Reviews

Military Ridge Trail Revisited by Erin Wade

A few years ago I had the opportunity to take a relatively short ride along the Military Ridge Trail in southwestern Wisconsin. This was a Black Friday ride - much of the family goes shopping or gets lost in video games (or maybe plays video games about shopping? I’m sure they exist), and so I took the opportunity to go out for a ride.

The last couple of years we’ve done our turkey day closer to home, but this year we headed back up the cheddar state. Given this I made special arrangements to get the Catrike strapped to the roof of our Honda Fit and figured I’d give the Military Ridge Trail another go.

I wanted to go either further, or in a different direction than last time. From Ridgeway, my starting point, the trail offers the opportunity to ride to two different state parks. To the east, the section of trail I’d already spent some time on, the trail heads over to the town of Blue Mounds, and rides along and through the southern end of Blue Mound State Park, a 10 mile ride (though last time I’d begged off due to the effects of turkey and wine and stopped in Barneveld). To the other direction it heads into Dodgeville and Governor Dodge State Park, for 9 and 8 1/2 mile rides, respectively. These were similar distances, and I might have gone for the novelty of the other direction, but fortunately my brother-in-law and sister-in-law are familiar with the trail, and indicated parts of it were cut off due to construction in the Dodgeville direction. So Blue Mounds it was.

The trail is mostly dirt or crushed stone, though parts of it are really just sand. I started relatively early in the day - about 8:30 - and this guaranteed that the softer bits would still be frozen. While it’s still technically autumn, we’ve had a bit of snowfall across the Midwest, and much of the trail is shaded enough that many patches of it remain

Snowy Trail

Military Ridge Trail cuts through the Driftless Area of Wisconsin, so the landscape is different than other parts of the state. Here sits an ancient, mostly buried mountain range, and the views give you that feel from time to time. You can be looking off into the distance and see what seems like a distant peak:

Mountain?

And then you think "that can’t be a mountain - I’m in Wisconsin". But it is, technically. It’s just that the valleys around it are mostly filled in through years of erosion. And, of course, you can see it because you are also high up in the mountains. These thoughts - the result in part of a geography class I signed up for in undergrad nearly 30 years ago, mostly to round out my credit requirements for a semester - accompany me every time I ride or drive through this area.

Barneveld on the Map

Barneveld is the first town stop along this course. It’s a small town, though certainly bigger than Ridgeway. There are a couple of taverns/restaurants along the trail, so folks looking for a pit stop on their ride along the Ridge have their opportunity here. The early morning nature of my particular ride didn’t really leave this an open opportunity, so I can’t vouch for the businesses themselves, but many of these little places in Wisconsin offer a fine meal for those unafraid of a little cholesterol.

Barneveld

Barneveld is also the gateway to Botham Vineyard. For those who enjoy a glass of Wisconsin wine with a view, the winery offers tastings with a view of the vineyards and Wisconsin countryside. For the warmer weather this would be an excellent side trip, particularly if accompanied by a picnic lunch. Days and hours available for tastings are specified on their website. I didn’t visit Botham on this ride, but MLW and I have been there before and enjoyed the trip.

As you ride out of Barneveld you also ride away from the highway that the trail parallels for much of the first part of the trip.

Out of Barneveld into Blue Mound State Park

From there the tree cover is more dense, and you begin to feel much more alone and in the wilderness. About three miles past Barneveld you enter the southern edge of Blue Mound State Park. There are occasional signs mounted to the trees off the trail that tell you this.

Blue Mound State Park

Another half-mile or so in there is an asphalt trail to the north that leads up into the park’s campground area. For those looking for a hill climb this offers a nice opportunity.

Up the Hill

Campground

The trail itself ends up in the park, so the way in is also the way out. The descent is fun, of course, though ice and snow on the path limited my speeds on the way down. Be aware that, depending upon time of year, hunting is allowed in the park. Though there were no campers that I could find, I did come across a batch of gentlemen in blaze orange planning to head up into the trees. I was thankful for my brightly colored gear, flag, and flashing lights.

There are other trails in the park, and some of them can be seen off the camping drive. These are more rustic, however, and not suited for my trike. Folks riding up on a mountain bike or similar would likely be able to tackle them, however.

I continued on past the park into the village of Blue Mounds.

Blue Mounds

Mounds View Park was my turnaround point. While the town itself is smaller than Barneveld, it too has a couple of taverns for the hungry and thirsty. They are a little further off the trail, but in a town this size that’s not saying much. There also appears to be, according to google maps, a yoga studio and a meditation center (go figure).

Cave of the Mounds road crosses the trail on two spots following this and will take you (unsurprisingly) to the Cave of the Mounds. I’ve never been, but according to its website, it is the "premier cave in the upper Midwest and the jewel box of America’s major show caves" (some carful parsing went into that description). It does appear to be open year round, however, so winter cyclists can absolutely make this a stop if they wish.

From there it was just a matter of turning around and heading back. The trail itself, as mentioned before, is mostly crushed stone, and so is relatively soft. In the warmer air and partial sunshine of my return trip it had gotten softer still. The surface is such that it was slow going in general - I averaged 8.21 mph for the ride, and I’m usually in the 11-13mph range on the Catrike. The broader footprint of the trike made the trail navigable on its road-ish tires (Schwalbe Marathons). If I were on an upright I’d want mountain bike tires - I’d imagine a road bike would be a challenge on parts of the trail even on a dry summer day. There was a brief, sandy uphill section that required dismounting the trike and walking it up, making me briefly wish for a fat-tire trike of my own. Not that it would have mattered - I recall struggling on the same section three years ago on MLW’s Schwinn which, while certainly not fancy, has what one would assume would be the "right" type of tires for such a situation.

As I mentioned back then, sections of the trail do parallel the highway, and provide a more... agricultural view, particularly between Ridgeway and Barneveld. The additional distance into Blue Mounds, as opposed to stopping at Barneveld, makes a big difference in the scenery. I’d recommend going the extra miles or, alternately, starting in Barneveld and heading east on the trail if you are looking for a shorter trip and a view. If you are simply looking for some peace, quiet, and alone time on your ride of choice, however, any part of the trail will do nicely.

Halestorm by Erin Wade

Heavy metal music as a category can be somewhat confusing nowadays, particularly if you come at it as a more... seasoned fan. For those of us who grew up listening to the likes of Judas Priest, AC/DC, Ozzy Osbourne, and Sammy Hagar, modern offerings in the category can be somewhat perplexing. Frequently exploration of the category in the modern era results in encountering indiscernible vocals that suggest a singer trying to clear a decade’s backlog worth of phlegm, backed by guitars crunching in a non-melodic pattern that are reminiscent of sandpaper being run across the strings.

Halestorm stands in distinct contrast to that trend. All of their albums are excellent, and their newest release - Vicious - scratches the heavy metal itch in all the right places.

Vicious - which came out July 27th, 2018 - is a vocal tour de force, with Lzzy Hale front and center. She is the force.

I’ve been listening to Vicious for the better part of two months now and, while the band absolutely has its own distinct sound and character, 30-plus years worth of listening to music makes my brain inevitably draw comparisons. And with respect to that, the comparison I keep coming back to is Ronnie James Dio.

Heavy metal, new and old, is full of singers who can wail or put that low, gravelly timbre into their voices. But few vocalists have demonstrated the range of Ronnie James Dio - that ability to put all of that range on display in a single song - Don’t Talk to Strangers being a prime example of that:

Black Vultures - the opener on the new album - is the song that most makes me think of this comparison.

They are very different songs, to be sure, but the range within, from relatively soft and quiet to rasping scream, is there in both. Listening to the album, but especially this song, made me want to cue up Holy Diver and give that a listen thru as well.

What’s clear, with all of this, is that Lzzy Hale is a vocal powerhouse. I first encountered her as a guest for the title track on Linsey Sterling’s Shatter Me - a standout song on an excellent album that made me determined to find out out more about the vocalist. As is often the case, I discovered that, while she was new to me, the band has been active for a while, with an existing catalog. What’s delightful within that is that the catalog includes three other albums of original work - Halestorm, The Strange Case of..., and Into the Wild Life; and it includes three EP’s of covers, all under the title Reanimate (e.g. Reanimate, Reanimate 2.0, etc).

It’s that vocal flexibility that makes this so magnificent - Lzzy and crew’s love for the songs they are covering is clear and true on each of these. What’s more, they show her ability to sing virtually anything across the hard rock/heavy metal spectrum. One might expect that, for example, when seeing that Heart’s All I Wanna Do is Make Love to You is on one of these EP’s (Reanimate). One might be more dubious when one sees Whitesnake’s Still of the Night show up (on Reanimate 3.0 ). One would be wrong:

And lest one think that these covers sit only in safe, hard rock territory, realize that artists as diverse as Stevie Nicks, Lady Gaga, and Twenty One Pilots also get the Halestorm cover treatment on these EP’s.

This shines within the new album as the songs range from relatively soft and reflective (The Silence), to funky (Do Not Disturb, Conflicted) to solid hard rock/heavy metal (Buzz, and the aforementioned Black Vultures). And while Lzzy clearly enjoys that heavy metal edge to her voice, she also brings out the baby doll range where appropriate (e.g. on the aforementioned Conflicted).

Of course, a vocalist is not an entire band, and the albums would not be convincing if it weren’t for the rest of the crew as well. The guitar and bass work here is excellent, giving that crunch and funk where needed, in just the right measure. Drum work, handled by Arejay Hale - yes, Lzzy’s brother - is both supportive and complex. Drum work can take many forms, of course, but in heavy metal it often seems relegated to timekeeping with occasional accents for punch and fills. Here you get something different. Arejay‘s drum work has an expected heavy edge, but interesting, lighter rhythms fill in the spaces in-between, and often mirror and add to vocal lines. If you enjoy music where the drummer takes an active role you’ll find things to enjoy here.

While I’m drawing comparisons to Ronnie James Dio, the comparisons vary when we get to lyrical content. You won’t find songs full of angels and demons here. Halestorm‘s topic areas are quite different. Black Vultures opens the album with an anthem about rising up against, or in spite of, others trying to bring you down:

I don’t give in, I don’t give up I won’t ever let it break me I’m on fire, I’m a fighter I’ll forever be the last one standing

This leads into Skulls, which shifts gears into metaphor for people uncritically taking in the information they are fed, along with Lzzy’s inability to simply sit by and let that go:

Leave the TV on Believe what you want If you can’t see right or wrong...

And the songs continue, with a real-life and wonderfully earthy tone - Halestorm embraces the topic of sexuality openly and directly, and this is reflected in songs like Buzz and Conflicted, and more than directly in Do Not Disturb...:

I’m on the very top floor, room 1334 There’s a king size bed, but we can do it on the floor Turn your cell phone off, I’ll put a sign on the door That says "do not disturb" And if I were you I’d bring your girlfriend too Two is better than one, three is better than two...

And further on into relationships gone wrong and the subsequent pain - the album covers a gamut of experiences and emotions. It works excellently as a cohesive piece - in an era where some artists have set aside the album format in favor of serial singles, this is a coherent album true to the name, without a bad moment in the set.

If you have been looking for heavy metal music in the classic style and have been struggling to find it, you need look no further - it’s alive and well, right here in this album and in this band.

Rend Lake Bike Path by Erin Wade

Take I-57 south about half an hour south of Mount Vernon, Illinois, and you’ll come across Rend Lake. In fact, you’ll actually start catching glimpses of the lake itself off to the right earlier than that - it’s pretty big, coming in as the second largest man-made lake in the state. Much of the land around it is protected in one way or another. One of those areas is Wayne Fitzgerell State Park, which I wrote about here a while back.

For this trip I had the opportunity to do some homework ahead of time, and found that Rend Lake has a much longer continuous section of trail system around its southern end, where the dam that formed it falls across the Big Muddy River.

Trail map

This compares favorably to Wayne Fitzgerell, where the path was shorter, and seemed to lack anything resembling a start or end point.

To get there, you’ll exit I-57 at Benton, and travel back a bit through the countryside. This is all lovely, intensely rural country - trees and water and prairie occasionally punctuated by farms and small towns. If you are from outside of Illinois you may assume that it’s all Chicago, but most of the state is not, of course - most of the state is like this to a greater or lesser degree.

Once you get to the lake, the most challenging part is selecting where to begin. You’ll find, on the map, that you enter on the aptly named Trailhead Lane.

Trail map close up

Not far along that path there is a large parking area that clearly abuts the trail. You can see that, because you can see the trail along trailhead lane. What you will also see is that the large parking area is clearly convenient, but it’s not where the trail begins. To be clear, after riding the course, I can say that it would be a fine place to start your ride, but I was looking for the whole trail experience, so I followed the road further in. What you’ll find there is a camping area and spots with smaller parking slots. You have to navigate this while keeping an eye on the trail itself, though, which you gain and lose through the trees as you do it. You’ll have to do that because, as best I can tell, despite the fact that you are driving on Trailhead Lane, there is no place where the actual trail head is marked (although I suppose it’s possible I simply didn’t go far enough in). Doing all of this added about 3/4 of a mile to the ride in each direction. If that extra mile and a half isn’t important to you, I’d suggest starting at the large lot.


Enjoying this post? Check out our Cycling page for links to other cycling articles on Applied Life


Once you get riding you will find a course that offers multiple types of view. Much of it winds through wooded parkland, and for the first section you alternate between that and having the road off to the side. It then opens up into a small open area with the lake in the distance as you approach the side of the dam.

Rend Lake in the distance

The trail then rises up to the top of the dam, and you cross the Dam Road (the 12-year old boy in me loves that name) and the trail drops into the area below the dam, following along and then crossing the Big Muddy River.

Big Muddy River

Things change trail-wise here as well. Most of the trail is concrete on either side of the dam, but changes to tar and chip for this section. There are also a couple of sections that are perhaps spillways, where the trail drops down and then up by a couple of feet across a 15-20’ span. I’ve never encountered these anywhere else, but aside from being surprising, they were perfectly navigable.

Views along the Big Muddy are more or less what you would expect. You’ll see woodlands, of course, and you get glimpses of the river along these sections. Part of it is more wetland than river...

Where the water goes green

And the river itself here, falling just below the dam, is clearly channeled:

Big Muddy River

As you come out of this loop, the trail takes you out along the dam for approximately a mile:

Dam View

If you are here looking for wooded lake views, the first two sections of the trail might seem discouraging. Honestly, they were to me, though this was tempered a bit by a desire to get distance under my wheels as well. Press on a bit further, though, and things change. On the other side of the dam things open into the wooded vistas you are seeking.

Over the river and thru the woods

The trail frequently offers glimpses of the lake, and at times, rides right alongside it. For those inclined to stop and rest along the way, or bring along a picnic lunch, there are many locations, both formal and informal, that allow for this with a lovely lake view.

Lake View

The park is full of wildlife. As at Wayne Fitzgerell, deer are abundant. I came across small herds multiple times as I was riding, in most cases very close to the trail. On at least two occasions I was riding with deer bounding along the trail just ahead of me. I also came across wild turkeys, and a wide variety of waterfowl, including your usual ducks and geese, of course, but also some types of cranes and/or herons. These last, unfortunately, flew off before I could get a closer look and/or a picture.

This trail is peaceful, but it’s not quiet - or at least it’s not in late summer, when I was riding it. While the visible wildlife aren’t particularly noisy, this is cicada season in southern Illinois. You’ll hear them as an ongoing backdrop, a soundtrack, throughout your ride.

The trail itself is paved throughout. As noted before, below the dam it’s composed of asphalt tar and chip, while on either side above the dam you’ll find concrete. Automatically one might presume to prefer riding on the concrete sections, but there is good and bad there as well. The concrete is laid in large sectional blocks, resembling nothing so much as a very large sidewalk. This means that you hear and, depending on the type of machine you ride, feel the joints in an ongoing rhythmic pattern as you ride them. There is also a tendency, in a few sections, for the concrete segments to undulate, which can be unpleasantly surprising at speed.

And speed is a relevant consideration here. The trails above the dam frequently present as long, sweeping uphill and downhill sections. As uphill goes the grades are relatively gentle, but on the downhill versions of these sections one is rewarded with vigorous pedaling by a high speed twisting, curving ride that feels like you’ve suddenly arrived at Road America.

Road America?

These sections were a blast on my Catrike Pocket, really bringing out the human-powered gokart feeling that it can offer. I know that it would similarly be a blast on a road bike. But this is also when you discover that some of the sections of concrete undulate like a snake on a Don’t Tread on Me flag...

These winding twisty bits actually presented a bit of a quandary for me, because I wanted to stop and take pictures, but I also didn’t want to because I wanted to crest the next hill to take the next twisting descent...

The trail crosses roadways a few times, but it never joins them. It was busier than I’d found at Wayne Fitzgerell, which is to say that I occasionally came across walkers and a bicycle or two, but much of the time I was blissfully alone. The quality of the trail, and its remove from the roadway was such that darkness falling prior to the end is not a concern if you are comfortable riding with lights. You’ll need them to see, but you won’t particularly need them to be seen, since you are off the roadways.

As with the beginning, there is nothing at the end of it to tell you that you are at the end. You simply empty out into the parking area for a restroom and a bit of looking about finds no additional trail to ride.

Starting at the trailhead suggested by google maps will get you about a 20-mile round trip if you take the whole course. I got a little over 21 miles by going back a little further along the trail.

If you are looking for a place to ride in the region, this trail is absolutely worth checking out. I’d been aware of it before, but didn’t want to drive the few extra miles to get to it, stopping at the state park instead. Next time I’ll do the additional traveling.

Trike at Rend Lake

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.

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":

FullSizeRender.jpg

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!

A Brief Flirtation with Google Drive by Erin Wade

As is true for most of us, I have my systems for doing things, and I get comfortable in those systems. Still, it is good to periodically check out other options to make sure one is not missing out on something better.

I've recently been exploring the possibility of changing my email service, and I was considering the option of using Google's email service - not basic gmail, but rather the email thru their G Suite service, which allows you to use email addresses based in your domain (e.g. that end with your own address rather than "gmail.com").

G Suite, as the name implies, doesn't just offer email, but an entire office suite of features, many of which present the option of potentially replacing systems I already use. They have a secure video conferencing service (Hangouts Meet), they have their suite of office software, and they have an online file storage service, Google Drive.

Some of these things are of interest to me, while others are not. For example, I'm open to exploring Hangouts Meet as an alternative to our current service, but prior experience leaves me with exactly zero interest in Google Docs, Sheets, or Slides. The feature set in Apple's iWork suite is perfect for me, and it's integration into iOS devices, particularly the iPad, makes it a solid winner for me every time. I also am well aware, both from personal experience and from the reports of others, that Google has historically been slow to update the iOS versions of their products to use the features available on the iPad.

Among the products in G Suite is Google Drive. Aside from looking up documents from my kid's school, I had very little experience with this service. I'm a long-term user of Dropbox, but as I said at the beginning, it's good not to let comfort keep one from exploring other, potentially better options. Since, like most of the free world, I have a personal Google account, I also technically have a personal Google Drive. I decided to play with it a bit and see what I thought.

I downloaded the app to my iPad and made a couple of documents to put into the drive for testing purposes. Some of what I found was what one might expect. It handled PDF documents just fine - you can render a preview of the document, export it to another location, etc, just as you might expect.

The iWork files were another story entirely.

I specifically made up a Pages document for the test. What I found initially was that there is no preview option for a Pages file - rather, Google Drive just tells you that it is an "unsupported file type".

Unsupported File Type

This isn't entirely surprising in and of itself. iWork files, as I understand them, are actually packages, and in the past that has confused some file systems. But it is inconvenient if you want to take a quick look at the document before opening it to make sure it is what you want. Dropbox and iCloud (naturally) readily render previews of these files.

While this is inconvenient, it is not necessarily a deal-breaker. I'd prefer to be able to preview my iWork files, since I use them regularly, but there isn't that much confusion between one file name and another for me.

But then something else happened: The Pages document that I had entered into Google Drive started duplicating itself. The first time I tried the app it multiplied the file into some 40 or 50 copies, and I said to myself "well, that's that, then" and deleted the app from my iPad. After a few days, and a little bit of thought, I considered the possibility that the experience might have been a fluke, so I tried it again, this time bringing files into the app in multiple ways. When I sent a copy to the app directly from Pages using "Send a Copy", it did not appear to make duplicates (though it did, inexplicably, append "-1" to the file name, despite there being no other file with that name in the folder). However, when importing from Dropbox what I found was that, it after it was sitting in Google Drive for a few minutes, it began to make multiple copies of that file without being asked to do so.

Files duplicating like bunnies

I'm not sure why this would occur, but if I were to consider Google Drive as an option for me, it would be in place of Dropbox, which would mean that I'd be sending a lot of files from Dropbox to Drive. I love The Tick), but I certainly don't need a replay of the attack of Multiple Santa to occur in my file storage.

Of course, there is also iCloud Drive on the iPad. What I found there was that any attempt to import a Pages document into Google Drive from iCloud Drive caused the file to simply hang there, with its progress bar seeming to be finished, and yet never fully resolving. This was only true for the iWork file. I was able, for example, to import a PDF from iCloud into Google Drive just fine.

One could argue that I was functionally warned up front that Google Drive wasn't going to play well with my files with the indication that the Pages document was an unsupported file type. I suppose that is true, to some degree. It's worth noting, however, that the iWork suite - Pages, Numbers, and Keynote - has been around now for over a decade, and it comes free with the iPad - this isn't a new product, nor is it obscure, so it seems reasonable to ask why a product that presents as a general storage tool would not be prepared to support these file formats properly. One suspects, if one is conspiratorially minded (as one might be) that it is because Google would prefer one to use their office suite.

A quick check of the weather finds that Hell has not, in fact, frozen over yet, so that won't be happening on my iPad.

So, as the title says, this was a brief flirtation with the product. I might have been able to live without the ability to preview my iWork files - though in retrospect, I do use that feature quiet frequently. Not being able to reliably import my files, and finding them duplicating like bunnies, however, largely seals (or, rather, breaks) the deal.

You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) - A Review by Erin Wade

Weird on the Internet

This one is a memoir, written and read by Felicia Day. Odds are good, if you are reading this, that you know who Felicia Day is, but if not, you may have seen her in:

...And many, many others. Basically, if it's geeky and good, Felicia Day has very possibly been involved with it.

This particular book is, as mentioned, a memoir. It recounts her life, beginning from a childhood in the Deep South, home schooled and living a self-described off-kilter life, and continuing up through her professional career, into very nearly current day (the Audiobook was released in 2015) and reflecting her struggles with Gamergate.

Anyone can relate the details of their life, moving from time to time and from event to event. You've probably had an uncle or grandparent do this to you at family gatherings while you desperately looked for some means of escape. What so often (if not always) makes the difference is the telling of the story. And it is in the telling that this book truly shines.

It's a rare book that can truly make me laugh out loud, but this did on multiple occasions. The writing is quick and delightfully clever. She manages to be both wonderfully self-deprecating and reflect pride her accomplishments, sometimes simultaneously. As I mentioned before, it's read by Felicia herself, and this magnifies the telling - like the best audiobook performances, the narration feels like a conversation, a storytelling, not a reading. It's intimate, familiar material for her, and she delivers it with all that entails. I was genuinely sad to reach the end of the book.

As a bonus, because the audiobook was recorded after the tree corpse version's release, there is additional material about events that occurred as part of her book tour. These are very fun as well.

So look - if you are reading this, you probably already know and love Felicia Day's work. You owe it to yourself to pick up (or download) this book.

Station Breaker - A Review by Erin Wade

Station Breaker

Station Breaker by Andrew Mayne is a speculative fiction piece surrounding a private company astronaut, in a near future setting, where trips to and from space are handled by a Space X-like company. The setting is somewhat reminiscent of The Martian, in that it presents bits of technology that might not quite yet exist, but you know are just over the horizon.

That setting in time, however, is where the resemblance ends. Astronaut David Dixon is on his first actual space mission and, even before liftoff, things don't seem quite right. Why is the mission commander, a seasoned NASA astronaut, surreptitiously packing along a pistol?

This story is a breakneck-speed adventure from start to finish. Setting development is efficiently handled, giving a feeling for time and location while trusting the reader to come along quickly, and then never looking back or slowing down. The narrative is in first person, mostly present tense, giving the impression you are seeing things as David Dixon sees them, and keeping you directly in the moment. You, as has David, have been dropped into a very difficult situation with no explanation of what is really happening, nor of why, keeping you on the edge of your seat.

For the hard science fiction aficionados there is real time and attention paid here to the physics of things, both in space and otherwise. Still, this is done in a way that won't be intimidating to readers unfamiliar with these components - if proper physics is important to you, it's there. If it isn't, you won't be forced to pop over to iTunes U and take a course to understand what is going on - it's nicely laid out mostly as color to the overall story, and briefly, clearly explained when it's more important to what is going on.

The physics, and the story, don't only happen in space. This story rolls its way across multiple locations, Indiana Jones style, with some considerable effort on the part of our main character. It's an adventure from moment one.

As (almost) always, I experienced Station Breaker via audiobook. This story was my companion for many a bike ride thru the countryside (one ear only, the other open to the road, of course). It is read by Kyle McCarley. He narrates a number of audiobooks on Audible - 61, based on a narrator search - but this is my first experience with him as a reader. It sometimes takes me a little while to adjust to a new reader - each narrator has their idiosyncrasies, and while an audiobook is certainly the presentation of the author's material, it's also a performance, and the narrator is absolutely a factor in the experience of the book. In this case, I enjoyed his voice, but initially found his way of emphasizing certain words - particularly the word blood (which appears several times early in the book) - took a little while to adjust to. However, I often find that, if I press on a bit, I do adjust, and this was the case here. And in fact, given that time I found that Mr. McCarley does an excellent array of voices, and is able to maintain them consistently throughout, which is certainly not the case for every narrator.

All in all, the book was an excellent companion for multiple rides. It ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, and there is a second book in the series - Orbital - which I have lined up in my cue. Notably, the second book is also read by Kyle McCarley, which offers a nice bit of continuity - it can be somewhat jarring when the narrator changes partway thru a series and all of the characters you've come to know sound different.

If you are looking for a high-adrenaline thrill-ride, with a bit of a science fiction angle to it, I can happily recommend Station Breaker.

HonShoop Bluetooth Earpiece by Erin Wade

A while back I bemoaned the lack of high-end bluetooth earpieces. I came to the conclusion at that time that my Jumbl receiver with cheap earbuds might just be good enough, and that was where my search ended. At the time, anyway.

Unfortunately, my Jumbl stopped charging a few weeks ago. At first I'd hoped that it was just that the charging indication light wasn't working but, alas, this was not the case. Now, to be clear, this was not the first generation device I wrote about back in 2015, but a more recent version I'd purchased since. As I noted in that original article, the first version had a proprietary charger - it looked like something you would use to charge an old Nokia flip phone. The newer ones use micro-usb to charge, which is far more convenient. I'd since placed the newer one into regular service, and kept the older one at my desk for calls at home (where I would be much less likely to lose the charger).

I've been happy with the Jumbl (although some users writing reviews on Amazon do appear to have had similar problems with devices simply stopping charging), so I popped open the Amazon app to order another. And I did, but while I was there I also perused Amazon's other options and suggestions, and came across this HonShoop earpiece:

IMG_1069.PNG

I'd never actually heard of HonShoop, but aside from my brief flirtation with Jawbone, I'm by no means a Bluetooth earpiece aficionado. It had good reviews, had noise cancelling features, and an on-device mute button, all for about $30. Seemed a good shot. And, thus far it is working well: sound quality is good, even in a noisy car, battery lasts about a week under my normal use, it's got multiple earpiece adapters to fit even my tiny, deformed ears... etc.

And I absolutely loved the fact that it had its own mute button. Turning on mute on the phone - a definite must-do thing when on a conference call in a car - seems considerably more challenging than simply tapping a button on your ear. And this works well, with the only downside being that the device wants to remind you that it is on mute every minute or so, and that audible notification - "mute on" - can block out portions of the conversation.

All of this is why I sat down this morning to write a review on the device - a couple of weeks in I'm pretty happy with it. Seemed reasonable enough, right? However, it appears the device is no longer available on Amazon. Based upon reviews, I'm not the only person to have ordered it within the last few months, so it's not as if there was an indication that it was a product at the end of its life, but there you have it. Perhaps I should have done more homework, but a google search after the fact finds that HonShoop appears not to have its own web presence. The devices are available from a couple of other outlets in addition to Amazon, but not directly from the manufacturer.

There are other (newer) versions of the headset, slightly different in apperance, available from the same company, and one or two others that appear physically identical to those with other company names attached to them (this seems not that unusual for such products on Amazon). The best I can say now is that if they are of the same design and build quality, and if they operate similar software, and if they have similar battery life, etc, the HonShoop earpieces are worth looking into.

Legion and FXNOW by Erin Wade

Legion Promo

A week or so ago saw the premier of Legion on FX.

This is a show based on a character) that represents a deep dive into the Marvel comics universe. But this isn't your average comic book character (or show).

Like all of the best of storytelling, you'll be rewarded here by paying close attention to the detail happening as the show goes on. And you may have your trust shaken.

I was a kid, reading The New Mutants when I first came across Legion as rendered by Bill Sienkiewicz. The artwork was presented in a style that represented a frankly jarring change from both what had been seen in the series prior, and from anything I'd ever seen in a comic before. Jarring, yes, but in a magnificent way that opened my teenage mind to far more possibilities for comic art than I'd considered before. I continue to remember his art in a way that isn't true for many others.

The first episode of the new series maintains the spirit of that drastic artistic shift. It's delightfully, magnificently off kilter. I'd like to say more, but I don't want to give anything away - it's better to experience it directly.

But when you go to watch this excellent, twisted work of art, choose carefully. The first episode is available streaming through the FX Network's FXNOW app on your iOS device and, one assumes, also through other streaming options. It is also available through iTunes and Amazon Video. The first episode is free on iTunes and FXNOW (you can watch an hour of FXNOW without logging in). The season is $19.99 for HD on iTunes and Amazon Video. If you have a login from a cable or satellite provider you can log in through FXNOW and watch it there for "free".

If you want to live that way...

We watched the first episode through FXNOW. The app worked fine, and streamed the episode smoothly. Unfortunately, that's where the goodness ends. FX, in its wisdom, chose to pack six separate commercial breaks into the Legion premier, some of which contained up to 10 different spots in a single break. It structured the commercials so that there is an extended portion of the episode that occurs before the first break (the first taste is free, apparently), but after that the breaks are stacked on top of one another at fairly regular intervals. The breaks were all long, and distractingly frequent during the second half of the episode.

It's like the folks who set up FXNOW have absolutely no idea why people choose to watch video over streaming.

I highly recommend the show - that should be clear. I'd also highly recommend that you experience the first episode through iTunes (first episode is free, remember) if you want to try it out first, or through either iTunes or Amazon Video if you are sure it's your thing.


Update 2/26/17: Legion is now available on Hulu, with a much more reasonable volume of commercial breaks.

Another Step Away from the Desktop: QuickBooks Online by Erin Wade

Bookkeeping software is a pain in the ass.

One of the tiny handful of things that has kept me running a desktop machine over the past couple of years is the bookkeeping software that I've been using.

Sometimes people keep using older systems because there is something they love about the old way. People profess their love for paper books despite the presence of electronic options; I maintain a fleet of fountain pens for writing by hand despite three quarters of a century or so of advancement in terms of other options.

This is not the case with respect to my desktop bookkeeping software. Not even a little bit.

A couple of times per year over the past two or three years I'd find myself wistfully googling for alternative options, trying to find an option that would meet my small business needs, would not put a vast array of unneeded complications in front of me, and would, ideally, work on my iPad.

Oh - and that would not be QuickBooks.

You see, several years ago, after years of happily using a version of Quicken Home and Business that was two or three generations behind the then most current version, I clicked the wrong button and triggered an unwanted update. In a fit of pique I declared myself finished with any and all bookkeeping products offered by Intuit and went in search of alternatives.

One of the best ways to make your decisions about things that have a large impact on your personal and professional life is to make a rash decision in the middle of a tantrum.

Despite that, the drive to search for alternatives maintained itself for quite some time. For personal finance tracking I switched to Mint, an online application that offered the ability to connect to and track all of your accounts in one place, and would do a fair-to-medium job of categorizing your transactions for you. And it wasn't an Intuit product.

...Until 2009, when Intuit purchased it. More on that below.

For professional purposes I searched high and low for an option that would meet a variety of needs, including tracking of expenses and invoicing. I ended up using a product called AccountEdge. Never heard of it? Neither had I. But it was available for Mac (and Windows), had reasonable reviews, would sync across multiple machines, and otherwise seemed to meet my needs. I took the leap.

My relationship with AccountEdge has been... complicated. While time has blurred the events somewhat in terms of timeframe, at some point relatively early in my use of this app I found that I needed a feature that AccountEdge Basic did not have. So I upgraded to AccountEdge Pro.

The perception of the small business bookkeeping world seems to be that you will want your business to become an international corporation shortly after founding it, and AccountEdge Pro appears to be set up to make you feel like that's already happened in your bookkeeping software.

But not, you know, in a good way.

Setting up things like invoices in AccountEdge Pro requires thinking like a database developer - in most cases you cannot simply type something into the invoice directly - rather, the database consists of fields that have to be filled from information you have entered elsewhere. This means developing reference "lists" for everything - clients, jobs, activities, vendors. Want to do a one-time activity for a client? Gotta enter it on to the activities list, where it will remain forever despite its one-timeness. And AccountEdge offers an app that supposedly syncs with iOS devices and offers some functionality, but I've found setting it up to be inscrutable.

I remained with it for quite a while longer than I wanted, but I was often contemplating straying. Every few months I would find myself searching the App Store and google for iOS bookkeeping software. QuickBooks was always the top hit, but there are other options. Still, the hurdle of moving to something else always seemed to big a hill to climb.

While it would be tempting to think I was lost in the sunk-cost fallacy - I did spend a lot of time setting AccountEdge Pro up. But ultimately it was prospective cost, in terms of my time, that I was concerned about. I've set up these systems multiple times, and they are typically complicated to learn and time consuming. Most programs offer a trial period, but really understanding how they will work for you means setting up your entire business in them, a daunting prospect just to try something out.

The beginning of the year is the perfect time to make a change if your fiscal year mirrors the calendar year. As 2017 rolled into focus and I had a bit of time off for the end of the year, I found myself looking. And, of course, QuickBooks showed up at the top of each search. But I still wasn't using Intuit's products out of principle.

Principle can be a funny thing. When the state of Illinois rolled out their Ipass system (it's called "EZ Pass" in the rest of the US) and MLW picked up a transponder for her car, I made a bold statement about how I wasn't going to use such a thing. Why would I agree to put something in my vehicle that allows me to be tracked? And it was clear the system could be used to track speed between tolls and to then issue tickets. It was just a matter of time! I would not be duped into entering into such a situation.

...About the third time I asked to borrow MLW's Ipass "just this one time" she suggested I might be a touch hypocritical. I have my own Ipass now.

And you know how I mentioned that Intuit bought Mint? I wasn't pleased about that, but I was already bought in, and Intuit mostly seemed to leave it alone, so I left it be. In the intervening years they've developed iPhone and iPad apps, and it remains one of the easiest ways to quickly see what is going on with virtually everything in your financial life. It still works just as well, if not better, as it did back when it was an independent product.

Plus, I never actually stopped using TurboTax. There are other tax prep options, but TurboTax is very familiar, and works very well for me.

And when I needed to start producing 1099's, and could not sort out any easy way to do so with AccountEdge, I ended up holding my nose and going on Intuit's website, setting up an account that not only allowed me to make them, but also to send them electronically to contractors and to file them electronically. So convenient and straightforward... felt a little like getting the first hit for free...

So, yep, I realized I'm using an awful lot of Intuit products for a man engaged in a principled stand against using products by Intuit. I set my prospective cost concerns aside and went ahead and took a shot at the 30-day trial.

About two hours in I had all of my account information set up and was ready to design invoices. By early afternoon I was able to send out my first invoice, complete with the option for customers to pay electronically (an option I've explored but have never cleared the hurdle of setting up before). Some of the setup - like designing the invoices - had to be done on the desktop - but it appears virtually all of the day-to-day activity can be done on the iPad or on an iPhone. And it may be possible that all of it can be done on an iPad, as invoice designing can be done in a web browser. I didn't try this option - I had invoices to send out and, while I am writing this for you, I tried out the software for me .

If you've never set up financial software before you might think this description sounds like a lot of time was taken to set up. It was about six hours across the course of a single day, to be sure, but that was learning completely new software and getting almost entirely up and running. In the past - as with AccountEdge - this has been a process that can take days to accomplish. I was astonished at how quickly everything came together.

It's early days, of course, and I haven't done everything yet - I have yet to need to print a check, for example. But initial experience is positive. I often prefer to go with smaller, independent software company options when I can find something that will work for me. Still, there are times when the combined experience and expertise of an established company pays real dividends. And assuming everything continues to go well, I'm one more step away from the desktop.

Packing for Mars by Erin Wade

Packing for Mars Cover

Author Mary Roach is a national treasure.

Ms. Roach is a science writer who tackles topics that other authors might shy away from or, if not, would handle in a dry and stale fashion for fear that, to do otherwise would somehow tarnish their reputation. My introduction to Mary Roach's work was a book called Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, an account of the myriad possibilities that may happen to the body when it is donated to science. I had never heard of this book or of Mary Roach until it was recommended by a friend (thanks Greg). That recommendation opened up for me a world of delightfully irreverent, yet informative writing on topics that one does not often see treated in an entertaining way.

That book - on a topic I might not have otherwise explored not for squeamishness but rather for lack of interest - revealed a narrator with an incredibly earthy approach to topics others might find distasteful. In addition, there is a clear zeal and intense curiousity for the subject of each book that simply becomes infectious. In reading Stiff one could see that she was fascinated with how cadavers are used - whether for medical training or forensic exploration or as crash-test dummies (really!) - paired with an unflinching willingness to get into the nitty gritty (sometimes very gritty) components of that exploration. She quickly joined David McCullough on my very short list of non-fiction authors I will read regardless of the specific topic.

My most recent journey down the road paved by Mary - or perhaps I should say off the launching pad - was Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. Though told against the backdrop of a manned mission to Mars, the book is more an exploration of what we have learned and understand about the effects of prolonged exposure to life in space, and how we have learned it.

In characteristic fashion she jumps delightfully to the point: "To the rocket scientist, you are a problem. You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever have to deal with." It is a relatively simple thing to launch satellites into orbit and even rovers to other planets compared to determining how to manage human beings in space. She goes on:

You and your fluctuating metabolism, your puny memory, your frame that comes in a million different configurations. You are unpredictable. You're inconstant. You take weeks to fix. The engineer must worry about the water and oxygen and food you'll need in space, about how much extra fuel it will take to launch your shrimp cocktail and irradiated beef tacos. A solar cell or a thruster nozzle is stable and undemanding. It has no ego. It does not excrete or panic or fall in love with the mission commander. It has no ego. It's structural elements don't start to break down without gravity and it works just fine without sleep.

In the course of this book the author spends time in a Russian space training facility and interviewed former cosmonauts, took a ride on the "Vomit Comet", and along the way explores all of the realities - including the most real, human components - of the challenges of spending extended periods of time in space. Some of the simplest activities that we take so very much for granted rely far more heavily on the effect of our natural environment - especially gravity - than one might think. Anyone making their way through Packing for Mars will never think of the word "separation" in quite the same way again.

With any of her works be sure to read the footnotes as you go. They are, by design, asides from the topic of the moment, but like the marginal art of Sergio Aragonés, it adds little bits of additional delight as you work your way through the book. As is usual for me, I listened to the book on Audible, and the reader understood this implicitly. She made sure to include the footnotes as she went, inserting bits of additional factual fun.

One of my favorite facts revealed - one of many - was the sizing on the condoms used as a part of the urinary catheter system developed by NASA. The devices come in three sizes but, knowing the ego of the human male, those sizes are Large, Extra Large, and XXL - proper fit is vital, and they knew no male astronaut would choose a small or medium...

And while it's all great fun as you go, I don't want to leave the impression that it's not rigorously composed. Whether it is finding that accounts reported and repeated in multiple NASA histories have no reliable basis in fact, or determining whether someone actually did film the act of coitus on a parabolic flight (I'll let you discover that for yourself), Mary Roach demonstrates an admirable tenacity for getting her way to truth behind the story.

For anyone with even a passing interest in science writing and/or the space program I can heartily recommend this book.