Category Archives: General Stuff

RIP Bob Thompson

I was very sorry to learn today that my friend Robert Bruce Thompson passed away last night after a short illness. Bob and I worked together on a number of book proposals, none of which ever made the cut. We both had the same agent and wrote books for O’Reilly and Associates during their heyday, so we had many long conversations about writing and life. Bob’s probably best known for his books on PC hardware troubleshooting, but he wrote on a wide variety of other technical topics.

Bob was a very early adopter of blogging and maintained a regular daily blog for many years. For the last few years, his site contained a wealth of information about food storage and prepping, with a practical and fact-based vent often absent from prepper sites.

Bob had impeccable personal integrity and a strong sense of right and wrong. While we disagreed on more than a few things, I appreciated his willingness to learn new things and consider different viewpoints.

Bob’s survived by his wife, Barbara, and his faithful border collies.

I will miss you, Bob.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under General Stuff

2017 in review: my reading list

Earlier I posted my top-10 book list for 2017. Now here’s the rest of what I read, more or less in chronological order. I think there are probably a few other books that I missed somehow (e.g. I remember reading a book about the practicalities of emigrating to Costa Rica but can’t find it on my list).

Underground Airlines. What if the Civil War had never happened? Gripping tale of a present-day system of smuggling slaves out of the slave states, and what the commercialization of forced labor might look like in the US.

Dark Matter. Well-plotted thriller with some strong SF elements.

It’s a Long Story: My Life. If you like Willie Nelson you’ll probably like this. If you don’t, not so much. Heavy on the folksiness.

A Girl In Time. Meh. A time-traveling cowboy abducts a Seattle game designer to help him find his lost daughter. Not one of Birmingham’s better efforts IMHO.

No More Mr. Nice Guy. Thesis: there’s a condition known as “nice guy syndrome” that causes many men to become resentful and unhappy. Interesting read with a lot of immediate applicability in my life.

Only the Truth. Confusing plot but hey, it was free on Kindle Unlimited.

Amerika. WW II alternate history: the Nazis get atomic weapons and we don’t, so a thriving American resistance emerges, led in part by a Pan Am flying-boat pilot. Fast-paced and atmospheric.

The Prisoner. Another excellent John Wells novel from Alex Berenson.

To The Bright and Shining SunOne of James Lee Burke’s earliest novels, this has nothing to do with the Robicheaux or Holland families but is still well worth reading– a complex tale of a young Kentucky coal miner’s coming of age.

At Speed. Cyclist Mark Cavendish’s memoirs. Interesting at a technical level but made me think that I wouldn’t enjoy hanging out with him very much.

A Grain of Truth. Set in Poland and featuring Teodor Szacki, one of my favorite literary anti-heroes. Revealing portrayal of modern Polish culture.

Amerika: Call to Arms. The American resistance rides again.

Fields of Fire. Book 5 of Marko Kloos’ excellent military sci-fi series.

Entanglement. The first of the Teodor Szacki crime novels. Better to read this first before tackling A Grain of Truth.

War Shadows. Enjoyable if predictable yarn about valiant soldiers fighting The Bad Guys.

Prince of ThornsKing of ThornsEmperor of Thorns: Medievalist fantasy series that puts a nifty twist on the Prodigal Son story. This genre isn’t my usual fare but I enjoyed the series.

Sleeping Giants. Aliens come to Earth. A little girl discovers one of their artifacts, then grows up to be an eminent physicist who helps unravel the mystery behind their presence. Not too shabby.

Anansi Boys: re-read this classic Neil Gaiman retelling of the trickster legend. Still just as good as it was back in the day.

Anathemre-read this one too. For my money, this is probably Stephenson’s best world-building, although it is slow to develop and there are a lot of Gibsonesque leaps that require you to pay careful attention to new terms and concepts that are just thrown in.

Split SecondThoroughly enjoyed this twist on familiar time-travel themes: a physicist discovers time travel but it only lets you send objects back a few milliseconds. Hijinks ensue.

Snapshot. Detective novel set in a world where high-fidelity simulations allow cops to recreate murder scenes with perfect accuracy. Not bad but didn’t love it.

Beach Lawyer. Well-written legal thriller– there are a ton of plot twists in this so I had to go back and re-read some passages to make sure I didn’t lose the bubble.

Carrier Pilot. Fascinating memoir of a World War II Corsair pilot in the RAF. Nice change from my typical diet of WW II reading from the American perspective.

The Brave OnesAffecting memoir by a man who joined the Army at age 41 and ends up in the 82d Airborne Division.

The War Planners, The War StagePawns of the Pacifictrilogy in which the Chinese mount a false-flag operation to get a group of brilliant US engineers and scientists to devise a foolproof war plan to attack the US. A novel concept, well-plotted and nicely executed.

Sled DriverThis book by Brian Shul covers his time as an SR-71 pilot. Fascinating if you’re interested in airplanes, otherwise not so much.

On TyrannyShort, simple, practical list of examples of tyranny through the 20th century, along with tips for resisting similar instances in our own century.

The Black Widow. Another excellent Gabriel Allon adventure from Daniel Silva. Get this one as an audiobook and revel in the quality of the narration.

Soho DeadSuppose you’re 60 and an out-of-work private investigator living in London. Can you find some new ways to get in trouble? Yes. Yes, you can. Fun read.

Devil at my HeelsAutobiography of Olympian and WW II bomber pilot Louis Zamperini, immortalized in Unbroken. Moving and thought-provoking.

The Naked DameNoir novel by my friend Jason Bovberg. That tells you everything you need to know whether you’ll like this or not.

Working Stiff. Written by a New York City medical examiner, this book is exactly what you’d expect: gritty, occasionally morbid, and absolutely fascinating.

Devil Said Bang. Sandman Slim rides again.

Zero Sum. Legendary assassin John Rain didn’t start out that way… so this book takes us back to 1982 when he was just starting out.

Unbreakable. Meh. Like “The Truman Show” but not as interesting. 

The Boy Who Played With FusionI really wanted to like this but the overall effect of this biography of a young scientist is sort of creepy.

Into Everywhere. Another book in the Jackaroo universe, this one features a plot twist midway through that stunned me for a few minutes– not something most authors can pull off. Well worth reading but read the first book in the series first.

Beneath a Scarlet SkySuperb, lightly fictionalized account of the life of Pino Lella, a World War II partisan who helped run the rat line that smuggled Jews out of Italy over the mountains. Terrific atmosphere.

The Caine Mutiny. Somehow I had managed to not read this for the first 48 years of my life. I wish I’d read it sooner.

The Nightmare Stacks. The amount of enjoyment I get from the Laundry Files novels scales up as the amount of Bob Howard goes down. This book scores very highly on that scale.  

The Last ParadiseI wish this were better-written– it’s a fascinating story of a Depression-era auto engineer who goes to work for Ford’s factory in the Soviet Union. Terrible dialog and a clunky plot.

The Last Pilgrim and Hell is OpenCrime novels set in Norway featuring a likable but not very pleasant detective. Tommy Bergmann is the kind of guy about whom my mother might say “well, bless his heart.”

Time Heals No WoundsSet on the Baltic coast, this is a pretty run-of-the-mill crime novel. I enjoyed it but, apart from the setting, nothing memorable.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction, 34th annual editionEvery year I order this with trepidation- will it be a good year or a bad one? This year’s edition was quite good.

GlidepathHacker terrorist bad guys take over an autonomous passenger aircraft. The only thing standing between them? Some dude who happens to be the son of the manufacturer and a target of Russian mercenaries. Not bad but nothing really original here.

Solar Clipper books: Quarter Share, Half Share, Full Share, Double Share, Captain’s Share, Owner’s Share, In Ashes Born. Enjoyable space opera, with memorable and witty characters. Heinleinesque in a good way. Good for middle-school kids and up.

Station Breaker and Orbital. Ridiculous, but in the best way. Insanely fast paced, implausible, and breezy stories about an almost-accidental astronaut who ends up saving the world not once, but twice, in space.

The ExtraditionistThe protagonist is a thoroughly unlikable human being: he helps drug lords cut deals with the US government to reduce their sentences in exchange for cooperation. I felt a little slimy when I was done reading this.

The Saga of Pappy Gunn1950s-era retelling of the life of one of World War II’s most colorful and memorable characters– Paul “Pappy” Gunn. I’d never heard of him before this book.

Mona Lisa Overdrive. Another classic that I re-read. If anything, it holds up better now than either of the other two books in the trilogy.

The Man of LegendsA neat twist on the “Wandering Jew” legend: an immortal passes through history trying to make the world a better place so… he can finally die.

Cold HarborThe third book featuring hacker and former Marine Gibson Vaughn, this story centers around Vaughn’s quest for revenge after being rendered and held in solitary confinement at a CIA black site. Thought-provoking

Slovakia: Culture SmartApproachable, detailed, informative guide to the history and culture of one of Central Europe’s lesser-known countries. It was extremely valuable to me before my first trip there.

The Berlin Project. Disappointingly slow and turgid alternate history of WW II– what if the Allies had found a shortcut to creating atomic weapons and were able to ready them in time for use against the Nazis?

The Last Good ManI like Linda Nagata’s fiction but it’s just sort of, well, jumpy. She’s all over the place. Ethics in combat, forgiveness, the rise of autonomous bots in warfare, the role of private military contractors… this book has an awful lot going on and suffers as a result.

The Freedom Broker. Interesting look at the world of kidnap & ransom (K&R) specialists. Apart from the unique informational touches related to K&R, a pretty standard thriller.

The Point of a GunCompletely implausible tale of a shadow cabinet of US government officials who go off the reservation to hunt terrorists, doing such a good job that the President has no choice but to make them official. The ending reminds me of the problems I used to get in college calculus: once you know the trick to solving them, the solution is obvious but, until then, it’s a grind.

Yesterday’s Kin. I’ve very much enjoyed Nancy Kress’ books in the past but just couldn’t love this one. The heroine is shrill and unsympathetic, and the ending is a giant fizzle.

Not so much, said the cat. I adore everything I’ve ever read by Michael Swanwick. I’m not sure how I missed this collection of short stories before but it’s superb.

Slow Bullets. Skip this space opera. Reynolds has written better, and so have many others.

The Lieutenant Don’t Know. People who have never been in the military generally have no idea how many supposedly non-combat jobs actually involve combat. Clement’s memoir of his time as a Marine logistics officer in Afghanistan is well-written and makes that point very, very clear.

Beyond the RiftShort-story collection from Peter Watts, who writes challenging but often distasteful science fiction. Some of the stories here were excellent, some were awful (I don’t mean poorly written, I mean awful.)

Heat and Light. Wow. This complex novel traces a group of characters in rural Pennsylvania as they struggle with the problems caused by hydraulic fracking in the community. Unflinching. Very highly recommended.

In Calabria. Suppose unicorns were real, and that you found one hanging around your farm in rural Italy? Beagle has written a charming and moving story that revolves around the answers to those two questions. Much more enjoyable than I thought it would be at first.

The Mote in God’s Eye. I re-read this after nearly 20 years and it is still one of the best-plotted SF novels I’ve ever read.

Gold CoastWhen you read Elmore Leonard you know what you’re going to get. Like eating at Chili’s: predictable quality but, if that’s what you want, you’ll walk out happy.

Afterlife. This is the first Marcus Sakey book I cannot unreservedly recommend. It was merely OK, whereas his others (such as the Brilliance trilogy) are excellent.

Fly by Night. Enjoyable aviation-themed thriller about an NTSB investigator sent to poke around for evidence of a lost CIA drone in Africa.

Quantum Night. Robert J. Sawyer has had a long and distinguished career, so I suppose we have to allow him an occasional clunker every so often… and this would be it. Not recommended.

Hunter Killer. Very good 17th book in the Dan Lenson series. Ends too soon– it’s clear that Poyer hit his page count and knocked off work for the year. I’d rather see him write complete narratives that come out every two years than half a book released yearly.

Autonomous. Very good– it’s been called “the Neuromancer of biotech” and that’s not wrong. Touches on some critical issues of patent and IP law, as well as what it means to be autonomous as a human or a bot.

The Force. Rich, complex, and affecting. Winslow pulls no punches. Complicated and believable characters, crackling dialogue, and a logical yet unpredictable plot push us along to the inevitable end. Would’ve been on my year’s 10 best list if I had read it earlier in the year.

Leave a comment

Filed under General Stuff

2017 in review: my top 10 reading list

I decided to post my 2017 reading list a little earlier because there are some real gems here that would make great holiday gifts for people who enjoy various genres. for today, my top 10. In a day or two, the rest of the year’s haul; expect another post around the 31st with the books that I finish between now and then.

Here are my top 10 for 2017 in the order in which I read them:

  1. John Wayne: The Life and Legend. Superbly rich and detailed bio of an American icon– I came out of this with new respect for his wit and grit.
  2. Eccentric Orbits: the Iridium Story. Excellent in every way. Reads as much like a thriller or murder mystery at some points as a business book. (Spoiler: Motorola did it, or tried to).
  3. Spaceman. Lovely autobiography by astronaut Mike Massimino. Uplifting and motivating. Great for kids who might be interested in the space program or STEM in general.
  4. Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic. Enraging and sad. I can’t tell whether I was more angry at the companies and people who profited from the explosion of prescription opiates or the Mexican cartels who simultaneously flooded the US with cheap heroin, both driving and benefiting from demand for prescription pills.
  5. Walking the Amazon. Bugs! Machetes! Killer natives! Exactly what the title implies: a man walks the length of the Amazon river. Fascinating look into something I never want to have to experience myself.
  6. Mississippi Blood: like getting in the boxing ring with Evander Holyfield in his prime, this book is a continuous series of hammering body blows. Unrelenting conclusion to the three-book “Natchez Burning” arc. Grab a cup of coffee because this will take a while to get through.
  7. The Fireman: I was initially skeptical of this post-apocalyptic novel, but in the first few pages the wit of the writing won me over.
  8. The Jealous Kind. I am a lifelong James Lee Burke fan but this is probably his crowning achievement. Set in 1950s Houston, the novel is at once a romance, a coming of age, and a polemic, and it has an ending that for me hit the perfect note combining the three. Burke has a tendency sometimes to make his villains cartoonishly, over-the-top bad guys but the ones here have understandable motivations, and all except the worst are clearly struggling to redeem themselves. And his main characters… wow. Read this.
  9. Atomic Accidents. I have a pretty solid layman’s understanding of atomic power technologies and their history. At least, I thought so until I read this book. One of the clearest, most interesting, and least biased scientific histories I’ve ever read, and absolutely bursting with little-known facts (example: high-speed power-plant turbines are cooled with gaseous hydrogen!)
  10. Stonemouth: atmospheric novel centering on a man’s return to his boyhood home in Scotland, very much against the wishes of a local crime family. Well plotted with vivid characters and a terrific sense of place.

Yesterday’s Kin

1 Comment

Filed under General Stuff

Training Tuesday: setting up swim intervals with your Garmin watch

A few months ago, I wrote a post about setting up run intervals on Garmin watches. This turned out to be a pretty popular topic, because it’s a very useful feature, the alternative being to write your intervals down on a piece of paper and use your watch or stopwatch to track them. Garmin Connect has a similar function for swim intervals, and I’ve recently started using it, but it has a few quirks you should know about to make most effective use of it.

Let’s build an example workout based on what my coach, Jon Fecik, gave me today:

  • 4×500 (15) as…
  • warm up choice
  • 50 stroke focus/50 swim…for stroke focus… continue to swim freestyle but focus on 1. more catch up and high elbow, 2.) extend back end of stroke, 3.) finger tips close like the finger tip drag drill, 4.) tight kick, 5.) drive hips
  • Paddle pull with buoy…moderate effort
  • swim easy cool down

This is pretty simple, which is good, as Garmin’s swim interval tools aren’t quite as powerful as the ones for managing run intervals.

Start by logging into Garmin Connect, then in the left navigation bar choose Training > Workouts. That will take you to the Workouts page, which looks like this:

Start with your workout list, which may look different from mine

At the top, click on the “Select a workout type…” pulldown, choose “Pool swim,” and click “Create a workout.” That will take you to the interval builder, which you may remember from my earlier post. By default, you get a workout with a warmup, a two-repeat interval, and a cool down:

You get a warmup, a cool-down, and a two-repeat interval for free

Before you do anything else, check the “Pool size” field on the right and make sure it’s correct. Trust me on this. You might also want to use the pencil icon at the top to edit your workout name, so you don’t end up with 10 “Pool workouts” in your list.

The controls for each item in the workout are pretty much self-explanatory: the “Duration” field lets you control whether the interval is based on time or distance, and the “Any stroke” pulldown lets you choose the stroke type if you want to specify one. Keep in mind that Garmin’s watches will try to automatically detect your stroke but they don’t always get it right if you swim like I do.

Super important note: if you’re doing drills as part of a set, set the “Any stroke” control to “Drill.” If you don’t do that, the watch won’t count your distance– for example, if you have a 200yd kick set, and thus aren’t moving your arms, the watch will sit patiently at “200 y remaining” forever because it doesn’t see you swimming.

Note the “Rest” control. This is important too. By default, every interval in the set will have a rest after it, of whatever duration you specify. However, the last interval in a repeat will always have a “rest until button press” added to it. Read on and I’ll show you why that is.

The “Equipment” field is important too, and it’s not present in the run interval builder. This is where you specify what pool toys you’re using for a given interval.

Armed with that knowledge (oh, and the knowledge that the “+” and “-” buttons in the repeat block will do what you expect), let’s build my workout. Start by setting the warmup and cool down distances to 500yds of any stroke… that’s easy enough.

The main set is a problem. Jon wanted me to swim 50/50 x 5, where the first 50 is a drill and the second 50 is a normal swim. Garmin doesn’t let you have more than one item in a repeat– all you get is one swim and one rest per repeat set. I don’t know why this restriction exists, as the run interval tool lets you add steps to a repeat, but whatever. So the best I can do is this:

Remember, only one swim step per interval

I’ll have to remember to split the 100 up so that the first 50 is focused on each of the items Jon asked me to focus on. Note that I set the rest duration to 15 seconds, as directed. The builder automatically inserted a rest step after the interval– notice that it even tells you “The last rest in this repeat block will be ignored by your device” in the workout builder.

Now I need a pull set, so I’ll click “Add a step” and set the step distance to 500yd and then use the “Equipment” link to specify paddles. Unfortunately, you can only specify one equipment item (kick board, paddles, pull buoy, fins, or snorkel) so it’s on you to remember if you need more than one item,.

There’s the pull set…

Then the cool down is easy– a distance of 500yd of any stroke.

The completed workout looks like this:

The full workout

Click “Save Workout” and boom, it’s saved and visible on my phone. A quick tap of the “Send to device” button and now it’s on my watch, ready to go.

Using the workout is a little more complex, but not really. On my Fenix3 HR, I just go to Training > My Workouts and pick the workout, then select “Do Workout”. Once you start the workout, the watch will track distance for each interval, giving you an on-screen countdown of distance remaining. It will buzz when you’re on the last lap of each step, so you know it’s about time to stop. Note that it doesn’t mark a step as done until you press the “lap” button– so, for example, when I’m swimming my 100s I have to press “lap” and then the 15-second rest period starts. When the rest period ends (whether that’s because you have a fixed rest or a fixed duration per step), the watch assumes you will start swimming again, so you don’t need to re-press “lap”.

Speaking of fixed time intervals– yes, you can do those. For non-swimmers: this is an EMOM-style interval where you’re supposed to swim a distance and then start at the same time. The faster you go, the more rest you get. For example, if my coach says “swim 100 every 2:15”, if it takes me 2:00 to swim the first 100, I get 15 seconds of rest. If the next one takes me 1:55, then I get 20 seconds. And so on. To set these up, set the rest period in the repeat to “Fixed repetition time.”

Timed repeats are the devil

That’s it– happy swimming! (Oh, in case you were wondering: no, I don’t know which specific Garmin devices support this– certainly the tri-focused Fenix3/5 and the 735/920/935xt do but I don’t know about any others).

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under General Stuff

Visiting Iceland, day 2: the Golden Circle

Whatever else you can say about Iceland, there is this: they are brilliant marketers.

Slogans such as “the land of fire and ice” and “Icelandic Lamb: Roaming Free Since 874” do a great job of stimulating demand. So it is with “The Golden Circle,” a tourist route that encompasses three major attractions north of Reykjavik. I drove it. Here’s my report… but first, a digression.

Because I was in Iceland for such a short time, I had to be very picky about what to do. There are zillions of guided tours to various attractions, but all of them have high latency: you have to wait, board a bus, wait some more, and generally spend a lot of time buffering instead of doing stuff. Even though I would have loved to see a glacier, or visit a lava cave, etc etc, I had to find something to do that I could shoehorn in between about 7am and 33opm or so– at that time, I’d need to be at KEF getting ready for my return flight. I also wanted to find something affordable. Some attractions, such as Inside the Volcano, can be $400 or more, and I didn’t want to pay that much if I could help it.

My original plan was to rent a small plane at the Reykjavik airport (which was right near my Airbnb), fly up to Akureyri, and see the sights up north. Unfortunately, this plan had two major problems. First was the weather. The bigger one was cost: the airplane was $275/hour, plus I’d need at least one hour with an instructor (another $75), so it would have been $350 or more just to get checked out– then another 4 hours or so of flight time to get to/from Akureyri. Hard pass on that one.

Plan B was to do a bus tour of some kind, but there were none that would fit into the time I had available. That’s when I decided (as mentioned in day 1’s writeup) to rent a car instead. I figured that would give me maximum flexibility and make it easy to ensure that I was at the airport on time. Saturday morning, I got up about 7am, took a quick shower, and finished the last little bit of packing– I had packed about 90% of my stuff Friday before leaving for the race. With the bags in my car, I stopped at the corner bakery and had what was labeled as a cheese pastry. Imagine a pastry filled with scrambled egg and bacon bits, with some cheese.. but served at room temperature. Didn’t expect that. It was still pretty decent.

So, back to the Golden Circle. The three attractions on the circle are Thingvelli( (site of the first-ever democratic parliament), Geysir (from which we get the English word “geyser”), and Gullfoss, a giant waterfall. (Check the links if you want to learn waaaaay more about any of them.) I didn’t want to take the time to tour Thingvellir and see all the historical stuff there, so I modified my route slightly. Here’s more or less what I ended up with. Because I had to go back to Keflavik, I decided to take the longer southern route, along the coast, instead of heading back to Reykjavik directly. This meant I didn’t have time to go to Hafnarfjörður, where I’d hoped to hike Helgafell, but I decided the tradeoff was worth it.

My Golden Circle route

North from Reykjavik

After breakfast, I cracked open my diet Coke, put the new 311 album on repeat, and set out on the route using the free Maps.me app. It is a battery hog, and it has an annoying bug where it permanently lowers your audio volume when it gives directions, but it allows you to download maps and keep them locally cached so you get navigation even when there’s no cell service. Heading north, the first thing I noticed is the mountains to the west. The second thing I noticed was that the road is a very narrow ribbon of asphalt, with no shoulders or guardrails and a fairly steady flow of traffic. Every so often, there would be a spot to pull over for photos, which is fortunate, because you absolutely can’t pull over to the side of the road.

These purple flowers are ubiquitous along the roads in the southern lowlands

One of the many facets of the Icelandic landscape

The route is surprisingly green, green enough to support grazing animals. Along the route, the horses I saw were all fenced in– horse farms in Iceland look quite a bit different from their Kentucky counterparts though.

These ponies were just chilling by the side of the road.

Sheep are essentially free-range animals here, and they will get quite close to the road in some cases. Interestingly, many sheep have a brand spray-painted on their wool in fluorescent paint! I imagine there must be some way for Snorri to tell Bjorn that some of his sheep have wandered next door.

Free-range sheep

There’s an amazing variety of landscape to see along this part of the route; the road gradually climbs as you head north, then once you’re south of Thingvellir it descends.

The narrow road has no shoulders. Notice the low mist off to the west.

This one is worth clicking to see it at full size.

I loved the colors on this hill.

Not shown are all the other vehicles on road– everything from small cars (probably rented, as mine was) to 4x4s to large passenger vans to tour buses. I would imagine that almost all of the traffic was composed of tourists. There wasn’t a lot of traffic by US standards, but there was a fairly steady volume.

Geysir

When I arrived at Geysir, the only way I knew I was there was because there’s a gift shop/gas station complex on the right-hand side of the road. There’s not a lot of signage to indicate that you’re there. Oh, the cluster of tour buses was a good hint as well. The site at Geysir actually contains two geysers: Strokkur (live webcam here) and Geysir itself. They are a few hundred yards apart, and there’s a gravel path you take to walk from one to the other. Strokkur erupts pretty regularly; I saw it twice while I was there. Geysir, alas, does not. It used to, but apparently some bright stars decided they could make it more regular and, in the process, basically broke it. Because I was pressed for time, I didn’t stick around. However, I did rep the Cycle Club colors:

Cycle Club visits a geyser

This picture doesn’t capture the strong wind, nor the unique smell– just a bit of sulfur, plus some heat. You can see steam coming off the pool behind me, as it was from other places on the ground. The eruptions themselves were interesting but not as dramatic as I’d expected. Overall this was an interesting stop but I’m not sure I’d go again. (I did buy a diet coke at the gas station there, so there’s that.)

Gullfoss

Gullfoss is billed as one of the world’s wildest waterfalls, and it lives up to that billing. It’s not a long drive from Geysir; there’s good signage and a cluster of buildings (including a small hotel and a restaurant/gift shop) to show that you’re in the right spot. In case you’re in doubt, as soon as you dismount your vehicle you’ll hear the falls rumbling. I needed to offload some diet Coke, so I made a beeline for the “bathroom” sign only to be confronted with this:

The only pay-to-pee location I found on my trip

I’m not sure which amused me more: having to pay ISK 200 to use the bathroom or having the credit card machines (which worked with Apple Pay) there. Iceland really is a nearly cashless society. Anyway,with that stop made, I walked around the back of the compound towards the falls. There’s a nice-sized observation terrace with a path leading towards five or six flights of steps that descend towards the middle of the falls. At that level, you’re more or less level with the midpoint of the falls, and this is what you’ll see:

Gullfoss level 1

You can’t see it from this picture, but behind me is a rocky trail that leads up to a plateau that’s roughly level with the big part of the falls.

Gullfoss level 2

The falls themselves are wild and noisy. There’s a large spray curtain whipped off the edge of the falls, so between the noise, the wind, and the spray, you get the full Gullfoss experience. I loved it; it reminded me of visiting Snoqualmie Falls with Julie and Tim on a windy day a few years ago.

Love the spray curtain rising from the falls!

I lingered for half an hour or so, just walking around and enjoying the view. However, it was windy and cold, so pretty soon I decided that some shelter might be in order. I decided to wander through the gift shop and see if there was anything interesting (there was, but everything I liked was so expensive that I couldn’t make myself buy anything). The restaurant looked interesting– the only thing on their menu was “meat soup” for (I think) 1500 ISK. For that price, you get unlimited bread and soup. Important tip: Icelanders refer to “meat soup” when we would say “lamb soup.” That’s because they don’t really have any other kinds of meat easily available. Here’s what my 1500 ISK bought:

lamb soup… so, so delicious

Now. Let me say without reservation that this was the best soup I ever tasted. Flavorful and rich, with plenty of vegetables; hot but not enough to burn, and very filling. I ate two bowls and several rolls and then made myself push away from the table… that’s how good it was. Best meal I had in Iceland.

Suitably refueled, I headed back towards the parking lot. On my way I discovered that there are free bathrooms inside the restaurant. Well played, gift shop folks; you got my ISK 200.

The drive south

The first part of the route I had chosen took me back past Geysir and then south through very similar terrain– hills, some grassy areas, and a few horse farms. As I got further south, though, there were more (and bigger) rocks and the familiar black lava landscape started to draw closer. By this point the weather had improved quite a bit; it was about 55° and mostly sunny, with a stiff breeze from the south. I drove with the windows rolled down, blasting 311 out over the countryside. As I headed further south, I started to get glimpses of ocean, then the full view as I turned west to the coastal ring road. I had a hard time splitting my attention between the views of the water and the views of the inland landscape. Here’s just one example:

Sky and rock

This was taken near Sveitarfélagið Ölfus, along highway 427. The road parallels the coast, and it descends a fair bit as you get closer to Grindavík. A few more examples of the landscape:

Oh, why not. One more.

On the road to Grindavík

When I passed through Grindavík, and made the turn towards Keflavík, I could see more and more signs of civilization. One such sign: a nicely paved bike path running alongside the highway for several miles, with a fair number of cyclists on it. I was surprised by how many cycle campers I saw– people with large panniers slung fore and aft on their bikes, fighting the wind and staying vigilant for traffic. It’s not really a bike-friendly environment. Props to them.

Just short of Keflavík, I stopped to gas up the car. Most Icelandic gas stations are completely automated, so you can still buy gas when they’re closed. That means you need a credit card that can use chip + PIN. Some US cards can, and some can’t. Because I was close to the airport, I decided to forego a snack stop; I headed straight to the rental car place and caught the shuttle back to the airport, with more than a little reluctance.

The trip home

Checkin and security at KEF were quick and efficient. I made a huge run through the duty-free to buy souvenirs, grabbed a hot dog from the restaurant, and headed to my gate, where I found that literally the entire flight was in line to board– I think I was the 4th or 5th to last person to board. Icelandair doesn’t do zones or any of that stuff. They announce boarding, everyone gets in line, and off you go. I settled in to my window seat and looked out the window as much as possible during our taxi and takeoff.

Keflavík and the coastline, plus bonus 757 shadow

The flight was completely uneventful, except for when we flew across the southern end of Greenland. I’d never had a daytime window seat for that before, so I might have left a few nose prints against the window as I surveyed the beautiful landscape below. This is one of my favorite pictures; you have to see it full size to appreciate the range of colors and textures of the land.

I love Greenland

We arrived in Boston on time, where (thanks to Global Entry) I quickly cleared customs. The only snag in my travel was that my flight back to Atlanta wasn’t until the next morning! JetBlue and Icelandair have a code-sharing relationship but that doesn’t extend to coordinating their flight times, so there was no flight back to Atlanta that night. I knew that ahead of time, so I’d packed my overnight needs into my laptop bag and reserved a room at a hotel near the airport. I went straight there, had a quesadilla and some clam chowder for dinner, and was asleep within 90 minutes. The next morning, I came home.

Summary

It was a marvelous trip. I wouldn’t change anything about it, given how little time I had on the ground. For the next trip, a few things I will be keeping in mind:

  • Bring better clothing. A hat and gloves would have been nice. Layering is a must.
  • Plan ahead to see more remote areas, including at least one glacier
  • Save enough money to be able to rent that airplane and fly to Akureyri
  • Eat at the waffle wagon as often as possible
  • Try a little harder to pronounce things properly. Icelandic students study English from 2nd grade onwards, so I never had any trouble talking to people, but it was comical to see their facial expressions when I tried to say place names and so on.

I can’t wait to go back!

4 Comments

Filed under General Stuff, Travel

Training Tuesday: running with Stryd PowerRace

Engines are generally most efficient when they run at a constant speed within their design range. That’s why you get better mileage on the highway than in town; it’s why gasoline-powered generators don’t typically have multiple power settings, and and it’s why airplane engines are designed to run for very long periods of time at a steady constant power output. It turns out the fact holds for endurance athletes.

It’s well documented that one of the most effective ways to train for cycling events is to monitor your power output using a power meter. The idea is simple: when you’re riding outdoors, your speed and heart rate will vary widely due to factors you can’t control. On a flat road with no wind and cool weather, you might go 25mh at a certain heart rate. Into a headwind, or uphill, or in an Alabama summer, you might be working just as hard but only going 10mph. So trying to control your workout by pace or heart rate is needlessly difficult and may not give you the results you want. A power meter measures how hard you work, not how fast you’re going or how hard your heart alone is working. Without going too deeply into the complexities of training with power (see this free e-book if you want to know more), the basic idea is that you build your training plan so that you try to put out a certain amount of power, no matter what the road and weather conditions are. I started doing this a little while ago and it’s really useful– my coach will say “make X watts” or “your race target for the 70.3 distance is Y watts” and I just pedal hard enough to hit that number. My speed may go up or down depending on wind and hills, but my effort stays constant so I don’t accidentally work too hard trying to go fast into the wind (for instance) and leave myself unable to sustain my pace later in the race.

That’s the theory, anyway.

The folks at Stryd have built a similar tool for runners: the Stryd power meter is a little pod that clips on to your shoe and measures the amount of force you produce when you run. Since running uphill or into a headwind is harder than running on level ground, or in still air, they intend their product to be used by people who want to control their pace through power management. The problem is that the cycling world is much further along in embracing power, so it’s hard to actually see what your running power is, much less pace to it. Garmin watches can display power data from Stryd pods, and Stryd has a nifty web app called PowerCenter that gives you a bunch of analytics.. but what I wanted was a real-time, on-the-wrist alert that would tell me when I was making too much power, or not enough. Garmin (and many other manufacturers) allow you to set alerts that will buzz or beep when you go outside the predefined pace, speed, heart rate, or distance targets. I wanted one for power… and now I’ve got one.

Stryd recently started beta testing a new app called PowerRace. It’s very simple: you plug in your race distance and your power target, then start the app. It will beep and turn red if you go outside that range. It purposely doesn’t show your pace or elapsed time.. the whole idea is that you only look at your run power and adjust your pace to keep it where it’s supposed to be. Here’s what it looks like in action (“AP” stands for average power, and “HR” is heart rate):

PowerRace in action

I played around with the app a bit and couldn’t get it to work reliably but Gus Nelson of Stryd was kind enough to do some live troubleshooting with me via Google Hangouts and we got the problem sorted out, so I used it for this week’s Cotton Row 10K.

Executive summary: it worked flawlessly and gave me useful cues when I was going too fast, or too slow. I got a 45-second PR, which would have been more if I’d set my power target higher. I hadn’t done the recommended power test, so I was guesstimating what my power level should be; I could have gone a bit harder.

Cotton Row is a tricky course: it’s got a big hill about mile 3 and many a runner has come to grief by blasting across the start line and burning up too much energy.

The Cotton Row course

You may also want to check out the live version, where you can see more clearly the ridge that we run along between miles 3 and 4.

When I compare last year to this year, here’s what my mile times looked like:

2016: 8:55, 8:53, 9:35, 10:20, 9:23, 9:19, 7:18

2017: 9:00, 9:21, 9:55, 10:04 8:42, 8:37, 7:08

So I went out 53 seconds slower this year on the first 3 miles but then finished 46 seconds faster, with an average power of 289W. I targeted 285W, so I did a good job of holding my average. The times aren’t what I would have expected. My perceived effort was about the same, but it was more consistent. For proof, check out the power curve:

Cotton Row data

The red line is my heart rate; the purple line is power. You can clearly see where I walked aid stations or where I took a break to regulate my power output; you can also see my finishing kick.

So what’s the bottom line? I really like the idea of training and running with power. It’s a proven technique for the bike. I did a good job of holding in my power target range, and did get a (small) PR, but I probably could have done just as well by running by feel alone. I think the missing ingredient is that I don’t really know what my target run power is. Once I have that dialed in I will be better able to fine-tune my pacing. I’ll keep using PowerRace and see how it goes.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under General Stuff

Watch out for bird nests

I recently had a really interesting cross-country trip. It featured virgins, dirt, avian invaders, and tractors.

Some local friends talked me into running the American Odyssey relay race: just under 200 miles from Gettysburg to Washington, DC, over two days. (Look for a race report in the near future.) Some of my teammates were flying commercial, and some were driving, but I found three hardy souls who volunteered to go with me. Jim’s a Navy officer who’s used to airplanes of all sizes, but neither Rese nor Melissa had flown in a small airplane before… so they’re the virgins in this story.

I’d planned to fly from Decatur to New River (PSK), fuel up with avgas and diet Coke, and then fly into College Park, MD (CGS). This would allow me to use my fancy secret code to fly into the Washington DC ring of restricted airspace. However, because we were staying in Harpers Ferry, it didn’t make sense to fly 60+ miles to the east just so we could have extra drive time going back to Harpers Ferry. I decided to go into Martinsburg (MRB) instead to avoid the extra driving.

We departed on schedule, with about 1500′ ceilings leaving Decatur. A front was on its way so my goal was to get us to our destination before the weather got bad. We benefited from an epic tailwind– my normal cruise speed is about 135kts but I was seeing over 200kts for a good part of the first leg.

208!

Unfortunately, with wind comes bumps.. so one of our crew (I’m not saying who) needed to use a barf bag. No major damage, thankfully, either to the victim or the airplane. Apart from that, the rest of the flight was uneventful– a quick stop at PSK for fuel and diet Coke and we were on our way. Potomac Approach made me fly the RNAV 26 approach even though the weather was VFR. Martinsburg is home to the 167th Airlift Wing, so there were a bunch of big gray C-17s on the ramp. Always a fun sight.

Aero-Smith, the local FBO, had prearranged a rental van. It was waiting, so we loaded up and off we went. The next couple days were a blur– I had a fantastic time at the race. All too soon, though, it was time to head back home, so I planned our flight to follow roughly the same route. While the big front had passed through, we were still forecast to have 20+ knots of headwind, so I tried to choose a more southerly route to reduce the wind penalty (spoiler: that didn’t work). I’d planned the first leg from Martinsburg to Ashe County, NC, then home.

We got to Martinsburg safely and turned in the van. The FBO lineman offered me a box of rubber gloves. “We saw a lot of birds on your airplane,” he said. “There’s probably some poop on it.” I’ll take “things you don’t want to hear at the airport” for $200, Alex!

I walked out to the plane, which they’d parked on the far edge of the (empty) parking area. I saw a few poop spots and used a gloved hand to remove them. Now, this next part is relevant: I usually start my walkaround by turning on the master switch, existing the forward passenger door, and walking back down the right side of the plane, around the tail, and up the left side– finishing at the engine. That’s what I did… except that when I got to the engine, I noticed what looked like a few pieces of grass sticking out. That certainly wasn’t there when I parked the plane, so I poked a flashlight into the front of the cowling and was surprised to see some more grass.

That led me to remove the upper cowling, whereupon I found this (click it to see the detail).

Bird attack!

Yep. In two and a half days, the forces of evil invaded my cowling and built two large, flammable nests. I started pulling out handfuls of grass and twigs, and the other three came to help. All this action attracted the attention of the FBO staff, and they brought us a handheld leaf blower.

Now, a brief note. Air-cooled piston airplane engines work on a principle called pressure cooling. Baffles inside the cowling drive airflow from top to bottom, not back to front, to cool the cylinders. When you look at the picture above, what you can’t see is that there are only a few small openings under the top deck for air to flow down– making it very difficult to get all the bird debris out with a leaf blower. We ended up having to spend 30 minutes or so picking little sticks and blades of grass out of the engine compartment. Here are Rese and Jim doing just that:

cleaning the bird damage

Once that was finally done, I wanted to run the engine with the cowling off, whereupon I discovered a failed cell in the battery.. so the plane wouldn’t start. This was not popular with my passengers. Or with me, for that matter.

The FBO staff was very reluctant to help start the plane. They claimed not to have a ground power unit, but I eventually talked them into bringing their tow tractor out so I could use my jumper cable. The problem with this cable is that after the plane starts, you have to unplug it, and the FBO guys didn’t want to do it “for liability reasons.” Thankfully Jim wasn’t a big baby like they were, and he volunteered to pull the cable after engine start. We deployed the tractor, got everything hooked up, and the engine immediately started up.

Getting ready to tractor-start

Once we got up to altitude, we got a 1-2 punch from the headwinds: it was bumpy, and we were only making about 105kts over the ground– so less than half of our groundspeed on the way out. After a little fiddling, I got permission to climb from 8000′ to 10000′; as we slowly climbed, we got bounced around quite a bit. To make things worse, the wind was even stronger at 10000′, so we went back down to 8000. It was a steady parade of mountain waves, something I hadn’t spent any time dealing with before. Frankly I didn’t much care for them.

As we got closer to GEV, the wind diminished a bit, although not enough to give us any appreciable speed increase. The Ashe County airport sits at about 3000′ above sea level, and the airport description helpfully notes “RISING TERRAIN ALL QUADRANTS,” so flying in means dealing with shifting winds funneled in various directions by the surrounding terrain. Despite the wind, I stuck the landing, and we were well and cheerfully served by the airport manager, who coaxed the balky full-service pump into working long enough to fill the tanks. I’d happily stop there again. (Note that KGEV has no AT&T cell service and no diet Coke in the soda machine, so plan accordingly.)

There was a good-sized line of storms stretching from south to north moving through Mississippi when we left. Our original plan was to get home before it arrived, but due to our de-birding time, there was no way we were going to make that. As we flew, it became clear that the headwinds were going to prevent us from making our alternate at Winchester, so I decided to stop in Chattanooga, which has rental cars, nearby hotels, and food.. just in case. We landed and found the ramp crowded with more expensive airplanes that had obviously stopped for the weather as well. Luckily the FBO had one crew car remaining, so we headed out to look for dinner and wait for the storm to pass. The city got roughly 1/4″ of rain in the hour we were at dinner, but it had tapered off to a light drizzle by the time we got ready to depart. I pored over the radar and it looked decent if we flew a little to the northwest, more towards Winchester, and then turned south, so that is what I planned for.

Once airborne, I quickly saw that the radar depictions didn’t give the full picture– they showed rain, all right, but the clouds were well above our altitude, so for most of the flight we flew through falling rain but still had decent visibility. The picture below shows what the radar depicted (they’re different, but that’s a topic for another post). After an uneventful trip, with mostly smooth air, we landed at Decatur, packed up, and headed home.

Which one’s right?

Leave a comment

Filed under aviation, General Stuff, Travel