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:

C66D9B46-8150-4846-98C9-8F4EBE9F6612.JPG

But what I get is something more like this:

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Or, even more typically, like this:

C9F9F532-BA2C-40F2-8C77-988D2B0ED746.JPG

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!

Riding in Snow - Upright vs Trike by Erin Wade

Winter Wonderland

This was the view as I set up my trike to go out for a ride early yesterday afternoon. I’ve been doing winter biking for the past several years. When I got my Catrike Pocket, one of the things I was looking forward to was this part of my riding experience - Winter riding is great, but there are disadvantages to having a two-wheeled conveyance underneath you in the ice and snow...

Today wasn’t my first cold weather ride on the trike, or even my first one encountering snow, but it was my first out here on the prairie, on a day like this - actively snowing, with the roads as yet uncleared.

I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on the actual road under these conditions - I ride my bike and trike out here on the road all the time, and I find people to be quite respectful, but the earliest snows often find drivers have forgotten everything they previously learned about driving in the white stuff. And, as the picture accurately displays, visibility was not ideal (yup - that’s the sun overhead). So I decided to ride down the wind turbine service roads instead. This involved only a short distance on the road itself. The service roads aren’t long, but it would still get me out and about for a little bit.

Cutting thru the snow is more work than one might realize - the gears you use are lower, and there’s a lot of spinning going on. The section of the road going towards the service road is downhill to get there, and I was a little surprised how much the rear wheel moved around. I was never sideways, but there was a lot of wiggling from side to side (I still have my road tires on the trike).

Once I hit the service road this was the view:

Hoth?

The service roads are gravel, and simply there for trucks to get back to the turbines, so the surface is a bit rougher than being out on the open road. It was passable, however, while I was heading east/west. When the road turned to the north the volume of snow - probably just due to wind direction - was too much to make it passable.

So I turned around and headed back. This was mostly uneventful, except that the downhill section on the way there was now an uphill section. In the snow on the pavement I did finally hit one section where all I could do is spin the back wheel with no forward progress. I tried for what felt like ten minutes (but was probably 30 seconds) to get it to move forward without dismounting, rocking back and forth a bit (it works in the car, so why not here?) but finally gave up, got up, and rolled it forward a few feet. That seemed to do the trick.

I was a little disappointed both in the distance and duration of the ride, so I decided to take out MLW’s upright for comparison. Her bike is a Walmart-special steel Schwinn mountain bike, and I’ve used it before for winter rides. I thought it might be interesting to compare both the experience, and the numbers for the two.

What I found was:

  • The wiggly downhill section on the trike was wiggly on the upright as well, but with both front and rear wheels moving unpredictability.
  • I made it slightly farther on the northerly section of the service road, but it was still pretty much impassable.
  • I didn’t get stuck on the uphill return, but again had both wheels periodically breaking free (I didn’t drop the bike or wipe out - but I certainly have done so in the past on winter rides).
  • The 3-4’ higher you sit on the bike makes a real difference with respect to wind exposure. I think I knew this from a logical perspective, but there was definitely more of a sensation of the wind cutting across me as I was sitting up on the Schwinn.

And the numbers? Pretty similar overall:

Pocket in the Snow

Schwinn in the Snow

On the Catrike the ride took me a little over 10 and a half minutes. My average speed was a little slower, but my top speed was a little higher (not that top speed is a target for winter riding). Being a little slower on average probably had to do with the fact that I tried a little longer to get forward progress on the northward section of the service road while I was on the trike, since I wasn’t originally planning on this to be a comparative test; and it would reflect the time spent spinning on the hill before I got up and moved the trike. In both cases, these events (and picture taking) would also account for the longer stopped time on the trike as well.

So - ultimately the trike appears to have done about as well as the mountain bike from a numerical standpoint. And from a never-threatening-to-disappear-out-from-under-you standpoint, it far exceeded the upright. I think now I just need to consider whether, and what type of tire change to make for the rear wheel to improve traction. I won’t typically ride on unplowed roads, but it would be good to not have to get up and push on a slippery uphill section.

Vacationland - A Review by Erin Wade

Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches

You know who John Hodgman is. I know that you think you do not, but you do.

You’ve seen him in those "I’m a Mac..." commercials as the PC. You’ve seen him as the Resident Expert and the Deranged Millionaire (or Billionaire) on The Daily Show with John Stewart. You’ve heard him doing pieces on This American Life. He’s appeared on TV in Parks and Rec and Community and ever-so-briefly on Battlestar Galactica. You know him.

But you don’t. Not really.

For much of his entertainment career, John Hodgman has been playing characters. Over the course of the past decade or so he has written three books which purport to comprise the sum of all (fake) world knowledge. They are:

These books are delightful pieces, functionally presenting as almanacs with extensive bits of information that are entirely fabricated (though sometimes one wonders - perhaps the city of Chicago is, in fact, mythical). These aren’t just lists of made-up facts, though there is some of that, to be sure; in many cases, the concepts are woven into tiny short stories that can take on a life of their own, and presented convincingly enough that you may find yourself questioning what you think you know.

Because the theme is similar across the three - fake trivia and all - one might be forgiven for assuming that the second and third books are sequels, and more of the same. One might be forgiven, because one would be wrong - the books lay out more as a trilogy, reflecting a progression in the type of information, and in the character Hodgman plays as he writes it. It is not a spoiler (as it is on the covers of the books) to note In the first he comes to you as "a professional writer", and then as a "famous minor television personality" (the second book coming, as it did, after gaining the role as The PC). By the third book he has evolved (devolved?) into a deranged millionaire, the book coming just ahead of the Mayan predicted end of the world.

Ultimately, it’s a good bet that, if you enjoy Monty Python, you will enjoy these books (and perhaps not coincidentally, Hodgman interviewed John Cleese not too long ago).

They are made all the more enjoyable if one listens to them as Audiobooks, as this adds multiple guest appearances, including Jonathan Coulton, John Roderick), Paul Rudd, Sarah Vowell, Rickey Gervais, Brooke Shields, and others, (including Dick Cavett).

And now that I’ve provided you with this background, I have to let you know that this information isn’t a good preparation for his latest work:

Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches

With Vacationland, Hodgman sets aside the fake trivia and gets real. Literally.

Vacationland is a series of essays that centers around his experiences while away with his family in rural western Massachusetts and in Maine. This is too simple an explanation, of course, because on that journey he also delves into the struggles of raising children, of finding one’s way in life, and of losing a parent, among other things.

To be clear, Vacationland, like his previous work, is funny - Hodgman has a way of finding little bits of pleasure and joy in even the most mundane of topics. For example, on growing facial hair:

And I grew my second mustache for the same reason all your weird dads grew theirs: it is an evolutionary signal that says "I’m all done." A mustache sends a visual message to the mating population of Earth that says, "No thank you. I have procreated. My DNA is out in the world, so I no longer deserve physical affection."

It is funny, but it is also wry, very candid, self-deprecating, and emotional. Like his previous works, Vacationland made me laugh, but unlike those, it also made me think and, at one particular point, literally made me cry. I can not recommend it highly enough.

This is work that is similar in vein to essayists like Tom Bodett and David Sedaris; and like David Sedaris, again made better still if you listen to the audiobook, which is read by John Hodgman himself. If you have friends who like to read (or listen) to authors like Bodett and Sedaris, this book would make an excellent gift for the holidays, or for whenever. And when they say "John Hodgman?" You can say:

"You know who John Hodgman is. I know that you think you do not, but you do..."

Old Sounds by Erin Wade

As technology advances, one of the things that I find I struggle with is this:

What does one do with the old technology?

This isn’t a new problem - rather, it’s a familiar one when one looks at things that have become functionally obsolete. Old computers are an issue for many in the first world. Who among us hasn’t come to the point where we have an older desktop or laptop computer that works perfectly well in terms of what it was originally designed to do, but has since been replaced with something newer; that replacement either because the newer device does something - has a feature, or runs newer software - that the older one does not, or simply because we wanted something new and shiny. Some companies actually offer a trade-in program for such devices, but even then, many of us still end up with one or more sad devices sitting in a drawer or on a shelf.

For myself, the recurring concern is an old stereo system. This is a setup that I spent several years on, acquiring the components, purchasing one item and then selling it in an effort to trade up to the next. Ultimately, I ended up with the following components:

For the kids out there, a cassette deck was a device that played cassette tapes. These were things that we used to contain large amounts of the music we wanted (as opposed to what a record label wanted to give us) before recordable CD’s came along. And CD’s were things that held music before we all got MP3 players. Oh, and MP3 players were things your parents listened to before we all just had the music on our phones. Phones were a different thing then too, by the way. Look, they were dark times, and we all lived like savages - let’s not bring it up again...

I’d explain the turntable, but vinyl records are, inexplicably, a thing again, so no need there.

Back when this setup it was originally assembled, speaking of CD’s, this setup also had an Onkyo 5-disk changer (I was fond of Onkyo equipment), but it was apparently mechanically more fragile than the other devices, and so it went to the great maker. But the rest of the equipment soldiers on, stalwart in its readiness to produce great sounds.

But it hasn’t produced sounds in several years.

For a long while it was part of the central sound system that was hooked up to our television, DVD player, and media pc (remember those? Kids, this was a thing... you know what, never mind - google it if you want to know), along with an aux hookup for an iPod. But then a couple of things happened. First, one of the speakers began to fail; and second, my father-in-law got a new sound system for his tv, and wanted to find a new home for his old one - a Panasonic surround-sound setup. It physically fit better into our entertainment center and offered much smaller speakers than the Advents (which I love, but which have always been a decorative thorn in MLW’s side).

So I had the speakers repaired (of course) and moved it all up to my office, planning to hook it up eventually to listen to music while I work. I figured I could hook up an Apple TV to it to allow me to stream to from an iPhone or iPad over airplay, and I’ve even purchased a converter to do this (the Apple TV’s digital audio output not being compatible with the analog inputs on the Onkyo receiver).

But eventually is a non-specific time frame. And wait-time allows for other discoveries.

One discovers while waiting, for example, that one can get a set of Bluetooth over-the-ear headphones for a fairly reasonable price. One can pair those headphones with one’s iPad almost effortlessly, and listen to whatever one wants with no one else complaining about the choice or the volume. And one can use those headphones everywhere in the house, not just in the office. And that, when one does this, one does not have to struggle to figure out where to place the speakers, nor does one have to spend time running speaker wire and sorting out how to hide it (I lack the math skills, and more importantly the will, to accurately calculate the amount of my life spent on that particular activity). And now I realize that speaker wire, also, is a thing the kids will need to google...

Now, I typically embrace new technology. And, in most respects, virtually everything about the advances that replace my old setup is better. I realize audiophiles will clear their throats to utter "well, actually" in preparation for discussing audio quality over Bluetooth, but probably their nurses will wheel them off before they can finish their sentence. The reality is that it’s generally good enough, and the rest of it is so much better. The four devices I have in my list above are effectively replaced by two - an iPhone (or iPad, or whatever) and headphones or a speaker. There are no wires to run, they are much smaller, and they can move with you from place to place.

So why am I pining over this now archaic setup? I suspect that a part of it has to do with the amount of time, effort, and energy that went into constructing it in the first place. For those of us of a certain age and inclination, putting together your audio setup was a fetish-level activity. It was important to have the right speakers, and the right equipment to drive them. Assembling the "rightness" was a scholarly activity, involving pre-internet research. This meant poring over audio magazines and the Crutchfield’s catalog in order to ensure it was all... correct. Ultimately this would give one a setup that pumped the music through the speakers loudly, but without distortion, so that you (and your family, and your neighbors, and maybe the people in the next town) could enjoy it properly.

Properly. Dammit.

And yet, here I am, myself, listening to my music on a set of Bluedio Hurricane headphones that I purchased for less than $30 on Amazon, when I should be setting up that audio system and listening to it that way.

Shouldn’t I?

Pessimist Archive Podcast by Erin Wade

The Pessimist’s Archive Podcast is a treasure trove of historical information about people’s reactions to new technology as it emerges. Before I go into detail on it, here’s a little spoiler: they typically don’t like it.

The podcast has been out for about a year, and it has a... casual release schedule (there are 9 episodes so far), but what it lacks in quantity it more than makes up in quality. The episodes are well researched and tightly produced. The host is Jason Feifer, who is also the Editor-in-Chief of Entrepreneur magazine. Each episode also features a variety other voices from people related to the topic on one way or another, and the delivery is done in a delightful tongue-in-cheek fashion. Episodes run around 30 minutes, give or take.

They also run a wonderful twitter feed that provides details supporting both the podcast and the general concept, like this one:

4 MPH?

Overall, the podcast and twitter feed bring a new perspective to the very common complaints we hear nowadays about how screens, or social media, or fill-in-your-own-example-here are a menace and/or are destroying our society.

Perhaps my favorite episode thus far, unsurprisingly, is Episode 6: Bicycle, which reviews and reveals the severe dangers to society, the economy, and women’s morals, represented by the demon two-wheeler. All from the perspective of the 1800’s mindset, of course.

As is always the case, each episode is also accompanied by a list of links to the articles and references discussed, giving an opportunity for a deep dive into the topic in question (How the Bicycle paved the way for Women’s Rights, might help explain that concern about the impact on women’s "morals", for example).

If the general sky-is-falling perspective on our ever-changing times makes you a little crazy (as it does for me), or if you are just a fan of the bicycle and all of its iterations, I highly recommend checking this out.

Against the Wind by Erin Wade

Life on the open prairie is often a windy affair. This is a year-round phenomenon, to some degree, which is why, when I look out any window of my house I see giant white turbines. But there is some considerable variation across the seasons out here. Mid-summer and, to a lesser degree, mid-winter can have extended periods of relative calm, while spring and autumn kick things into high gear, perhaps feeling the need to make up for the laziness of their seasonal predecessors.

Any cyclist who has ridden for any length of time knows the wind can be a formidable foe, and it can absolutely be a factor in deciding whether one wants to ride at all. This is what I was contemplating this past Black Friday - I wanted to get out there and work off some of the turkey and gravy, but the 20+ mph winds were weighing in against that notion. Still, if one waits for the perfect conditions to do a thing, one will never get to do that thing, so I geared up myself and got out my Catrike Pocket. It also occurred to me that this might be a good opportunity to see what the actual effects of the wind are on riding.

To do this, I stopped and took screenshots of my Cyclemeter readings at three key points in the ride - at the end of the first section, riding into the wind, and the end of the second section, mostly with the wind, and again at the very end of the ride.

I selected my route so that I would be riding into (or against) the wind for the first five-ish miles of the ride. I try to do this in general so that the hardest part of the trip presents early on, when my energy level is at its highest. In this case I would be riding directly against the wind - straight south against southerly winds. Cyclemeter indicates the wind speed for the ride was 26mph.

The Numbers

This is how that came out:

Riding against the wind

The average and top speeds are really the primary areas where the impact can be seen. I’ve ridden this particular route four times prior on the Pocket, and my speed across those rides on the route averages out to 12.22 mph. Here, for the first five miles I’m down to 11.36. Cyclemeter also lets you break down your rides into mile splits, so I can compare the first five miles on this against previous rides, and looking back it’s clear that I’m at least a little bit slower, and in some cases dramatically slower, than on previous rides over this section:

breakdown by mile

Both my average speeds and my top speeds are down from the prior rides. In some cases I have weather data for the other rides to compare against for wind speed and direction:

  • On the 11/19/17 ride Cyclemeter indicates the wind was out of the West by Northwest (WNW) at 14mph, so I would have had a partial tailwind for that section.
  • On 11/11/17 it was South by Southeast (SSE) at 8mph, meaning I was riding partially against the wind, although a much slower wind.
  • On 10/20/17 the wind was out of the south at 8mph - a direct headwind.

The 19th - with the partial tailwind at 14mph - is definitely my fastest ride over this section, suggesting some benefit from having the wind behind you (unsurprisingly). These numbers also suggest a bit of a threshold effect - the 8mph winds (which feel like a relatively still day out here) don’t seem to have much of an impact.

And what about getting the wind behind you?

I took the next measurement 6.48 miles later (these were each taken at convenient stopping points). This segment consisted of approximately two miles heading east, and and four going straight north (the rural roads here are mostly laid out in a grid pattern - makes for ride maps that look like Tetris blocks), putting the wind to my right for 1/3 of the segment, and directly behind me for 2/3. That 26mph tailwind does make a bit of a difference:

With the wind at my back

As you can see, the average speed is up by a couple of mph, and the top speed is way up. In the interest of full disclosure I’ll note that this is (of course) a downhill speed (yes, we do have hills in Illinois). This is actually not far off of my highest speed on the Pocket, which was 31.72mph, and that on a much bigger hill during the 2017 Farmondo put on by the Tempo Velo Cycling Club in Sterling IL.

The wind at your back - at least when it’s a big wind - would appear to make a considerable difference.

The remaining couple of miles of the ride were mostly westward, with the very last half-mile going north (with the wind). My average dropped a scosche, but otherwise the numbers look similar to the prior measurement:

the final results

The Takeaway

It’s not terribly surprising to find that the wind against you will slow you down, and that the wind with you will speed you up. With respect to that we pretty much have confirmation of what would be the expected hypothesis. But looking at this over time does show a few other things that I found interesting:

  • While the headwind slowed me down, it didn’t slow me down as much as I expected. An average of ~11 mph on the Pocket is not awful - scanning back over the year my speeds on similar roads range between ~11.5 and ~14.5 mph. I’m at the slower end here, but not so much so as to make it unreasonable to consider riding.
  • There seems to be a threshold effect - an 8mph wind doesn’t seem to have much of an impact, but higher winds look like they do.
  • A good tailwind clearly does have an impact. This always felt like it was the case, but I am a little surprised about the degree of impact.

An additional observation here for me is the subjective difference offered by the recumbent trike. I’ve loved riding for a long time, but riding on windy days, against the wind, on my road bike, has always felt like a slog. The Catrike was different. Yes, it was more work, and I was riding in lower gears, spinning much more than usual, but it didn’t feel like work the way that it does on my Cannondale. Some of this may be due to the aerodynamic advantage of the recumbent - you are simply not up in the wind in the way that you are on an upright bike. Some of it may also be due to not having to maintain balance in addition to pedaling for forward motion. It’s also possible that there is a difference due to gearing. My Cannondale is old - it’s an ‘87 - and only a 12-speed. The Catrike has 27 gears to choose from, and many of them much lower than those on the Cannondale. It might not be as different if I could grind less and spin more on the upright. Regardless, while I still love my Cannondale, I really love my Catrike.

Ultimately, for me this shows that it’s really worth it to get out even when the wind seems to be working furiously against you. And, since most of it is for exercise, I suppose one could say that the wind is ultimately working with you...

Streamlining the Presentation Kit - Amaz-Play Mobile Projector and Wapow Lightening to HDMI Cable by Erin Wade

As a part of my work I give talks and do training many times a year. One of the things I learned long ago was that you cannot rely on the training venue to have all of the equipment you need to do your presentation. This is true in general - you can bank on the fact that they will fail to have a proper cable or connector or to offer an outlet for your device. The worst example of this was the "conference center" where I asked whether they had a projector I could rent, and they took me to a very dusty closet and said "you mean one of these?"

They were pointing at an overhead projector - the kind that people of a certain age will remember their teachers putting transparencies on to throw them up on a screen. This would almost be forgivable, except it was earlier this year - 2017.

Although it is getting better, historically things became even more complicated if you were bringing along your own equipment to hook up. Many places would happily direct you to the Windows laptop they have hooked up, and ask for your flash drive. I cannot count the number of times I’ve seen the smile first freeze, and then fade from their faces when I’ve pulled out my MacBook or, more recently, iPad, and indicated that I’d be plugging that in instead.

For those reasons I have, for a very long time, maintained my own presentation kit. The composition of this has varied a bit over the years, but the mainstays of it have been:

  • An Apple TV (third generation) and its remote control
  • A power strip with a 10’ cord
  • A projector - specifically a ViewSonic PJD5133
  • HDMI Cable
  • VGA Cable
  • Power cords for the ATV and the projector
  • An Anker 5-port USB charger

(The iPad and iPhone are a part of the mix, but they are always with me instead of being part of the kit).

By far the biggest item in this kit is the projector. It has served me well over the past five years, but it is nearly a foot wide, three inches thick, and weighs more than five and a half pounds. The combination of the projector and the power strip have functionally necessitated that I maintain my presentation kit in a separate bag (in my case, an old Trager Backpack). This means that, whenever I go somewhere to do training, I’m hauling in at least two backpacks. It’s a first world problem, to be sure, but a problem nonetheless.

Given that the projector is the largest part of the problem (no pun intended), that seemed a reasonable place to start. Pica projectors have been around for a while, but they typically have very low light outputs (making them hard to see in anything but a very dark room), and they had historically been expensive. However, it had been several years since I’d looked at them, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

I landed on the Amaz-Play Mobile Pico Projector.

Amaz-Play Mobile Pico Projector

This device had a few key benefits for what I was looking for:

  • It’s small - it will fit in your hand
  • It comes with its own tripod and it will mount to a standard camera tripod
  • It’s powered thru a micro-usb cable. This last part means that I can plug it in to the Anker USB charger rather than needing a slot in the power strip (I otherwise only use two slots - one for iPad and one for iPhone)

And while I was searching for the projector, I also came across this Wapow cable that sends from lightening to HDMI and also plugs in to power.

WAPOW lightening to HDMI Cable

What the cable offered was the potential ability to plug my iOS device - iPhone or iPad - directly into the projector. This meant that I could also pull the Apple TV from the kit and that everything I was using was powered thru USB, so I could also pull the power strip out and just go with the Anker charger. Even with everything plugged in I would still have two ports to spare. The direct HDMI connector also means that it will work in those cases where I’m plugging into a television rather than a projector.

By way of comparison, these are the bare essentials of the old and new projector setups side by side:

One of these things is not like the other.jpg

I’ve had the kit out a couple of times since putting it together, and so far it is working well. The Amaz-Play projector is not as bright as the ViewSonic (of course), but it does seem to be bright enough. Because I tend to be cautious with such things - don’t want a presentation to fail for lack of equipment - I’ve brought the old kit along in its backpack for each of the trainings so far. However, I haven’t needed anything out of it, so it’s looking like that will be able to be left back in the office going forward.

There is a fan in the projector, and it does make some noise, but not anything significant. It does have a speaker, but it’s small, as one might expect. If your presentation includes audio, you may want to plug in a separate speaker (and it does have an output for that). It apparently offers wireless connectivity using WiFi, and there is purportedly an app for that, but I have not used it. The reviews on Amazon mentioning that feature are not kind, and it wasn’t something I planned on using. I typically plug in one iOS device and use the other as the remote over Keynote.

The WAPOW connector does get warm around the HDMI connector but so far that does not seem to be an issue. It does bear mentioning that the connector works for screen mirroring and playing slide decks (Keynote or PowerPoint), but it won’t play protected video content. This means that you can show video thru the YouTube app, but attempts to play Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video, or anything from iTunes is going to fail. This didn’t matter to me, but it might be a limitation for others.

Trike as Transport by Erin Wade

There are certainly people who use bicycles or trikes as part of their daily transportation. I have fond memories of this myself, riding around the countryside and, later, around my small town with a bicycle as my primary form of transportation for most of my childhood right up until the day I got my driver’s license. It’s a recollection brought forward for me most recently by the show Stranger Things, since I was also a kid pedaling around in between sessions of D&D, albeit with considerably less telekinesis (though not for lack of trying...).

As an adult I’ve had little opportunity to use my various pedal-powered implements as transportation in any meaningful extent. While I’ve managed the occasional trip to the grocery store with a trailer, the reality of extended commuting distances and large portion of life in an urban setting that didn’t (and doesn’t) embrace bikes as transportation means a lot of time in the driver’s seat instead of the saddle.

There is a very real part of me that wishes I had more opportunities to use my pedal-powered options in lieu of my car. When possible I’ve tried to manufacture those opportunities - last summer I rode to several cemeteries in the region as part of my ongoing genealogical research. This can be a fun way to combine activities and feel like I’m making some progress, but somehow it’s not the same as really replacing the car.

Last week, as luck (?) would have it, I had such an opportunity. Both my car, and my wife’s car, had to go in for repairs. We are out in the country, and the repair shop is in town - about six and a half miles away. To limit time off from work I made arrangements to have the work done on both cars in the same day. This led to the following routine:

  1. Load my Catrike Pocket into car number one (both cars are Honda Fits - and the Pocket... well... fits in them). Drive the car to the mechanic’s shop.
  2. Ride the trike back home.
  3. Load the trike into car number two and drive the car to the mechanic’s shop.
  4. Ride the trike back home.
  5. Wait for the cars to be done (its possible I did other things during that time as well).
  6. Ride the trike in to the mechanic’s shop to get car number one.
  7. Put the trike into car number one and drive it home. And...

Ok - so for contininuity and storyline, I really want item number eight to say "ride the trike in to the mechanic’s shop to get car number two". The reality is that what follows includes gathering up my spouse and enlisting her help to gather up the last car. In my defense, however, we had parent-teacher conferences to attend, and I don’t really have an extra seat on the trike for my beloved, and she objected to the notion of being strapped to the cargo rack, so...

But this was still real-world transportation use for my machine, the sort of which I almost never get the opportunity to engage in. As a bonus, the three trips - two back, and one forth - offered up about 19.5 miles worth of riding, which is at the higher end of a day’s riding for me (my average trip in 2017 is 11.71 miles, according to Cyclemeter).

I realized as I was doing it that this was also some of the first times I’d actually ridden the trike in town. Since I just got the trike in June of this year, and the majority of my riding is recreational in nature, and catch-as-catch-can, I don’t venture in to town often - the open road is both more alluring and more convenient. I’m pleased to say it feels little different from riding a regular, upright two-wheeler in town, something, as I noted above, I had done many times before. Now I just need to find less costly reasons than car repair to ride rather than drive...

Files, iWork, and Dropbox - Resolved by Erin Wade

At the beginning of the month I wrote about an issue with using Dropbox in the iOS 11 Files app with iWork documents in a shared Dropbox folder (yup - that’s a long, complex sentence to parse, made longer still by this parenthetical observation about it... sorry).

This issue appears to be resolved with the most recent update to the iOS Dropbox app, version 70.2.2,which came out earlier this week. I’ve had a chance to play with it for a few days now, including doing actual work, and it appears to be functioning perfectly.

What this means is that one can now open, edit, and save-in-place documents from iWork files that are stored in Dropbox on an iOS device. This seems a relatively simple thing - we’ve been doing it on computers for years prior to the development of the iPhone and iPad. However, it has been one of the key remaining limitations to the iPad when using it for work activities, particularly in conjunction with Dropbox. As I mentioned when I brought up this issue earlier in the month, the process for using these documents has looked like this:

Depending upon the app one uses, for much of the history of Dropbox on iOS, if one has wanted to work on a file stored in Dropbox, it’s been a multiple step process:

  • Export the file from Dropbox into the app (which typically opens a copy of the file in the app)
  • Perform the edits one wishes
  • Export (copy) the edited file back to Dropbox
  • Delete the copy from the app

The long dark winter of toiling at copy deletion on the iPad has finally come to a close!

Too dramatic?

Probably so, but in reality, it is actually a pretty significant change. I have been using an iPad for work since 2010. Initially it worked as a laptop replacement, but at this point it has largely replaced both my laptop and my desktop. I have a handful of tasks - mostly legacy activities that simply require older machines to run on - that I still need a Mac for, but the overwhelming majority of my work is done on an iPad or an iPhone. And to be clear, the multi-step process above wasn’t something that was preventing the use of these devices for work, but it was the rare, remaining activity in my regular workflow that was more complicated on iOS than on OS X.