutants from Marvel Comics. I am referring here specifically to the version of the series that started in 1983, and ran 100 issues (not including annuals and other special issues, of course). This series is, perhaps, a little less well known than some of the others which have generated the big screen movies. Still, it has been the source for at least one one TV series - Legion on FX (which I discussed here) - and has a movie lined up which was supposed to be coming out in April, but which has been delayed now until next year.

I read the series the first time when it was new, collecting each issue as it showed up on the racks at Fact and Fancy, the hobby shop in our little town. It was something very different for 12-year old me - a series featuring characters that were around my age, dealing with actual teenage problems. It was about adolescents, but it wasn’t adolescent in its presentation - it was written at the same level as the other comics of the era (or arguably better, given the creative teams involved with it). And yes, with super powers, but these figured central to the theme of the series - for mutants, powers emerge in adolescence and, like so many of the other things that emerge during that turbulent time of life, they are often uncomfortable, awkward, embarrassing, intrusive...

This is a theme that does emerge in other stories since, of course - it’s a central component of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it’s used to good effect in the first two of the three Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies. I wouldn't argue that it’s unique to The New Mutants or originated there, but it’s particularly well done in the series, and I would be unsurprised to find that the series influenced those later story tellers.

Excepting some of the story telling tropes of 1980’s comic books - for example, the need to give As You Know, Bob’s about various components of the characters powers and the ongoing storyline in virtually every issue - the series stands up well. I’m slightly older than 12 years old now, and I’m still really enjoying it.

As will surprise no one who reads this space, I have been doing my re-reading digitally - specifically using the Marvel Unlimited app. This is my preferred approach for multiple reasons, not the least of which is the fact that a 12.9" iPad screen is bigger, crisper, and cleaner than the original books.

But I ran into a snag.

Marvel Unlimited, for the uninitiated, is a lot like Netflix for Marvel Comics - for an annual fee you have access to everything uploaded to Marvel’s servers. Also, like Netflix, the app knows which issue is next, making it easy to roll through multiple issues in the continuing storyline across the course of a weekend afternoon or evening.

Still, as I was reading and enjoying the series I had a moment where there seemed to be a jump in the timeline. I flipped back to the prior issue, looked at where it ended, and then moved forward again. It was a jump, but not so large that I couldn't follow what was going on. I chalked it up to storytelling decisions (Sometimes, for example, things are handled in an annual issue that doesn’t appear in the series itself on the app), shrugged, and continued to read. Then it happened again, and it was clear that I was missing material.

I pulled back out of the series reading mode and looked at the lineup on the app. This is what I saw:

Marvel Unlimited

It’s a lot of visual material to process at first, and it took me a moment to catch it myself. But it’s there:

Its a leap!

There is a 9-issue gap - the app just jumps from issue 61 to issue 71 (I clearly wasn’t paying attention to issue numbers as I was going from one book to the next). So this got me thinking about that prior story jump and, sure enough, it also jumps from issue 50 to 55. This was a small enough gap that I was able to rationalize it away, but it was a real thing.

This sent me on a search - perhaps I could download the issues from Comixology? But no, the same gap appears on their store as well. They didn’t seem to be available online elsewhere either, at least not with a casual search. This was vexing because - and I’m sure this will be surprising - I’m a bit of a completist. When I go back to read a series, I want to read the entire series.

And then it occurred to me: I still own the paper versions of these.

Many of the comics I’d collected over my childhood have since been sold, but there are a few key series that I held on to, and The New Mutants was among them.

Accessing them was no small feat - they were buried in a closet, in a wooden box built by my grandfather, under multiple other boxes. I can’t honestly say for sure why I’ve held on to the comics that I have - predominantly sentiment, I suspect, if I’m going to be honest. But if one needed a rationale for one’s seemingly irrational retention of material, here it is.

Of course, I brought out not only issues 62 through 70, but also 51-54. It meant having to drop back in the storyline a bit, but dammit, now it’s complete.

Making things complete

I’m sure there are those out there who will start to think about the joy of holding a paper book in hand versus the cold, impersonal experience of reading them on an iPad, and look to this entry to be an endorsement of that. Those folks should prepare for disappointment. It’s not like I only just remembered that I had these up in a closet - I could have simply chosen to re-read the series in paper from the get-go. Honestly, though, paper comics are a disappointing experience relative to digital. Among the things one realizes when going back through these:

  • The colors are muddy and faded. The color scheme in older comics was one of filling in through pixelation, and the quality of this varies from one issue to the next. This might be partially due to age, but it’s also a reality of the medium from the era.
  • Printing is inconsistent. There are sections that are washed out or where text is missing because the print head (or whatever - I’m no printing press expert) simply didn’t hit the page square on. These aren’t due to the ravages of time - I can remember being frustrated with these issues when I was a kid.
  • Having a stack of comics to work through is kind of a pain in the ass. Where do you put them, how do you work around the stack with other things? This is amplified by the fact that these are now part of a collection that I’m trying to keep relatively pristine, and so makes what should be a casual activity, occasionally involving the presence of food and drink, somewhat less so. (I’m actually pleasantly surprised that I did not find cereal flakes and milk stains in any of the books - I wasn’t nearly so careful when I read them thru the first time).
  • Advertising! I’d actually forgotten that these are full of ads (the digital versions are not). It’s a little jarring at first, and there is some nostalgia to seeing the ads for New England Comics and Charles Atlas. I can remember wondering exactly what Sea monkeys were (spoiler alert: brine shrimp), and how the Sales Leadership Club worked. TSR role playing games and Nintendo game cassettes also feature prominently in these. Still the reminiscent curiosity wore off quickly and soon they were just intrusive, like all other advertising.

Fortunately I’ve worked through these now, and can move back to the digital haven whence I started. Of course, that also means I need to put them away and stack all of the crap back in the closet...

Civilization VI on iPad by Erin Wade

A couple of months ago Civilization VI showed up on the iPad App Store. The Civilization series) has been around for decades on desktop PC’s and consoles, and I started playing with either Civilization III or IV. This is a turn-based strategy game in which one is trying to build an empire. Of course, your empire has competitors, and each is headed by an historic leader. The capabilities of each empire vary somewhat based upon the historical makeup of that culture - the Indian nation, for example, has elephants as part of an available unit. Victory can be achieved through conquest, as one might expect, but there are multiple other routes to win, including religious, cultural, or scientific domination.

Some time ago I discussed here that I really didn’t want to play games at my desktop computer any more. I’ve made an exception for the subsequent chapters in Starcraft II - I have an enduring love for the gameplay and the storyline - but for most others I simply don’t want to spend the time at a desk. I considered making an exception for Civilization a couple of years ago - in fact, I’d gone so far as purchasing a download of Civilization V through Amazon that was deeply discounted for the holidays - but I never downloaded it. Looking back through my order history I can see it is still there, waiting...

Making it available on the iPad makes all of the difference for me. Now I can enjoy this game without being chained to a desk, segregated from my family. And while this is good for any game scenario, it is especially important for this type of game. Civilization is a time sink - a delightfully maddening time sink, but a time sink nonetheless. It is turn-based, so the end of each set of turns provides a logical stopping point, a potentially easy stepping off point to move on to other, non-digital things like, you know, eating and seeing to your personal care. Still, there is always this one more thing to accomplish - finish building this world wonder, establish one more new settlement, complete the takeover of that neighboring city. And of course, while one is in the process of accomplishing those things, one has started other projects that one would also like to see reach fruition, and so on it goes. It’s very much like the video game equivalent of reading a Stephen King novel.

Game play on the iPad works very nicely. This game series was originally developed long before the advent of touch screens, but the manufacturer has done a very nice job of translating it for this format. Occasionally one does run into issues when there are multiple things on a given area, where the game isn’t sure what you are trying to accomplish with your tap, but generally zooming in (which provides some separation between the things) or tapping a slightly different area will address this.

One caveat for players would be that, while you don’t have to be at a desk, you will want to be in proximity of an outlet. The game tends towards long play, as I’ve already mentioned, and it clearly uses some processing power. As a result, battery use is far higher than in non-gaming activities like browsing or writing. In fact, you’ll not only want to be plugged in if you are going to be playing for a while, but you will want to use a higher capacity charger. I’ve found that chargers designed at a iPhone’s charging level, for example, only slow the rate of battery usage while playing this game. Fortunately, the game does provide both a battery level gauge and a clock so that one does not entirely lose track of these real-world details during play.

The game is expensive by App Store standards. At a full price of $59.99, it’s priced like a desktop game. This is a primary source of complaint within the reviews on the App Store, and certainly one can see why folks used to typical app prices would find this jarring. However, this plays like a fully-fledged desktop game and has one important variation from other, cheaper games on the App Store: no in-app purchases are required to play it. The game does offer a couple of scenario packs, but these are enhancements that are completely unnecessary for regular gameplay. To my mind this compares quite favorably to games that are structured to put gameplay progress just out of reach unless one purchases "coins" or other game assets in order to move forward - a game design strategy that is pervasive in the App Store and which no doubt has the potential to be quite lucrative for game designers, since its difficult for a player to keep track of just how much they are spending during the course of a given game. I’m more than happy to pay a premium at initial purchase to keep this sort of thing at bay.

However, if the price is still off-putting, be aware that the game has also frequently been on-sale for as much as 50% off, so the patient and watchful buyer can get a foot in the door - and a settlement on fresh, virgin soil - for far less.

If this sounds like your sort of game I can highly recommend it. Now if only someone would convince Blizzard to make the next version of Starcraft for iOS...

Winding Down by Erin Wade

Cycling in Snow

The winter cycling season is winding down, but March has still had a few seasonal surprises left. The picture above offers up just such an example.

It’s a special day when the season offers up the type of snowfall that is heavy enough that you can really enjoy the visual effect, while not being so thick that it impedes vision. As a bonus, the temperature was just exactly right for downhill curves to offer up single-handbrake drifting, but not so slippery as to make uphill sections a slog.

It’s likely this was the last such day the season will offer. That’s a little sad.

...At least until one remembers that it heralds the beginning of the spring cycling season...

Circle of Iron by Erin Wade

IMG_1395.JPG

And a horse has no udders and a cow can’t whinny and up is down and sideways is straight ahead. - Cord

Circle of Iron is a movie I came across by chance in my formative years. It was playing in rotation on HBO, and I was drawn to it because I was drawn to virtually anything that was oriented towards martial arts.

But Circle of Iron is different. This movie, which came out in 1978, is something different from the subtitled, sound-effect filled fight-fests that were available on Sunday afternoon TV in my youth.

To begin with, the movie was written by Bruce Lee in cooperation with others, including James Coburn. To the uninitiated, this might seem a difference without a distinction - after all, wasn’t Bruce Lee simply yet another martial arts movie star, churning out versions of that Sunday afternoon schlock?

What is not necessarily well known, however, is that Bruce Lee was, for all intents and purposes, a scholar of martial arts, with a distinct philosophical perspective on martial arts, life, and the intersection of the two. Within this, he was also an innovator and an artist, ultimately developing his own martial art - Jeet Kune Do - modifying his own training and borrowing from an array of other arts to make a more efficient, effective system.

Understanding that gives an important perspective on Circle of Iron. The movie absolutely does involve fighting matches - younger me almost certainly would not have watched it if it did not. But these matches are in service of the larger philosophical point the story is leading to. This is no simple revenge tale - no one in the movie ever shouts "you bastard, you killed my brother!" - and the outcomes of those matches, as well as the outcome of the movie - is not necessarily what one would expect.

I am being purposely vague about what the actual outcome is, of course. This is a movie better experienced. Other movies and stories have borrowed from it since, to be sure. This is true of older films, as well as those much more recent - for myself, I found a vital scene in The Last Jedi to draw heavily from the ending of this movie.

If this intrigues you at all, this movie is worth checking out. It’s available on iTunes and Amazon Video. I’ve had a hankering to see it again recently, and so had to go out and find it. Be aware that it is a martial arts movie from the 1970’s, with the acting and action quality one should expect from the era. That said, the quality of the story is shown in the actors that it drew in. Bruce Lee intended to star in the movie, but died before he could film it. The role he wrote for himself is filled by David Carradine, and Roddy McDowell, Eli Wallach, and Christopher Lee all appear in the film as well.

Cross Country Skiing or Winter Cycling? by Erin Wade

Back when I started out with winter cycling it was primarily as an alternative to cross country skiing. I started cross country skiing in my mid- to late-20’s, and really enjoyed it. However, the winter snowfall and retention in my area is too unpredictable to allow for any sort of reliable XC skiing season. Some seasons drop a sizeable amount of the white stuff, while others leave a paltry dusting. And even when there is a sufficient amount to support the skis, it’s typically short lived - if you get an abundant snowfall on Monday, but can’t get out on the skis till Wednesday, you might lose your chance entirely.

So: winter cycling.

This has worked well overall. Looking back into Cyclemeter (which, despite the name, also tracks skiing, hiking, etc) the last year that offered an XC skiing opportunity that I could take advantage of was 2015, and that was one event in early February - three years ago. So it’s good to have winter cycling as an alternative.

And that’s how I’ve always thought about it - as an alternative. My winter cycling has evolved over the years, as I’ve learned more about how to keep warm and comfortable while riding. This year, of course, I’ve incorporated my Catrike Pocket into the mix, and winter activity was part of my reason for wanting a trike - less (or no) falling over. These factors make it even better as an alternative for XC skiing.

It had been three years without skiing until last week. The weather gods had dropped a good three inches on the ground, which is enough - though barely - to support the skis. I brought both my skis and my trike along just in case the snowfall at home wasn’t representative of what I’d find at my destination. Still, it seemed to be, so when I went out I opted for the skis. I managed about three miles on a lovely trail through prairie and woods. It wasn’t groomed, but it wasn’t so deep as to make forging difficult. I was alone in the woods, I saw a hawk, and lots of animal tracks. The workout was good. It’s everything I remember enjoying about XC skiing.

And here’s the thing: I’d rather have been on my trike.

I can’t explain this, exactly; a lot of it was more visceral than anything else. The snow was not deep, so the skis occasionally caught on the surface beneath. The trails are primarily gravel under the snow, which isn’t an ideal medium into which to drive ski poles, so these factors may have played a role. But winter cycling isn’t all wine and roses either. Even with the trike, there are areas you cannot get through without walking the machine (sitting and spinning while the trike itself remains motionless on a hill is, shall we say, an interesting experience). And no outdoor exercise ever involves a perfect environment - that’s part of the fun. If I was interested in controlled conditions I’d be in a gym.

I’m seriously rethinking my perspective here - I’m no longer looking at winter cycling as an alternative to XC skiing. I’m really just thinking about it as the thing that I do in the winter.

Streamlining - Twelve South Backpack and Seagate Hard Drives by Erin Wade

At this point, probably everyone who has used a computer over the past 20 years knows about the importance of backups. Backing up a computer or mobile device on a regular basis is an insurance policy against losing all of one’s information.

This has become easier over the past few years, particularly with mobile devices which do their own periodic backups (for example, via iCloud). But for those of us that continue to press older devices into service, a structured backup system still needs to be a part of the system.

For years I’ve relied, in part, on back-up drives from Other World Computing collecting their backup information through SuperDuper!. This has worked well, and saved my bacon on more than one occasion. The OWC drives are sturdy and I’ve found them to be very long-lived. All hard drives fail eventually, of course, but I cannot recall a time when an OWC drive has left me stranded. The downside to them is that they are big and bulky. Each drive has its own power cord and brick, and this leaves them better suited for the rack system in a dedicated technology closet than it does for a home office setup. Location has long been a challenge for me with these:

Should these be on the floor?

Surviving placement on the floor is a credit to their durability, to be sure. But it’s also unsightly, and takes away from the minimalist look to which I like to think I aspire (though, honestly, minimalism often seems like a lot more work than it should be...).

I’ve had the current drives for several years, and I had ordered and installed a solid state hard drive in my 2011 iMac with a larger capacity than the backup drives would manage, so this year seemed a good time to make a change. I broke with tradition this time around, and ordered up two Seagate Backup Plus 2TB External Hard Drives, and I also ponied up for Twelve South’s BackPack - a little shelf that sits on the iMac’s stand, behind the machine and out of sight.

The Seagate drives were on sale through Amazon over the holiday season, and have the benefit of both smaller size (I don’t think I would have been able to fit two of the OWC drives on the Backpack), and of taking power through USB. This means there is only one cable to run for each drive, and no power brick to locate.

The whole kit took only a short while to put together. Probably the most challenging part was getting things cleaned up ahead of time behind the iMac and below the desk to get the old cords and cables out of the way and allow the iMac to be pulled forward from the wall.

iMac Prepared

The Backpack comes with a few different fittings (for different sizes and ages of iMac or Thunderbolt Display), and it does take a few moments with the directions to get started, but there’s not a lot to it once you get going. The Backpack can be mounted as a simple flat shelf, or you can add pegs to it to secure items to it.

All the Stuff in the Backpack

I went with the pegs to keep the hard drives in place. One there, though, they sit securely and hide away behind the display.

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With this change I’ve securely fit the hard drives behind the iMac, elevated and away from my feet and any dust and debris on the floor. In addition, I was able to free up two additional outlets, and further clean up the appearance of my work area (now if I could just find a way to keep it clean...).

Winter Cycling - Northern Illinois by Erin Wade

Ask people of a certain age what winter is like in Illinois, and you will undoubtedly hear tales of the winter of 1979. If those tales were summed up in a picture, it would look like this:

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This is an effect of human memory, which likes to latch on to significant events preferentially. The reality, however, is different. We rarely get large snowfalls, and temperatures across the course of the winter vary considerably, from negative double-digits (particularly with windchill) up into the 40’s and 50’s. These variations come in batches of a week or two at a time, and the snowfalls we do get typically do not remain for any extended period of time. This means that, when it comes to winter cycling, what I want to picture is this:

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But what I get is something more like this:

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Or, even more typically, like this:

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During most of this it is still cold, of course - we can periodically have temperatures in the 20’s or even the single digits during periods of time that the bottom picture above represents. But there aren’t the vistas of snow across the plain to enjoy as a part of the ride.

What I have realized, as a result of this, is that all of my mental back and forth on the type of winter tires I might need to put on to my trike is largely academic: for the overwhelming majority of the winter here all I’m contending with is either partially, or entirely, cleared asphalt. Even with patches of snow on the road, as above, it’s easy enough to ride between them when needed - e.g. on the hills - and they otherwise aren’t an issue (at least, not on the trike. Upright on the other hand...).

I’ve managed three outings thus far in January - fewer than I’d like, but the limitation has primarily been due to my schedule rather than due to weather conditions. Still, I’ve already matched January of last year, and my nine rides in December of 2017 are far ahead of the two I had in December the year prior. I had hoped the trike would facilitate my winter riding, and so far it really has done so. For anyone who likes to play outside in the winter, but lacks for sufficient snowfall to facilitate winter-specific sports, I can’t recommend it enough!

McDonald's Two-Lane Drive Thru - TTAKS by Erin Wade

Drive-Thru Hell

We’ve all had experience with the two-lane drive-thru setup at McDonalds.

(No, not all of us. Certainly not you. I know you don’t ever go to McDonalds. I don’t either.)

I remember back when there was just one lane, and one window. And then, they came out with the two window system, with the promise that it was better, stronger, faster. And it was.

And then, for a little while, there were three windows, because after all, if two is better than one, then three must be better than two. This experiment was relatively short lived, so much so that I cannot recall exactly what happened at each window. I think they took your money at the first one, and you got your food at the last one, but that middle window... random conversation with a teenage employee? (Yes, I could google it, but where’s the fun in that?)

Short lived, but still having required major remodeling efforts at each store that had it. Many still have that middle window, always closed, locked up, vacant, unloved. They sit on the side of the building, an architectural appendix, useless, waiting to burst...

But I digress. Two-Lane drive thrus...

The goal of each of these changes appears to be to move us through the thru more quickly and efficiently; to get us our food and back on the road before we really have an opportunity to think about what we’ve done. Two windows did this, and two windows remain. Three presumably did not, and so the third window is abandoned like a dirty shirt. And now two lanes are here, and they’ve been around for a little while, suggesting they are here to stay. This would suggest that the crack research team at Hamburger University has found the design to be effective. And maybe it is, from a statistical perspective.

But as you sit there on approach, waiting for your turn at the speaker, the two-lane drive-thru demonstrates its true reason for existence: As a litmus test for the average person’s ability to manage their vehicle in tight spaces.

Yes, each and every one of us has learned how to navigate successfully enough to line up the driver’s side window with the speaker and monitor. Check off that particular skill development as done and done. The great tragedy is in what happens next.

The person in front of you then completes his or her order, and of course pulls forward. And then you think "great! Now it’s my turn." And it should be, of course. But it’s not. Because when they pull forward, they only pull forward three feet, afraid of coming into contact with the vehicles in front of them. This leaves you in a position in which you can clearly see the speaker and monitor - maybe it’s lined up with your front bumper or, worse, with your front fender - but you are not close enough to hear it, or for your voice to be heard by the staticky worker on the other end.

Sometimes you are close enough to trip the sensor, and you can hear that disembodied voice speaking, welcoming you to the establishment, like a mirage in the desert, ever present, yet ever distant.

You are also close enough to see something that the driver of the Escalade in front of you cannot see over the massive expanse of unnecessary sheet metal that serves as a hood: they can easily pull forward another three feet.

Three feet! And you know that three feet is all you need, all you’ll ever need, to get up to that speaker, to relay the manifesto that is your value meal order, and get you on your way up to that window. You sit there and will them to pull up, to take that three feet. Mentally you offer them your mind’s eye, psychically providing the opportunity for them to see what you see, to see the huge chasm of space that remains between their front bumper and the car beyond. You become Elaine Benes on the subway, mentally pushing for events, events that will never occur.

And, to be fair and balanced, while an Escalade is a motor vehicle crime against humanity, this same sequence of events happens when the person in front of you is sitting in a Prius.

Often then the line will edge forward slightly, and you can see the opening for the car that impedes your path. Sadly, however, the etiquette on how to merge and who goes first remains, after all of this time, a thing left to chaos. The vehicle in front of you moves forward three inches, only to be cut off by the vehicle in front of them. You fill that gap, putting you closer, ever closer, and still not yet there.

Then there is a break, a shift in the traffic, Janie Escalade/Johnny Prius pulls forward, giving you your opening, your opportunity at that monitor and microphone, and you pull up to order. You hear those magic words "welcome to..." and you start to speak, rattling out your now heavily practiced order, only to realize that you are hearing the speaker on the other lane.

But then it finally happens and you have your order in, confident that all is now right with the world, your trial now complete. Until you realize that you do not have enough room to pull forward, and that it is now unclear whether the next turn belongs to you, or the person in the other lane. You are now the impediment for the poor souls trapped behind you. The great winter of your discontent is now past, but theirs is just beginning.


As I’ve said, I assume that this change must make the line more efficient and decrease the vital time between the taking of the order and it’s delivery; If you have worked in fast food you know that these statistics are of prime importance. Unfortunately, it seems to take absolutely no consideration for the subjective experience of the customer. It misses the fact that, while this process may be faster, the experience feels longer.

Previous changes to the system did not do this. Adding the second window to the original one window, one lane system meant that you were given steps along the way that made you feel like you were making progress. Originally there were just two steps:

  1. Place order and wait
  2. Get to window, pay, get food

Adding the second window gave you the opportunity to do something - paying - on the way to getting to your final prize. It made the process seem like it was underway, in motion, and that you were an active part of it. You may have actually sat in line just as long, but something interrupted the monotony and anticipation along the way. This is the same reason that the big name amusement parks have entertainment options all along the winding, twisting lines for the roller coasters - taking the monotony and anticipation out of waiting.

Instead, the two-lane drive thru adds anticipation where there wasn’t any before - before you have your order taken. It makes it seem longer because you are right there, but you cannot proceed. This may not factor in to the time between order and delivery, but it certainly factors in to the experience. Maddening.

I have no hope that it will change - it appears to be ubiquitous at this point, simply a part of the landscape, a thing to endure.

But not for you, of course. You don’t have this problem, because you never go to McDonalds.

And neither do I.

The Omnibus Podcast - a Review by Erin Wade

Omnibus Podcast - Defenestration

The Omnibus is a new podcast by John Roderick and Ken Jennings. For those unfamiliar with these two gentlemen, this description, by Kim Holcomb on Twitter, sums them up to a "T":

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Ken Jennings is likely the better known of the duo due to his record setting winning streak on Jeopardy! During that streak in 2004 he was all over the media, he has participated in multiple other game shows, and he is also an author.

John Roderick) is the lead singer and songwriter of The Long Winters, as well as a veteran podcaster, co-hosting Roderick on the Line and Road Work with Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin, respectively. Roderick is also a former candidate for the Seattle City Council, a process which he detailed in painfully honest detail on ROTL, and which I talked about here.

The Omnibus is a new take on historical events and popular culture. The show is couched in the conceit that Ken and John are recording an encyclopedia of obscure and ephemeral information about our history and times in the hopes that it will be preserved for future generations - or beings, for there is no assumption they will be human - after what is almost certainly the impending apocalypse that will end our era. As such, almost any errata is fair game, ranging from describing how starlings were introduced to the americas to the "Rachel".

Yes, the "Rachel", Jennifer Aniston’s haircut from the TV show Friends. How is this a thing that needs to be preserved for future? This is part of the the magic of Omnibus - by the end you will understand why.

The range and variation in topics should be a clear sign to listeners that this is not a show that takes itself too seriously. Far from being a dry lecture about a given subject, the Omnibus ultimately plays as all the best podcasts do - it’s about two people, who clearly enjoy each other’s company, talking about something that interests them both. While each episode is nominally about the thing in the title, they all wander far afield, covering topics and ideas that are, to a greater and lesser degree, related to the original subject. The hosts know it when it happens, and you will hear them periodically note that they are, perhaps, veering some distance away from the topic (not that this realization has any impact on the course of the discussion). It’s a little like reading the cover page on Wikipedia, and then following the rabbit hole of links in each article, but doing so while taking with a good friend. If that notion appeals to you - and you know who you are - this show is absolutely for you.

I’m several episodes in at this point, but probably my favorite thus far has been the December 7, 2017 entry on Defenstration.

Full confession here - I’m quite certain I had heard this word before, but if I thought I knew what it meant, I was kidding myself.

Defenestration, my friends, is the act of throwing someone out of a window.

Is it possible to talk about such a thing for nearly 40 minutes? It is indeed, and magnificently so! How did such a thing reach the level at which it requires its own name? When it involves an entire city council, well...

There are many good podcasts out there, and between podcasts and audiobooks I have little free space in my listening time, so I guard it carefully. That said, Omnibus has quickly gained a spot in my regular listening cue. If you like history, but don’t want it take too seriously, Omnibus deserves a listen.

You can find the podcast here, and subscribe to it on iTunes here.

Enjoy!