Category Archives: General Stuff

Mac users, bundles, and OneDrive

In a recent spasm of optimism, I decided to start keeping, and sticking to, a budget.

(brief editorial interruption: yes, I know, I know. Just like my reaction when people say “yeah, I know, I should exercise but…” and I’m all like BUT EXERCISE IS THE GREATEST WHY WOULDN’T YOU JUST… that’s me with budgeting.)

I used to use Quicken back in the day, but in an attempt to avoid anything having to do with Intuit, I decided to find an alternate app and quickly settled on Banktivity after seeing it mentioned on Daring Fireball. I set it up to ingest my key banking and credit card accounts, let it gather some data, and started sketching out a budget. Life was good.

As I do with all my other important documents, I stored the Banktivity data in a folder in my personal OneDrive. OneDrive has been unfailingly reliable for me since before it was called Windows Live Mesh. I can’t remember any time when I ever lost data from it, and as Microsoft has added better support for version history and better sync robustness, there have been any number of times where a buggy app or stupidity on my part would have caused data loss if not for the ability to snatch a file back from the jaws of death.

Earlier this week, I upgraded my Mac mini to macOS Monterey. This seemed to go flawlessly and, as far as I could tell, all my OneDrive data was present.

This morning, I tried to open Banktivity. Instead of its normal behavior of opening the last-accessed file, I got a dialog asking me if I wanted to create a new file… never a good sign. Interestingly, the dialog didn’t offer to let me open a previous file (this appears to be a bug, btw). I used File > Open Recent, picked my Banktivity file, and saw… this.

A blank budget? That’s worse than no budget at all

On the plus side, Banktivity opened the file; on the minus side, it appeared to be empty. This was no bueno.

I verified that the file was present in my local OneDrive folder and tried opening it again, with the same result.

When that didn’t work, I reached out to Banktivity support. One of the things I appreciate about IGG, makers of the app, is that they have really good live chat-based support. Tim, my support rep, ran me through a couple of tests to see if we could figure out what might be wrong. In that process, I saw this horrifying sight:

Of course, the file shouldn’t be zero bytes.

“No worries,” I told Tim. “I’ve got a backup in OneDrive.” So I went to look in the OneDrive web client, where I saw this…

Uh oh. That’s not a great sign either… but at least now I knew what was going on.

See, when Apple introduced macOS way back when, the file system natively supported having two “forks” (what we’d now refer to as “streams”) in a file: the resource fork and the data fork. When they switched to the file system used in NeXTSTEP, that mutated into the concept of a file bundle. A file bundle looks like a file (it’s one icon on the desktop, its components are moved, copied, or deleted as a unit, etc), but it’s really a directory tree. (“Document package” is apparently the current preferred term for this mechanism but because I’m old-school, I’ll keep calling them “bundles.”)

As many macOS applications do, Banktivity uses a bundle instead of a flat file.

At some point, somehow, either macOS or OneDrive had lost the flag indicating that this directory should be a bundle. Since the OneDrive web viewer correctly shows the directory structure, my money is on the OneDrive sync mechanism having some kind of bad interaction with macOS Monterey.

The fix turned out to be pretty simple (but honestly I’m lucky it worked). In the OneDrive web client, I selected the folder and clicked “download.” Since OneDrive knew I was asking for multiple folders in a single download, it bundled them into a zip file, which I downloaded. When I extracted it, macOS recognized the bundle flag and displayed only a single document icon, which then opened properly in Banktivity.

I later confirmed with Banktivity that they don’t support using cloud file sync tools for live Banktivity documents, which is nice to know now. Thankfully I didn’t lose any data. Meanwhile, I’m following up on this issue with the OneDrive team to see if they know about it and/or have a fix for it.

(editor’s note: I wrote this post specifically to procrastinate updating my budget for the month. Time to get back to it…)

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Iceland 2021 day 5, horses and the Blue Lagoon

(Day 0; Day 1; Day 2; Day 3; Day 4)

I managed to make it through my first 50 1/2 years on the earth without sitting on a horse. In the last year, though, I’ve ridden what I have learned are known as “tourist-string” horses in Kentucky, Missouri, Florida, and now Iceland. This is 100% because of Erica, but it turns out I sort of like riding them. So it was with a cheerful smile that I headed out to Is Hestar to go ride some Icelandic horses on our last full day in country.

A few fun facts about Icelandic horses: a) don’t call them “ponies”; b) if a horse ever leaves the country, it cannot come back (thus preventing the spread of horse cooties); c) they use unique saddles because d) they have a unique gait. They also have an extremely distinctive mane, reminiscent of Rod Stewart from 1979.

We reserved a 2-hour “lava tour” ride at Is Hestar for Sunday morning. It’s an easy drive to the outskirts of Reykjavik, where you wouldn’t necessarily think there was any place to ride. However, their barn sits right in the middle of an extensive network of multi-use trails and is right next to a pretty good-size, 8000-year-old lava field. After a short safety briefing, we were assigned to our horses and saddled up to go ride. The photo above is me meeting my horse, whose name I can’t remember; he, and a couple of his compatriots, seemed to think that I had some horse candy in my pocket. (Spoiler: I did not.) After I saddled up, it became clear that, once again, I had gotten a horse who had his own plan for the day that didn’t necessarily align with mine. I sort of yanked him around the paddock a bit, culminating in a visit to the water trough for him that ended only when our guide opened the gate. (Another horse also had a long drink and then wiped his nose all over my knee, so that was fun.)

A word about the guides: they did a great job managing the 10 of us who were riding and our mounts. They were friendly, outgoing, full of interesting horse trivia, and just overall pleasant to be around. It didn’t hurt that the weather was absolutely gorgeous as we rode around the back side of one of the trail loops and out into the lava fields.

After about an hour, we stopped a field where the horses like to snack. This had roughly the same effect as throwing a box of pizza rolls into a room full of teenage boys. The snack break provided some good photo opportunities, though.

One of the things I noticed quickly on my first visit is the contrast between the purple clumps (and, if you’re lucky, fields) of lupine and the black, gray, and brown shades of the landscape. Above is a good sample of what I mean; we happened to be there during peak season, which isn’t all that different than visiting Texas when bluebonnets are doing their thing.

You bet your sweet little horse that I was wearing a helmet.

After letting the horses snack, we rode back; the guides offered anyone who wanted to a chance to test out the faster gaits for which Icelandic horses are known, but as a super novice rider I was happy to pass on that opportunity.

After surviving the horses, our next stop was the Blue Lagoon. This is maybe the only borderline-controversial thing we did. I say that because there are essentially two camps of opinion: “the Blue Lagoon is an overpriced and stupid tourist trap” in one corner, versus “the Blue Lagoon is the best thing EVER” in the other. The truth lies somewhere in between.

The lagoon itself is about 45min outside of Reykjavik; it’s attached to the Svartsengi power station, which you can see from some distance away when you’re driving on the south coast road. The high mineral content of the water in that area gives it a unique color, and some bright spark decided years ago that the naturally heated water would be perfect for a spa. The whole Blue Lagoon complex is dedicated to that proposition; it’s themed and marketed as a spa, which isn’t normally my thing, but I figured it was worth a try.

When you arrive, the arrival flow is very much like I imagine a fancy spa would be: you check in, get an RFID wristband, pick up any options you prepaid for (we got robes and slippers), then go to the sex-segregated changing rooms.

Pro tip; Iceland, by law and custom, requires people to shower naked before entering shared baths like the waters at the Blue Lagoon. If you’re not used to communal showers, well, you’d better get used to them. (Some places, like the Blue Lagoon, do have more private showers, but don’t count on privacy anywhere else!)

Freshly showered, we went out into the water. There’s a large map showing the temperature zones of the overall lagoon. With a pretty much infinite supply of 105-degree-F water, they mix it so that there are warmer and cooler zones. One of those zones contains a swim-up bar; our package included one drink apiece, so we got our drinks and went to go… loiter in the water.

That’s it. That’s what there is to do at the Blue Lagoon. Oh, and you can get mud facials. The water has an extremely high silicate content, so they salvage some of the silica and use it to make face mask mud. I tried it. Do I look any younger in the below photo? No? Maybe you should save your money and not buy the mud when you go, then.

One of the common questions I see people asking on Reddit etc is “how long should I plan for a Blue Lagoon trip?” You absolutely could stop off here on the way to or from the airport as long as you keep an eye on time. I’d say 2 hours (not including travel time) is about right; after about 2 hours, we’d gotten our recommended daily allowance of spa fun. It wasn’t crowded, but there’s nothing to do or see other than the water and the mud. One note: little kids are allowed there, so if you want a child-free visit, you’ll have to find a spot as far away from the kids as possible. There were tons of adventurous 20-somethings; I’d say that was the main demographic but I suspect it varies by season and day of the week.

After a relaxing shower, we jumped back in the car and headed back into town. We had a little time to kill, so we went to the penis museum. Ahem. I mean the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which sounds way more scientific. Summary: save your money. It’s very much a one-note whistle and, while well-executed, there are only sny preserved animal dicks you can look at before they all blur together. The $70 or so it cost for two museum admissions plus two drinks could’ve been better spent.

For dinner, we wanted to go to Svarta Kaffid because it was right down the street from the hotel. We went there about 10pm on our first night and they politely but firmly said “oh, we’re closed”– despite their door signs and Facebook page both saying they were open until 11pm. Despite that, we decided to give them another try. The Icelandic meat soup was solidly OK– the bread bowl was an A+ but the soup, IMHO, wasn’t as good as it was at the Hotel Skogafoss.

After dinner, it was an easy, short walk back to the hotel so we could pack up to go home.

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Iceland 2021 day 4: up north to Langjökull

(Day 0; Day 1; Day 2; Day 3)

Astute readers may notice that, so far, I haven’t said anything about the entire northern 2/3 of the country. For reference, it was snowing in the north while we were there, and although I originally wanted to fly up to Akureyri, the timing of our trip just wouldn’t work for getting that far north. I didn’t want to miss the “ice” part of Iceland completely, though, so we decided to do one of the canned tours of Langjökull.

First, though, we had some business to conduct in town: a COVID-19 test, as required to return to the US. There are private test providers, but the easiest way to get a test is to register on travel.covid.is. Pick the city you’re in and a time, pay the fee (EUR 50 for a PCR test or EUR 30 for a rapid-antigen test, either of which are accepted in the US), and show up at the appointed time– that’s it.

The test location in Reykjavik is at a government health clinic not far from downtown. We had a 915a appointment (the first time slot available on a Saturday) and showed up at about 855a to find a line of 100 or so people. That was a little offputting but, once they started testing, we were in and out within another 15 minutes. I’d wanted to leave the city by 10am to make our 1230p tour time, and we were on the way by about 930a. The emails with our test results arrived within 90 minutes; unlike all the fooling around with the Rakning C19 app, it just worked.

To get to Húsafell, our route went mostly along highway 1, but northbound this time. Just before Borgarnes (where there’s a very cool-looking bridge across the water), we turned onto highway 50, which took us further north. Along the way we went through the Fáskrúðsfjarðargöng tunnel, which was unexpectedly cool. The real star, though, was the view. On the left, ocean and mountains. On the right, plains and mountains. Ahead, mountains, fields with horses and sheep, the occasional road-crossing sheep, and a continually variable cloud deck. It was a gloriously scenic drive, but fairly slow; between the occasional rain, the continual wind, and the 90kph speed limit, it took us just under 2 hours to get there. Just before we got to the Hotel Húsafell itself, we passed a golf course (surprise #1) that was right next to a lava-stone runway (surprise #2).

The Húsafell park complex, in addition to the hotel and golf course, has a ton of campsites and trails. It has a well-known thermal spa (the Canyon Baths), fishing, golf, and winter-focused activities like snowmobiling. I didn’t know about its extensive trail network or I’d’ve planned some extra time just to hike around the area… maybe next time. Anyway, When we got to the hotel, we found that nothing opened for another 20 minutes or so (surprise #3) so we walked around a bit. Once it opened, we had a quick lunch (pizza, nothing remarkable) to kill some time until the tour was to meet. We’d booked this tour with Arctic Adventures, mostly because we got to drive around in the bad boy pictured below, but that first required us to get on a boringly regular tour bus to drive to the base camp. The drive was interesting because it was mostly on unimproved roads that I wasn’t too sure the bus could handle. We made it to base camp without incident, though.

At base camp, we left the bus and queued up to get onto the ice truck that would carry us up above the snow line. Now, I should mention at this point that the truck can carry up to 46 people, and I think we had 40– so this was the most crowded-tourist-like activity of the entire trip. (Plus the driver’s dog, who rode in the cab the whole way!) The tour operator recommended dressing for cold, dry conditions, which makes sense given that you’re going to be on a glacier. “Dry” is relative though; it started lightly snowing as we loaded into the truck and snowed more and more as we climbed.

The cave entrance is at about 4200′ elevation. Surprisingly, it felt warmer there than it had at base camp or at the hotel, partly because the air was dry, partly because there was minimal wind, and partly because the sun had come out. After a short safety briefing, our guide took us into the cave complex. “Cave” is a little bit of a misnomer because the whole thing is really a man-made tunnel, not a natural cave, but “cave” is easier to type so that’s what I’ll call it.

The cave system forms a big loop; you enter, walk through what looks like a big sewer pipe, and come out into an anteroom with benches, where you add crampons to your boots. You’ll need them, as the floor of the cave is… ice. In some low-lying spots, there’s accumulated meltwater. If your boots are waterproof, you’ll have no trouble; if not, well, you probably should’ve worn some (but the guide will give you giant waterproof overshoes at base camp if you need them).

The cave system is lit with LED lights, some of which are inside the ice and give a sort of surreal glow to the scene. You can clearly see the seasonal ice rings, and the horizontal striations in the ice show where the seasonal snow-thaw-melt-freeze cycle has taken place really clearly. The ice is surprisingly textured, too.

Along the way through the cave, there are several hollowed-out chambers, one of which is a “wedding chapel”. Funnily enough, it contained nothing other than a tarp-covered digging machine; no alter, ceiling lights, etc. Our guide said the digger was stored there pending repair. One of the chambers is festooned with lights, and one is basically an echo chamber. My favorite was the one shown below; it’s basically a horizontal crevasse in the ice that shows all the different colors and textures to great advantage.

The last chamber is lit specifically to enable these kinds of cool silhouette photos

When we exited the cave, it was snowing steadily and visibility was no more than a few hundred yards. It wasn’t quite a whiteout, but it was pretty close. On one hand, it’s a glacier, so of course it was snowing. On the other hand, it was June. On the drive back down the glacier, which was pretty slow due to the snow, we saw a rented Land Rover that had gone off-road and was stuck, flipped at about a 30-degree angle. Our driver stopped and picked them up and dropped them at base camp with the rest of us; after that, it was an easy drive in the big bus back to our starting point.

Pro tip: there are lots of places in Iceland that have roads. Just because there’s a road, don’t assume that you can actually drive there. Check safetravel.is (especially for “F roads”, which aren’t paved and/or have very steep terrain) before you go anywhere.

Pro tip: as I mentioned before, you’ll never go wrong in Iceland by buying the maximum rental-car insurance that you can get. Note that these policies almost always have an exception for “door damage due to winds”– the winds are strong enough to snatch the car door out of your hand and break the mechanism, especially on small cars.

We skipped past the falls at Hraunfossar and Barnafoss (which are right next to each other) on the drive up, but stopped on the way back. I have to say that this complex was my favorite overall of all the waterfalls. “Hraun” is Icelandic for “lava,” which is why these falls have their name; instead of the typical gravity-fed water-falling-down falls, the complex here is made of falls where water that’s permeated the lava falls down. The rocks and colors are just spectacular.

As with several of our other stops, there’s almost no actual hiking involved here– you park (it’s free), walk about 100 yards, and boom, there are the falls. There’s a trail overlooking Hraunfossar that you can use to walk downriver; we saw (and heard) several sheep on the falls side. If you then walk back to the Hraunfossar trailhead, there’s a complex of trails that leads you around Barnafoss, including a bridge that lets you cross the river to get a different set of views.

We had a bit of light drizzle while exploring the falls, but the skies cleared nicely as we drove back to the south. As on the drive up, the landscape unrolled before us with plenty of horses, farms, sheep, mountains, and meadows to look at, and the coastal views were amazing once we turned southeast. After we got back to the city, we headed out for our planned dinner: Icelandic hot dogs.

Yes, that’s right: hot dogs, that American staple, are a bit of a delicacy in Iceland. They’re made using a lamb/beef/pork mix, and they’re reputed to be delicious. We walked over to BBP first, because it was closest to our hotel, and found the stand below.

It’s exactly what the picture shows: hot dogs and Coke-brand drinks. No side items (fries, chips, etc); no beer or wine; no desserts. Just… hot dogs. We each had one. As expected, they were delicious, but not really dinner by themselves. We decided to walk over to the Reykjavik Sausage Company, which gave us a chance to walk along the waterfront in the (chilly, windy) sunshine. When we got there, guess what: hot dogs, Coke-brand drinks, and… ice cream. Still not a real dinner, but we made do with an additional hot dog (BBP’s were way better) and some ice cream, then headed back to make an early night of it.

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Iceland 2021, day 3: snorkeling Silfra and driving the Golden Circle

(Day 0; Day 1; Day 2)

In 2017, I got to see part of the Golden Circle but this version was going to be different. As a refresher, the “Golden Circle” route has 3 primary attractions: Thingvellir (I’m using the Anglicized spelling because I don’t know how to make a “Þ” except by copy/paste), Geysir, and Gullfoss. I’d skipped Thingvellir on my previous visit, but was determined to see it this time, especially because we had a special treat in mind: snorkeling!

Yes, you read that right. Snorkeling… in Iceland… in water at about 34 degrees…. between the North American and Eurasian continental plates. This article sums up some of the unique points of this location for scuba diving, most of which apply for snorkeling. The tour companies that highlight this make it sound like you’re actually diving right in between the plates, but the actual gap is several kilometers– you can see a visible ring, sort of like a bathtub ring, around the surrounding hills that shows the plate boundaries. With that said, this was still a remarkable experience.

Dive.is and Arctic Adventures are the two primary vendors offering tours there, although there are several others. We chose Arctic because the schedule fit our needs better, but I suspect they’re very close to identical. before we could snorkel, of course, we had to get to the park, which was about a 30-minute drive. We got there early enough to walk around a bit. The park itself is a giant open space, featuring the largest lake in Iceland, camping sites, and a generous network of trails. Our instructions said to go to the P5 parking lot, where we found a small trailhead and bathroom shed, plus a whole bunch of very territorial ducks.

Some of the trails are paved, others are wooden boardwalks.
This flagpole marks the site of the first democratic parliament in the entire world, probably the thing for which Thingvellir is best known (and the reason it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
Random waterfall at Thingvellir

We walked around for half an hour or so, then walked back up the road to the planned meeting place. As we walked, we passed what looked like a small creek; I jokingly said “heh, watch, that’ll be where we dive.” When we got to the parking lot, we found it filled with several excursion vans and a bunch of people half-dressed in dive gear, so we knew we were in the right place.

The handbook that the tour operator provides says you should wear a thin thermal base layer, including socks; it also cautions that your hands, face, and hair will get wet. I’d never worn a dry suit before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. They had us dress in heavy insulated coveralls, then pull the dry suit on over it. The dry suit has attached boots, and it zips closed across the backs of your shoulders. Water can only potentially get in in two places: your wrists and your neck. Our guide, Halli, added rubber strips around our wrists and a sort of choker around the collar to keep water out, then we put on the provided neoprene balaclavas. By the time we were fully dressed the only really exposed skin was around the lips and chin. “Dry suits” now join “Crocs” and “swim caps” on my short list of “things that are never, ever sexy.”

After everyone was dressed, we walked across the road and… right back to the creek I’d seen earlier. Sure enough, that’s where we would start our dive. There’s a platform there with steps that lead down into the water; the first section is very shallow, so the procedure is to enter the water and immediately roll onto your back. Halli made the good point that the air is warmer than the water– so the more you keep your hands out of the water, the more comfortable you’ll be.

The clarity of the water and the colors of the surrounding rocks are phenomenal

We were in the water for a total of about 30 minutes. That was just long enough to see some amazing sights while not being completely immobilized by the cold. There isn’t a lot of marine life, but there are some amazingly vivid green grasses, not to mention a rainbow of colors in the rocks themselves. The water is indescribably clear. I was glad that I didn’t take a camera with me because a) with lobster-claw gloves I wouldn’t have been able to operate it and b) it was freeing to be able to just look around without worrying about photo composition and so on.

Neither Erica nor I had any problems with mask or snorkel leaks, but I got water inside my dry suit up to my left elbow, and my hands were frozen by the time we got out to the point that I couldn’t button my trousers when getting dressed again. Thankfully they provide hot chocolate (and bonus cookies!), and once dressed you warm up pretty quickly.

Next up was Gullfoss. The road there leads right past Geysir, but because we were hungry (you might be sensing a theme here), we wanted to grab lunch at the Gullfoss restaurant. They’re known for their all-you-can-eat meat soup, although, times being what they are, now you only get two refills. Still a bargain, though, especially when you’re already chilly. Soup, bread, and drinks for two, plus one dessert, was about $45. Once fortified, we went out to go see the falls. The restaurant/gift shop overlooks the falls, so you walk down a trail to join the trail abutting the falls, then go to the left across the headlands. Walk far enough and you’ll come to a set of steps that let you descend to a rock on the far side of the falls.

The view from the trail approaching the falls
A view from closer to the top (note the little tiny people on the trail for scale)

We’d planned to stop at Geysir on the way back, so we did, but it was a little disappointing. Geysir itself seems to have gone dormant (and there’s a sign to that effect). Strokkur, another geyser in the same complex, erupted a few times while we were there, but it was mostly an opportunity for us to walk around looking at the mineralized water and doing a bit of people-watching. I’d previously learned that, unless you are both very skilled and quite lucky, photographing geysers is a good way to spend a lot of time waiting tensely and then being disappointed with the outcome, so I didn’t bother.

On that note: compared to my 2017 visit, it’s clear that tourist traffic is way down. While there were almost always other people nearby, at no point before Geysir did we really feel crowded: the airport was nearly empty when we arrived, restaurants weren’t full, there wasn’t a lot of traffic on highway 1, and the major tourist sites weren’t crowded. Friday and Saturday nights downtown were busy by comparison, but during the day the area around Laugavegur where we were staying was empty too. Our hotel wasn’t full. However, because of Geysir’s layout (and because leaving the path means stepping into nearly-boiling water, which tends to keep people from wandering), the crowd looked bigger than any of the other places we had been before.

Kerid crater wasn’t on my original list, but Erica had read about it and it wasn’t far from Geysir, so we drove over to see it. It was a real highlight- it’s beautiful, and I’d never seen a “real” crater (apart from flying over Mount Hood) before so it was a good stop. As with most of the other places we stopped, there was really no infrastructure besides a small parking lot (about US$4 to park). There are two trails: one goes around the upper perimeter of the crater, and the other (which is reached by a set of steps inside the crater) leads to a trail that circles the lake. The contrast of the red, brown, and black shades of earth, the blue-green of the water, and the various greens of vegetation is really eye-catching.

As with most of the other attractions we visited, anyone in even moderate physical condition could easily do the Kerid crater hike– I think the total distance around the top and bottom together was a little less than a mile, and the steps into the crater bottom are widely enough spaced that they were easy to navigate.

For dinner, we went back into town and went to Lebowski Bar, an American-style sports bar analogue with a great mixed drink menu and a “The Big Lebowski” theme. One appetizer, two burgers, one beer, and two mixed drinks set us back about $85. The food was good, though, and service was faster and more attentive than any other place we visited on the entire trip. After our meal, we went walking around downtown and ended up stopping up at the Laundromat for a nightcap. All in all, it was a great day and I loved the flexibility of being able to move around instead of being tied to a bus-tour itinerary.

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Iceland 2021, day 2: the south coast

(Day 0; Day 1)

Pro tip: remember the lava video from day 1? In the US you’d never be able to get so close to something so dangerous. In Iceland, though, their approach is much more grown-up. Hazards are clearly marked but, even on the steepest cliffs or most dangerous areas, there aren’t that many physical barriers to actively prevent you from doing stupid things. So don’t be stupid. (Included in “don’t be stupid”: traffic laws are vigorously enforced and, if you pay your fine on the spot in cash, you get a 25% discount.)

Other things you should be aware of that may be forbidden include drones (not allowed in national parks and at most attractions), driving without headlights, pulling off the side of the road to take pictures, and driving on closed roads.

The “Ring Road” is the English nickname for Icelandic highway 1, which goes more or less around the perimeter of the island. The perimeter of Iceland is about the same length as the perimeter of Kentucky, so you can see that driving it might take you a little while. Many visitors rent a camper van and navigate all the way around the ring, stopping whenever they want to see one of the many sights, but that requires you to spend a ton of time d…r…i…v…i…n….g at 40-50mph on narrow roads, possibly in high winds, rain, and/or snow, and that wasn’t how we wanted to spend our trip. Instead, we agreed that we’d take a day and drive from Reykjavik over to Vík and back. Several tour companies offer bus tours along this route, but we couldn’t book one for any of the days we wanted to go, again due to low tourist demand. In the event, this worked out well and I’m glad we did the tour ourselves.

Our planned route was to start in the city, stop at Seljalandfoss, then Skógafoss, then on to Vík. The map above shows the actual route we took– I mistakenly navigated us to Selfoss, which was a non-event since it was pretty much on the route anyway.

First stop was the waterfall at Seljalandfoss. It’s clearly visible from the road, so you can’t miss it. You have to pay a few hundred ISK to park (around US$3), and there’s a small coffee stand and bathrooms. The waterfall itself is a super easy hike. In the first picture below, you can see a few tiny people in the background; you can easily hike behind the waterfall, then up a small trail (maybe 200 yds) onto the other side.

Midway up the small trail on the approach to behind-the-waterfall
Us just before walking directly behind the waterfall. There’s a lot of spray and mist but the path is rocky enough so that it’s not slippery. Once you get back to ground level, if you go to the far edge of the parking lot, you’ll see a path that takes you to the lesser-known Gljúfrafoss waterfall, which has a cave you can go into. It’s not really marked, but it’s only about 1/4mi and the path is easy to see. The odds are pretty good that you’ll get wet while you’re in here, but it’s worth it to stand on the big rock.

Standing on the big rock inside Gljúfrafoss
Awwwww…..

We spent about an hour there, then it was time for the short drive to Skógafoss. Like Seljalandfoss, it’s easy to see from the main road, but it’s also well marked by signs. Along the route you can see some Icelandic turf houses if you’re interested. There’s also a building with a big painting of the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption from 2010, and there used to be a museum and visitors’ center, but it’s now closed.

The Skógafoss waterfall is another easy hike (maybe 1/4mi) from the parking lot to the base of the falls. Unlike Seljalandfoss, there are plenty of sea birds around, both in flight and nesting in the cliffs.

A set of about 300 steps leads off to the right side of the waterfall and the headwaters that feed it. It’s not an especially taxing climb, it just takes a little while. The view from the top is absolutely worth it, though. The trail continues on for another half mile at least; for that distance you’re hiking alongside a rocky stream, but the view down across the valley and towards the coast is better so we just stayed there for a few minutes admiring it.

We were pretty famished so elected to have lunch at the nearest restaurant, the Hotel Skógafoss. There are one or two other restaurants there, along with some rental cabins and another hotel. Excellent choice. The food was inexpensive (about $45 for two entrees plus dessert) and delicious. I had Icelandic lamb soup (which is the Icelandic equivalent of Swedish meatballs– nearly every place has it) and Erica had a really good lamb burger.

We’d previously debated whether to walk out and see the crashed plane at Sólheimasandur. It crashed in 1973 and the US Navy basically just left the wreck in place– it’s not the kind of thing you can see every day, so we decided we felt perky enough to do it. The hike is super easy: 45min out on a level trail, mostly packed gravel with some bigger rocks embedded, will take you to the plane. Sure enough, when we got there we found… a crashed airplane. Exactly as advertised. (Note that the trail is marked but there aren’t any signs, bathrooms, or water available.) The weather couldn’t have been nicer, though– it was about 45 degrees, with a steady but not obnoxious wind, mostly-clear skies, and plenty of sunshine.

The view going back towards parking was better than the view of the airplane, if I’m honest.

Our next planned stop was the Dyrhólaey nature reserve, which gets its name (literally “door hole” in Icelandic) from its famous arch. This was the closest thing to an American-style national park that we had seen so far; there’s a small visitors’ center with bathrooms, and there are park rangers. When we were there, they closed the preserve daily at 7pm to protect seabird nesting grounds, although this is seasonal. It’s no more than a couple hundred yards from the parking area to the main trail, so it was probably the easiest walk of the entire day.

The views across the water and along the coast were stunning. You can see the black sand beach and one set of the Reynisdrangar basalt sea stacks at Reynisfjara
We didn’t see any puffins but other seabirds are plentiful.
This is the original lighthouse, still operational. There’s a pleasant trail leading around the promontory that holds it.

After Dyrhólaey, our next stop was the black-sand beaches at Reynisfjara. By the time we got there, the clouds had lowered quite a bit and the wind had picked up. As we walked towards the beach, we saw signs cautioning visitors about “sneaker waves” so we stayed well away from the surf line itself (more because we didn’t want to get cold and wet than because we feared the waves!) The black sand of the beaches is really arresting– the area closest to the water is actually sand but then above the waterline it turns to shale pebbles, not unlike the beaches near Nice. Apart from the color, it’s… sand. It crunches like sand, absorbs water like sand, and shows footprints like sand. One major difference that I noticed between Gulf beaches and this area: we didn’t see any sea life– no crabs, bugs, etc., and no birds hunting for critters along the waterline.

There’s a small cave and a really interesting formation of basalt columns. They look so regular and rectangular that they give the appearance of being man-made… but they’re not. They’re just the right height and shape for a quick photo perch, though.

The pebbles made a fantastic accessory for my favorite action figure

By the time we were done on the beach, it was around 7pm and, once again, we were ready to eat. We drove the short distance to Vik to explore a bit and find dinner. The highlight was seeing this church, which was designed by the same architect as Hallsgrimkirkja. You can’t tell from looking at it, since this looks pretty much like every other local church we saw the entire time, and it sure doesn’t look like Hallsgrimkirkja.

A view from the church looking back towards Reynisdrangar

For dinner, we ended up at Halldorskaffi, mostly because it was open; after a short wait, they seated us and we both ordered the lamb sandwich. They were good but not exceptional; for dessert, we shared a slice of meringue cake but the star of the meal was the accompanying locally-made ice cream. We left the restaurant about 830p and were back in the city right at 11pm to rest up for our next set of adventures.

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Iceland 2021, day 1: Reykjavik and the volcano

We’d budgeted the rest of our first day for exploring around Reykjavik, so once we were freed from quarantine that’s what we went out to do. It was chilly with a fierce wind, which made it feel quite a bit cooler.

Nifty street art on the side of our hotel

Our first stop was the Sun Voyager statue. There are a few other statues along the waterside path known as Sæbraut, but it was so windy that we didn’t walk to see them. (We did, however, see two super-ostentatious yachts owned by Russian oligarchs, so that was nice.)

Sun Voyager, with both mega-yachts off to the left

Next was Hallgrimskirkja, which was easy to navigate to because you can see it from practically everywhere in the city. It was an easy 10-minute walk from the hotel.

Before we actually went into the church, we stopped at the famous waffle wagon. I’m not saying that I would eat one of these waffles every day, but I probably would try. After that, we entered the church itself and paid the EUR 8 apiece to go into the tower. It’s well worth it for the views, as you can see below (and even better on a clear day).

If the street itself is painted, I suppose that qualifies as “street art”. Interestingly, you can’t see the colored stripes from the church tower itself because there’s a slight downhill slope starting at the top of the stripes, where the man is standing in this picture.
Some more assorted street art

Nether Erica nor I like to shop much, and in any event many of the downtown shops are either closed outright or have restricted hours because of a lack of customers. We decided that, since it was going to be daylight for at least another 8 hours, to head to the volcano at Fagradalsfjall. (No, I don’t know how to pronounce it.) It is an easy drive, past Grindavik and inland a bit. The Icelandic weather service has a really helpful page showing current conditions, which we checked ahead of time, and there are several webcams showing live views. However, safetravel.is has a lot more volcano-specific info. Here’s what it says as I’m typing this on Monday, 21 June:

Strong wind (13-18 m/s) and even more in wind gusts and rain. Not the day to visit the eruption. Tuesday and expecially Wednesday better choices.

If you poke around the SafeTravel website, you’ll see that there are three paths: A (which is now closed because it has lava all over it), B, and C, which is a newer path that goes down to the Nátthagi valley next to the river of lava. We opted for B, which is pretty difficult on its own. It was 45 degrees with a 25mph wind when we started off, which made it feel like 25 degrees, but we were dressed for it.

Pro tip: be prepared for variable weather in the same day, with anything from full sun and high 40s to moderate rain, 20+ mph winds, and temperatures in the high 30s. Bring some good base layers, heavy socks, and wind and waterproof clothing. You’ll need it.

First we walked on what might have been the “C” trail. It wasn’t marked, and it led to a big lava plain, so it might have been Nátthagi, but maybe not. When we got there, we found that the volcano was in shield mode, with new lava flowing underneath the existing top cap of cooled lava. No dramatic eruptions, sadly. Now’s probably a good time to point out that volcano conditions change rapidly too, so what you see there might be different from what we saw.

You can see the faint glow of lava behind Erica and to the right.
Caution: contents may be hot
The picture really doesn’t do justice to the scale of the lava field.

As you might expect, it’s noticeably warmer as you get closer to the lava— uncomfortably so if you get too close. We saw some British tourists who had the presence of mind to bring marshmallows, which they toasted over the lava. The smell is hard to describe, too: hints of sulfur, brick, and rock, but also toasted.

We traced our steps back to the trail fork that was marked with a sign saying “Trails A and B”. It was easy to see where the paths diverged because an ICESAR team had trail A blocked off. Then it was just a matter of hiking. The hike itself was pretty challenging— there are some steep sections with loose tuff, and the steady wind didn’t help much. The scenery was pretty amazing though. I didn’t include lots of pictures here because they really don’t capture the sweep of the view.

You’ll meet this rope just when you need it the most.
The elevation profile for the trail B hike, See that sharp peak in the middle? That’s where you’re grabbing onto the rope pictured above.
A panorama— zoom in!
We were super proud of ourselves for making it to the top

It was after 10pm when we finally made our way back to the parking lot, not that you could tell from looking at the (cloudy) sky. We drove back to the city and started looking for a place to eat. This turned out to be troublesome for two reasons.

First is that lots of places are either closed or have limited hours because of low visitor counts. The other is that many of these same places haven’t updated their hours on Facebook, TripAdvisor, or what-have-you. So the first two places we tried to go were either just closing when we arrived or had already closed their kitchens. We managed to get in to Forsettinn maybe 5 minutes before the kitchen closed. Too bad that their menu was so limited— we compromised on a pepperoni pizza, which was pretty decent, especially considering how hungry we were. Then it was back to the hotel for bedtime, with the prospect of our trip to the South Coast dancing in our heads.

Pro tip: restaurants in Iceland are expensive. We had a 9” pizza, one beer, and two “hot White Russians” and it was about US $80. Be prepared.

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Iceland 2021, day 0: notes and travel

I had a great visit to Iceland four years ago but didn’t get to see everything I wanted to. That presented a natural opportunity to take Erica and catch up on the stuff I’d missed so we planned a mid-summer sightseeing trip.

Many of the online blogs and guides you’ll see for Iceland (and I won’t link to them here!) say things like “this place is so magical” or “here’s your ULTIMATE guide to the BEST things in Iceland.” That irritates me, so here’s my practical (and hopefully useful) guide to what we did. I won’t pretend that any of it is the magical / ultimate / best, but it will be an accurate rendition that may help you in deciding what to do. We wanted to have an enjoyable time and not engage in the grinding cost-cutting (“buy a loaf of bread at Costco and make your own sandwiches!”) or frenzied drive-a-thons (“we saw every waterfall in Iceland in 8 days and it only took us 150 hours in the car!”) that seem endemic in Iceland travel. The most useful source that I found was the /r/VisitingIceland subreddit on Reddit, both for helpful tips but also for counter examples of people being stupid so I could avoid doing the same.

Before you go: all of the requirements for traveling to Iceland in the plague time are listed at travel.COVID.is. Make sure you read it thoroughly! We saw several people at various places who had problems caused by their own failure to read and follow the requirements. Until July 15, you have to have a COVID-19 PCR test at the Reykjavik airport and remain isolated at your lodging until it comes back but those requirements can change. You must also complete a web form that requires you to upload proof of either your vaccination status or your recovery from COVID. That form will result in you getting a barcode in email that you’ll need later. Iceland also recommends that you download the “Rakning C-19” app for exposure notification.

Getting there: we decided to fly Delta. They have daily flights to Reykjavik from Boston, JFK, Atlanta, and Minneapolis. It’s cheaper to fly Icelandair but then you have to get to one of their cities first, so it isn’t cheaper any more, at least for us. If you do book Delta, be aware that pretty much every Saturday they’re loading future schedule changes into their system, so your flights may change unexpectedly. Keep an eye on them. We checked in at Huntsville, flew to Atlanta and thence JFK, and got to Reykjavik about 715am. At Huntsville and again at JFK, we were required to show both our CDC vaccination cards but also the Icelandic pre-registration barcode. Apart from that, it was just like any other Delta flight.

Arrival in Reykjavik: at the airport, as is typical, first you clear customs, at which point the customs officer will ask to see your barcode. Once that’s done, you’ll pick up your bags. For our trip, since PCR tests were still required, we joined the queue and waited maybe 5 minutes to get nose-poked. After that, we took the shuttle to the rental car area, picked up our rental from Blue, and drove to our hotel.

A word about driving: Iceland has many more road hazards than most American drivers are used to, including wandering sheep, roads with no shoulders, narrow roads, one-lane bridges, poor visibility, and tightly enforced speed limits. Do yourself a favor and pay the extra for the full-liability rental-car insurance. It will protect you from cost associated with rock chips, paint dings, dents from garage parking, and so on. I also sprang for the 4G WiFi puck offered by the rental company and this was a good move, since it meant we could keep our phones connected as we drove around.

Staying in Reykjavik: originally we wanted to book an Airbnb. Until the next rules change, you can only do this if the Airbnb host agrees that they will honor the quarantine requirements (you must quarantine in a private room, with its own bathroom). The one we liked best didn’t answer our question about this, so we decided to pick a hotel instead. The Alda Reykjavik got very good reviews and was centrally located, so we made reservations there. There were other less-expensive options, but I wanted the downtown area to be within easy walking distance and this turned out to be a good choice— plenty of restaurants and bars nearby, easy access to parking, and very walkable. Breakfast was included, and it was very good, with fresh bread and pastries, cold cuts, cheeses, fruit, skyr, cod liver oil, and surprisingly good coffee.

After checkin, we went to our room to wait for our quarantine results. Since I’d booked us the economy double room, we weren’t surprised to see how small it was (very typical of European hotel rooms, of course). We were hungry, but the front desk was kind enough to send up a breakfast box, then we napped and waited. If you preregister with the Rakning C-19 app, your test results are supposed to show up as an in-app notification. They do, but just as a single notification— you can’t go back and see them later, and we didn’t get an email or SMS notification. We got the popup after about a 4.5 hour wait, which seems to be pretty typical. The COVID.is website has a chat function that you can use to reach a human, and our helpful human sent us the negative test results, so we grabbed our jackets and headed out to walk a bit and go to the volcano. Stay tuned…

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Returning to the electric vehicle life

A few years ago, I lived in California and had a friend who had a Chevy Volt. I was fascinated by the idea that I could have a car that didn’t require gas (and also by the privileges that California gives to electric vehicles, including access to HOV lanes). I couldn’t get a charger at my apartment, so I ditched the idea until a few years later, when I needed a car and coincidentally found that GM had really attractive lease deals on the Chevy Volt. I leased one, drove it for three years, and loved nearly everything about it.

Fast forward to now. The Volt is gone, I needed a car again, and saw that Chevy was again offering very attractive incentives on the Bolt. The Bolt is a pure electric vehicle; unlike the Volt, it doesn’t have a gas motor at all. On a full charge, it can go as far as 259mi, which is farther than I intend to drive (if I need to go more than 100mi or so in any direction, it’ll be in the plane!)

The Bolt comes in two trim levels: LT and Premier. There are only a handful of options; the two that I was insistent on were DC fast charging and the fancier stereo system. I was mostly agnostic on color. A little poking around on Chevy’s website showed a ton of potential vehicles, but I wanted to minimize the amount of hassle in the shopping process. Here’s what I did:

  1. For each of the nearby dealers I found on Chevy’s website, I found their “contact me” link (most of which use a common GM-provided customer management system) and sent some variation on the following note:

Here’s what I’m looking for:

* 2020 or 2021 Bolt Premier
* MUST HAVE: Infotainment package, DCFC
* MUST NOT HAVE: black exterior
* DON’T CARE: interior color, Driver Confidence II

Financing will be a 3-year 15K mile/year lease with the Costco incentive. This is not a trade-in. Send me your best offer and whoever makes the best deal by September 30 gets the sale.

  1. Weeded out the dealers who didn’t sell Bolts
  2. Weeded out the dealers who couldn’t read or understand English and said things like “Hey, I see you wanted a Bolt– did you know about the great incentives we have right now on Silverados?”
  3. Sorted the results by price.

The two clear winners were Freeland Chevrolet and Donohoo Chevrolet. (Bonus negative mention of Rick Hendrick Chevrolet, which wrote me a $600/month lease offer on the car– including an oil-change service package and mandatory $199 nitrogen in the tires. No thanks.)

After doing a little more thinking about what I wanted to use the car for, I went back to the top three dealers and asked them to run the numbers for a purchase. Donohoo was the clear winner here. The car they quoted me had an MSRP of $43,735 from Chevy’s build-and-price page. Donohoo priced it at $37, 235. Costco members get $3,000 off purchase or lease of a wide range of GM vehicles, and Chevy itself has an $8,500 purchase incentive– so with a $1500 down payment, that brought my price out the door to $25,573.

I chose to finance through Redstone Federal Credit Union. In retrospect, this wasn’t a great choice because they were super slow. It took more than two weeks to close the loan and get a check to the dealer. As one example of their general slowness, they sent the check on a Friday using UPS Next-Day Saver, which meant the check went from Huntsville to Montgomery to Fort Payne, so it wasn’t delivered until Tuesday. Great job, guys.

So that’s the car. One final note: I paid Donohoo extra to deliver the car, and they did a great job: the car showed up as promised, with a chase vehicle to drive the driver back to Ft. Payne. It was well worth the $175 delivery charge to not have to drive down there to get it.

Because it’s an electric car, of course I needed a way to charge it. Chevy ships a “Level 1” 120-volt charger than can provide 12 Amps (12A) charging. That’s enough to add about 4 miles of range per hour… which isn’t a lot. Level 2 chargers require 240V outlets, so I hired Budget Electric to add a 240V outlet and bought a Clipper Creek Level 2 charger. Although the Clipper Creek unit cost just under double the cheapest unit on Amazon, it’s American-made, includes a three-year warranty, and comes from the same company that builds the charger that comes with the car. I had a Clipper Creek charger for the Volt and liked it quite a bit.

So far I’m delighted with the car: it’s quick and fun to drive, thanks to a 200hp electric traction motor and its short wheelbase. The infotainment system works flawlessly with Apple CarPlay; the only thing I haven’t tested is the DCFC charging capability. I look forward to a world when the only time I stop at a gas station is to buy Diet Coke.

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2019 year in review: my top 10 books

Even though it’s not quite the end of the year yet, I’m going to post my top 10 books for the year, selected from the 102 I’ve read so far. Closer to the end of the month, I’ll post the rest of the year’s list, but for now, here are a few that I thought especially worthy of mention, in no particular order.

  1. Star of the North: terrific spy thriller set mostly in North Korea based on a simple premise: what if you found out your twin sister didn’t die, but had instead been kidnapped by the North Korean government? Remarkable characterizations and a realistic portrayal of life inside the Hermit Kingdom. 
  2. Valley of Genius: a compilation of interviews and quotes from Silicon Valley luminaries, some of whom you may never have heard of, tell the story of how Silly Valley came to be what it is today. Features the usual suspects (Jobs, Woz, Stewart Brand), but also mentions many lesser-known people whose contributions, although important, never got the same kind of visibility. 
  3. Freedom’s Forge: do you know who Bill Knudsen was? How about Henry Kaiser? What if I told you that, if not for them, there’s a good chance the US would have lost World War II? True, and fascinating, story. (Along the way, it explains the “Permanente” part of Kaiser Permanente’s name). 
  4. Those Who Wish Me Dead: part mystery, part thriller, part wilderness exploration, the plot and characterization and dialogue here are among the best I’ve ever read. Koryta makes a forest fire into a believable, and fearsome, character as part of this tale of revenge and escape. It would make a terrific movie. 
  5. Chief Engineer: it seems remarkable, maybe even preposterous, to us now that a single man could be chiefly responsible for a huge public works project, but that’s exactly true of Washington Roebling, the titular engineer and the man who gave us (among other contributions) the Brooklyn Bridge. Masterful biography of the man and his wife Emily, whose role in Roebling’s bridge-building career has mostly been skipped over but deserves wider exposure. 
  6. Creative Selection: thoughtful meditation, with lots of amusing stories, about Apple’s design process at the start of the iPhone era by one of their lead iPhone engineers, the man whose epitaph will probably read “Autocorrect Was His Fault.” 
  7. How Bad Do You Want It? Absolutely fascinating survey of what we know about the links between mental resilience and toughness and elite sport performance. Fitzgerald does a masterful job of highlighting different areas of mental development that are applicable to everyday athletes, explaining why they matter, and discussing how to develop them. 
  8. Exploding the Phone: I grew up at the tail end of the “phone phreak” era, and I’d always thought I was pretty familiar with it, but I learned a ton from this well-researched and cleverly told history… including that AT&T used to tape millions of toll calls in a project named “Greenstar” and that John “Cap’n Crunch” Draper didn’t actually invent the technique for making free calls that came to be strongly associated with him. Great stuff if you’re interested in the history of technology at all. 
  9. A Few Seconds of Panic: Most grown men would know better than to try to make it as a walk-on player in the NFL, but not sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. I very quickly started rooting for him as he made his way through Denver Broncos training camp; he had a marvelous adventure and told its story clearly and well.
  10. The Path Between the Seas: speaking of “marvelous adventure,” how abut that Panama Canal? During the nearly 45 years of its construction, countless people died,and the political and commercial maneuvering incident to getting the Canal built left marks that we still see today in the US and Panamanian governments. I knew nothing about the engineering or politics behind this work, so this entire book was a terrific learning experience for me. 

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2018 year in review: my top 10 books

Even though it’s not quite the end of the year yet, I’m going to post my top 10 books for the year, selected from the 97 I’ve read so far. Closer to the 31st, I’ll post the rest of the year’s list, but for now, here are a few that I thought especially worthy of mention, in no particular order.

  • The Night Trade. I’ve always been a big fan of Barry Eisler’s thrillers, and am happy to say I discovered him just after the publication of his first book. To me, this is probably Eisler’s best novel, with an emotional depth that he has slowly been perfecting over the last few books. Characteristically excellent action scenes and plotting, as I’d expect, but a significantly darker subject (child sex trafficking) than his regular spycraft.
  • Billion Dollar Spy: Absolutely captivating true-life story of Soviet engineer Adolf Tolkachev, who spied for the US in the heart of the Soviet military establishment. Hoffman provides a meaty, well-supported mix of tradecraft, personality profiling, and you-are-there vignettes that make this a compelling read.
  • The Rook: imagine Charlie Stross’ “Laundry” series with a female protagonist and a great deal more polished wit, with fewer geek jokes. I wish there were more books in this series, as the second volume is equally good.
  • Ali: A Life: I have many fond memories of sitting with my dad and watching Ali box. Despite that, I didn’t know much about him as a man. Thanks to this perceptive yet entertaining biography, now I feel like I have a better understanding– and Ali was remarkable, in and out of the ring, in many ways. He was an archetype of the self-promoting pro athlete but at the same time a generous and complex human.
  • The Overstory. It’s about trees. Go read it anyway. You’re welcome.
  • Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command. Meticulous and deep history of JSOC, an enormously influential and yet largely unknown part of the US military.
  • The Arsenal of Democracy: FDR, Detroit, and an Epic Quest to Arm an America at War. I had no idea how much the Ford Motor Company contributed to World War II, nor the depth of racism and anti-Semitism that Henry Ford perpetrated, nor that his son Edsel was ever more than the namesake of an automotive punchline. Remarkable story of how the Ford family– mostly Edsel– conquered a huge number of technical, political, and logistical problems to build the world’s largest air force from literally nothing.
  • Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery. Fascinating memoir from an eminent British brain surgeon. Equal parts thrilling, educational, horrifying, and heartwarming.
  • Norse Mythology. Back in the day, I had Bulfinch’s Mythology to read. Neil Gaiman, whose work I’ve always enjoyed, weighs in with this very approachable take on Norse mythology– funny, engaging, and quite educational.
  • G Man: probably my favorite of all Stephen Hunter’s books. Like Barry Eisler or James Lee Burke, Hunter is able to get a lot of juice out of the same basic plot lines and characters. In this story, Bob Lee Swagger is hunting for the truth about his grandfather, a famous Prohibition-era lawman, so we get both his search but also the grandfather’s adventures. Cleverly plotted with great dialogue.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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).

 

 

 

 

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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!

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