Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Review: Tivax Digital TV Converter Box



Because I don't watch any TV, I never bothered with a cable subscription. A few years ago, Lisa indicated she wanted to watch PBS or NPR once in a while, so we bought an indoor amplified antenna (a pair of rabbit ears), and the signal was so bad that we immediately gave up and returned the antenna.

Thanks to the stimulus package, we applied for and received $40 coupons to buy a digital TV converter box, due to the impending switch-over to digital TV. Since the converter box would have been useless without an antenna, we also bought a matching amplified antenna. According to the Amazon reviews, this was a consumer's report choice, so I bought it. The total cost after coupons: $25.

The box is surprisingly small, about the size of an external 3.5" HDD. It comes with an IR remote, which inexplicably wouldn't teach my 4 year old Sony Universal Remote. It takes as input the RF cable from the antenna, and you have a choice of outputting to an RF cable to feed into the TV, or composite + audio cables on the TV. Since those slots were taken by a Wii, we opted for the RF cable. There's a selector that lets you choose between Channel 3 and Channel 4.

The device powers up slowly, but once it comes up is fairly easy to use. The responsiveness is slow --- it takes about a second between button pushes for each change to happen. The first thing to do was to take about 10 minutes to scan for digital TV signals. I was surprised at the number of digital TV channels it found! Then we started to see pictures. This was quite interesting because we had never seen TV so clear before! (Remember, we're on an ancient Sony analog TV!)

Then there was a few minutes of frustration as I tried to deal with a black box that filled the bottom 1/3rd of the screen. It turned out that we had close-captioning on, but set to an incompatible setting. A quick adjustment on the TV's menu fixed that. We took a look at the various channels, and checked the signal strength --- it was apparent that our input signal was mediocre at best, with only one of about 12 channels showing a strong signal. With the amplification on the indoor antenna turned down, we would get stuttering or a frozen picture, so the amplification was clearly necessary. But when watching TV, we saw no sign whatsoever that our signal was so attenuated --- clearly this digital stuff works!

I probably still won't watch much TV, but with $25 for a one time charge for the KQED, I guess this is not a bad deal, especially since we're unlikely to upgrade any time soon. This is literally the first time in 9 years we've had a working TV set in the house, so if you're like me, go apply for that coupon already!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Review: Stephenson Warmlite Tent

I first bought my Stephenson Warmlite tent 2 years ago. But I never did get around to using it because all my trips had not required a tent of the caliber. Here were the big features I got it for:
  • Weight: 3 pounds for a full size, 2 person tent
  • Roomy: far bigger than any of our existing 2-person tent
  • Quick setup (this was advertised, but I wasn't so sure about it)
What do you get for your money? A tube of seam sealer, laser-printed instructions on how to setup your tent and care for it and seam seal it, 2 sets of fat (but light) poles shock-corded together, the tent of material, and some swatches of material, including 4 bags attached to cords. The important missing ingredient here? No tent pegs. Given the price of the tent, I was shocked that even normal tent pegs weren't included, let alone lightweight aluminum or titanium pegs.

It took Lisa and I about half an hour to setup the tent the first time for seam sealing. Most of it was spent searching for the entry-way for the poles! Then it took us another hour or so to seal it, all the while sliding around on the slippery mylar that made up the inside of the tent, including the floor. Interestingly enough, in use, the slipperyness never became an issue, while we thought it would be a major issue unless the tent was perfectly flat.

Setting up the tent involves assembling the poles. These lightweight aluminum poles are so light that you are urged not to allow the cords to snap them together, as this could damage the structural integrity of it. It also doesn't take much to dent the tube, and I've already put a ding on mine, and consistent with all other dings I've ever had on bikes, I don't know how the ding got there. Then you find the pockets to slide the poles in. The first couple of times you do this, it's extremely hard to find the pockets, but if you're doing this every day it becomes extremely fast. The first few times we set it up, I didn't realize that you could put the entire pole into the tent, and had a bit sticking out, which looked funny. After a few times, the poles settled in and what we had looked much better. Finally, you stake down the tent ends (only 3 pegs required), and tension the cords and the tent raises itself up like magic.

Setup is extremely fast. So much so that even by myself, our tent was always the first up and the first down when doing the Overland Track. There really is nothing to it. I didn't know whether I wanted to believe this piece of marketing, but it really was true.

Once the tent is up, you have several options, depending on which tent you bought. We bought the version with 2 windows. You can either roll up the windows on the outside, granting maximum ventilation but no rain protection, or apply the corded pockets mentioned earlier to the loops at the end of the window, and use rocks or some other weight to stabilize the window covers to the side. This provides some ventilation, as well as rain shelter, but you better use heavy rocks or any kind of hard rain will cause the window to flap back into place. Finally, you can keep the windows zipped up if you're expecting snow or it's going to rain all night.

If you manage to get the ventilation right, this tent stays dry, but on our first test in California winter, it was too cold to keep the windows open, and we got condensation inside the tent. Stephenson would claim that we should just keep the windows open and dress appropriately. In the rain, despite having open windows, we still would get condensation in the tent, so I conclude that the marketing on condensation is just marketing, though Stephenson would probably say that we need to buy some of his vapor barrier clothing.

How robust is the tent? We used it for about 8 days in Australia and it stood up to that fine, except for the ding in the pole. We had strong wind one day, and a bit of rain for a few days here and there, but the one day we had a torrential downpour we chose to use a hut instead of camping out for an unrelated reason, so we did not get a chance to test it. It does feel extremely fragile, but I think it'll withstand regular use if you follow directions. And as for weight, no one had a lighter tent, no matter where we go, and folks were quite impressed by the large windows and the good ventilation as a result.

One big negative compared to our other tents was the lack of ceiling attachments --- it's impossible to attach a candle lantern to the inside of the tent. You have to use a floor lantern if you want light, or just wear a head lamp. You also can't hang wet clothing to dry or anything like that. On the other hand, the tent is so big that you can easily stick your packs in there.

How do I feel about this tent? Given the price, I'm not going to use it for car camping. I have other tents more appropriate than that. For a single person, I would investigate the use of a camping hammock. However, for a couple that's cycle touring or backpacking, this is probably as good a set of compromises as you can get. I'll call this a cautious recommendation --- it's worth the money, but it's not a no-brainer tent --- you really do have to treat it with care and respect.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Out of Shape Ride


I hadn't been on a real bike ride for 2 months (since I was in Australia), but somehow the usual suspects I left behind at work claimed they were even more out of shape, so I announced an Out of Shape Ride. Joe Gross, Kekoa Proudfoot, Cynthia Wong, Lea Kissner, and Mike Samuel met me at the outfitter and we rolled off. I was so happy to be back in town that I had to pick all the random alternate backroutes to get to Old La Honda Road. Old La Honda Road is the standard climb around here, and Joe and I did it in about 38 minutes, about 13 minutes more than my best recorded time. Unfortulately took more than 3 minutes more to get up the hill, so I had to go back and do the climb over. ,After that climb, Joe, Kekoa, and Cynthia elected to descend 84 back into the Valley.

Lea and Mike went down with me on West Old La Honda road and when the view opened up we were impressed to see the hills around us, all lush and green, with road side poppies peppering the green with orange. In La Honda, we stopped at the Deli for some potato chips and water, and then I declared "Duck Pond!" "Duck Porn?" asked Lea. I had to spell it out for her before the miscommunication was resolved.

Then we wound around inside the Redwoods and ended up riding West Alpine on a not very cold day. Unfortunately, there was still quite a bit of haze, so we could not see Big Sur or Monterey Bay from the road. It was still stunningly pretty, though --- after all the desert I was seeing I was glad to see green. All in all, not a bad ride for a bunch of out of shape office workers: 52 miles, and 5000' of climb.
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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Australia Impressions

The best feature of Australia is Australians. Australians are funny, friendly, and the most welcoming people. I've lost count of the number of times we camped out in a campground and had a neighbor come by and greet us, say hi, or give us tips. Whether it's the climate, or because a large number of folks we meet are tourists, it's such an amazing experience. It's even institutionalized. Young people, for instance, can apply for a working holiday visa, where you can work (and minimum wage is $12.50/hour in Australia!) while on vacation for up to a year. There aren't too many other countries that are so generous to visitors!

As an old continent, I knew intellectually that Australia would be eroded and not have as many mountains, but that still did not prepare me for the emotional reaction I had when I visited. This is definitely a country where most of the features are off the coast, under the water. Australia is definitely a great place to visit for a SCUBA diver or a snorkeler. The water is nice, and the wildlife plentiful --- for this trip, the highlight was definitely the trip to Ningaloo Reef. What an amazing place.

I learned that one of the reasons why I enjoy my cycling trips, and why I enjoyed the coast to coast trek is the navigational challenge. At the time when I did the Coast to Coast, I was annoyed by how frequently I would get lost. It was only after doing the Tasmanian Overland Track that I realized that being led by the nose had never been the experience I was after in the outdoors, even if I had some nominal choice as to which side-trips I could choose to take!

What would I do differently on this trip? The big one would have been to plan to visit Ningaloo right from the start. That would have saved us some time and money! Secondly, rather than doing the Overland Track, I would have chosen to whitewater raft the Franklin/Gordon river system. While the Overland Track is nice, I don't think it actually offers anything that many other hiking trails in New Zealand, the U.S., or anywhere in Europe doesn't, while the wild rivers in Tasmania were really impressive. I would cut the amount of time spent in the Red Center to just 3-4 days rather than almost an entire week. While Kings Canyon is impressive, it really wasn't worth a whole day, and by the time we got to Alice Springs we were quite sick of desert. I don't expect to visit Bryce Canyon, or any of the desert U.S. parks either, after this visit to the desert.

All in all, however, this was definitely a trip of a lifetime.

Australia Index

This is the consolidated Australia related trip index and report. The photos are still being processed and worked on (hopefully it'll go much faster when the new machine arrives). I'll also try to update the text-heavy pages with photos as well.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

New Computer

I was a foregone conclusion that by buying a Canon 5D Mk II I was going to have to get a new PC --- my 3 year old Mac Mini just couldn't run Adobe Lightroom with any degree of interactivity, and after playing with Lightroom a bit, I decided that was the software I was going to process serious photography with. I did decide to put off buying a machine until I had a significant amount of photos to process, however.

We came back from Australia, with 92GB of photographs, so now a new machine was inevitable.

Shopping around, I discovered that the lowest end machines with quad core processors (which Lightroom and Photoshop are designed to use --- to the point where if you have a dual core box and run lightroom, one of the cores just gets pegged doing apparently nothing!) are Dells, running around $600 at Dell's refurbished outlet store. The big issue with these machines is the video card. To upgrade to a video card that can dual-head, I'd have to upgrade the power supply and the video cards, which was a pain and wouldn't save very much money.

So to my surprise, the cheapest quad core machine I could get with a decent video card turned out to be HP's m9600t, which with an EPP discount came up to about $974 with a Radeon 4850 1GB video card. Dual-head wasn't something I thought about at first, but it is nice to be able to plug in either a second monitor or go with a 30" screen. The amount of memory wasn't ideal (4GB), and neither was the disk (500GB), but both are easy to add, and the machine came with Intel's latest Core i7 processor.

And no, the Mac Pro wasn't even a consideration. At $2500 even an EPP discount won't get it down to twice what the HP costs. I've long come to the conclusion that Mac fans just have a lot of money, which I guess, is what Apple counts on!

[Update: Too late for me this round, but I found another well-reviewed site, CyberPower, which sells customized, water-cooled PCs for about the same price as the HP I got with the employee discount (sans OS). It's more or less the same deal, but having a bigger power supply and water cooling does give you a bit more headroom. A reference for next time I have to buy a PC.]

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Review: Galactic North

Galactic North (kindle edition) is Alastair Reynolds' collection of short stories about the Revelation Space universe. Sorted in roughly chronological order, the stories range from the founding of the Conjoiner sub-race of humanity, to the far future where intelligent races have to flee the Milky Way because of a mistake made by two people.

Every one of the stories is excellent and worth the time. Many of them are quite haunting, including one in which the secrets of the Conjoiner light-hugger drives are revealed. Others seem a bit love-craftian, which isn't really a bad thing. Ironically, the story I liked the least is the last one, Galactic North.

All of the issues that I have with Reynolds' first novel are gone in the short stories --- in a short story, the plot trumps characterization, and the ideas trump all, and Reynolds proves himself as the master of both, over and over. Highly recommended, and in fact, this is probably the best introduction to Reynolds' universe.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Red Center

The flight to Ayers Rock was without a hitch. The small airport that was the destination had a resort bus waiting to take us to our hotels. We soon realized that Ayers Rock served a captive audience --- visitors to Uluru/Kata Tjuta National Park, and most folks just stayed in the captive Ayers Rock resort. The temperature was astoundingly warm, 37 degrees Celsius. We did not realize that this was the coolest day temperature we would experience over the next 6 days.

Like Cradle Mountain Lodge, Ayers Rock Resort was run by the Voyages company, which seemed to own a lot of captive-audience type resorts. I'm inherently suspicious of such resorts, and Voyages confirmed my fears. Our room was tiny, without even a table to sit down and eat at, the better to which to force us to dine at the restaurants.

We walked down to the visitor center, and tried to decide between the options provided for our free time. Lisa definitely wanted a camel ride, and the star-gazing option seemed like a good idea, but the resort offered Sounds of Silence, a combination nice dinner + star-gazing. I neglected to notice that the nice dinner was actually a buffet with unlimited alcohol, which really meant that this wasn't all that good a deal for us.

Looking at the guide book, we saw that the Outback Pioneer Inn had a self-service BBQ which might be interesting, so we walked over and had dinner there. The meats were interesting, beef, emu, kangaroo, and some sea food, but after trying everything I decided that I still liked beef better.

The next morning, we got picked up at 5:45am for a walk around the base of Uluru. The Anangu people ask visitors not to climb Uluru, so most tours just take you around the bottom of Uluru. Up close, the monolithic piece of rock is impressive, and the guides did a good job of getting us to a good sunrise viewing area, but the rest of the walk was meh. I could have gleaned all the stories by reading plaques around the walk, and didn't enjoy having pace forced upon me by others in the group.

We then had a free afternoon, during which we took a nap, had lunch, and read. At 38 degrees, it was really too warm to do much else. When dinner rolled around, we were shuffled onto a bus and taken to a set of dunes near the resort. The location was obviously not chosen by a photographer, as the sunset was hitting Uluru wrong, and while we could see the Olgas, they were too far away to be a realistic subject.

Dinner wasn't terribly inspired, but the star gazing portion was. The speaker had a flair for drama, and used a high powered lazer pointer to illuminate the night sky. It was easily the best part of the evening.

We were told to expect a pick up at 6:35am the next day, but when we got to the reception at 6:30am, we were told that the bus had left without us. This pissed me off, and I was even more pissed when told later that this was official AAT Kings policy --- they'd give you a pick up time but show up 10-15 minutes early, and leave without you if the hotel somehow got you registered incorrectly, or their data was incorrect.

To try to salvage the rest of the day, we rented a car and went to the cultural center, where we got a presentation of bushtucker and the traditional foods of the Anangu people. We then rearranged our schedule so that we had our camel ride that evening and then Kata Tjuta again the next morning before we left.

The camel ride was interesting. It turns out that Australia probably has a million feral camels in the country, mostly because the government tried to get the cameleers to shoot their camels rather than paying for them to be shipped back to the middle east, resulting in the cameleers just letting their camels go free. So the camel population went from a mere 20000 to a million in about a century, and Australia now has a camel population problem since in the outback they have no natural predators.

I thought that it would be like a horse ride, but instead, the cameleer had it set up like an old-time camel train --- she would load all of us up on the camels, and then lead the camels by walking in front of the lead camel, which was tied to all the other camels in a train. I got along fine with my camel, but the camel behind us kept trying to take a bite off me or my shoe. Fortunately, during the ride, he managed to get some grass and finally left me alone. The views were similar to what we got the day before, but at least we were moving. Being on a camel is very much like being on a boat --- you can't fight it, so you learn to let yourself flow with the camel's motion.

Our last night in Ayers Rock Resort went uneventfully, and we awoke early the next day to get onto the tour bus. Kata Tjuta's Valley of the Winds walk was not very windy that day, and it was down right warm by the time we got to the first lookout. We learned a few things about aboriginal traditions by the driver, who used to teach English to them. One of the interesting things was their burial traditions: historically, they would put the bodies onto trees, and only after the bones had been bleached, would they then bury what's left. Well, that can't happen in a tourist area, so they aren't allowed to do that now. One big belief is that if you die in an area and aren't buried properly according to that tradition, the place becomes haunted as your soul sticks around. Hence the request for you not to climb Uluru --- they don't want your soul hanging around if you died there (only 37 people have died, but it's not such a big place that 37 souls wouldn't make the place quite haunted, I supposed).

After we were returned to our hotel, we only had an hour before our bus transfer happened, which took us to Kings Canyon. During the drive there, I was very happy not to be the one driving, since I had never seen a road so darn straight for so long! Arriving at the Voyages-Run Kings Canyon Resort, we found it to be an incredibly run down place, with one mediocre restaurant, and not much to do but drink. That didn't interest us, but we were signed up for the 5:45am rim walk the next day anyway, so going to bed early after we were cheated out of the sunset by incoming clouds was the thing to do.

The walk around Kings Canyon Rim was easy: 6km is barely 4 miles, but even at 5:45am, the temperature was warm, and the day was projected to be 41 degrees C. The climb went by fast, with only a few stops to get pictures, and we were at the lost city by the time the sun came out and greeted us. I was used to Canyons being carved out by rivers, but it turned out that the Canyon was eroded almost completely by rainfall --- there was no river running through it! We got a geological overview, including the fact that this part of Australia once was taller than Everest! 360 million years of erosion without any tectonic plate action has made Australia as flat as a pancake (relatiely) as a result.

By the time we got back to our hotel, the day was warm, and getting warmer. We ate lunch after checking out, and were shuttled to Alice Springs by bus again, this time getting into Alice Springs Resort at 7pm. It was too late by then to do anything but eat at the hotel restaurant and do laundry.

Our one day in Alice Springs was entirely driven by the McDonnel Ranges coach tour, which led us to several short walks, a swimming hole, and the Glen Helen gorge. Again checking in at a blistering 41 degrees C, we got views of the desert, beautiful in its own way, but I was quite sick of the Australian outback by this point, and ready to return to more temperate climates.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Review: Revelation Space

Revelation Space (dead tree edition) was Alastair Reynolds' first novel.

Set 5 centuries into the future, Reynolds introduces us to his universe (which apparently has already had 5 novels set in it, plus several short story collections, and I somehow managed to miss this Brit. phenomenon, just like I missed Richard K. Morgan).

Since Reynolds was apparently a real scientist, we get very realistic exposition --- we get to see relativistic travel, the question of the Fermi paradox, a great description of neutron stars, black holes, and time travel used in computation, as well as the usual grand sweep space opera concepts such as very large ships, planet destroying weapons, and space civilization/archaeology.

The plot revolves ostensibly around Dr. Dan Silvestre, an egoistic, obsessive archaeologist who's exploring the remnants of an expired civilization, the Amarantins. We then get seeps of back story, and two other convergent plotlines that converge very early on in the novel --- most of the mystery behind the book has to do with tying the civilizations together, and figuring out what's going to happen next.

All the clues are fair, and in fact, when I figured out a crucial plot point ahead of time, I felt extremely satisfied, rather than cheated or feeling like the author was being stupid.

The only criticism of this novel is common to all scientists turned writers --- the characters are quite wooden, and seriously, how could anyone learn to care about such characters? Then again, with science fiction of such epic scope, the sense of wonder (often only achieved by Iain M. Banks, another great British writer) is a great substitute for characterization.

Recommended for realistic science, a plot that doesn't make you feel stupid, and a fun romp through an interesting universe. I'm buying the next book in the series for the long flight home.

(A note on the Kindle edition: it is very badly proof-read. Little typos like modem are substituted for modern all over the book. Nevertheless, the story blows it all away)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Warning to Australian travelers, avoid AAT Kings

So this morning, we were scheduled for a tour to the Valley of the Winds done by AAT King. We were told that the bus would come pick us up at 6:35am, but when we got to the lobby at 6:30am, were told that the bus had showed up looking for us at 6:20am, and then left without us! We were livid that they didn't even search for us or have the hotel call us. Then we found out that they had searched for Lisa's name, rather than mine, despite my name being on the reservation anywhere else on this trip.

They switched us to the afternoon tour, but the park closed the Valley of the Winds walk in the afternoon because of heat, which was why we had signed up for a morning trip in the first place. After some rearrangement of our schedule, we managed to get onto tomorrow's tour.

The receptionist at the hotel confided to us that this was a common occurence with AAT King's tours. He recommended that we use APT (Austalian Pacific Tours) if we were doing more touring, which is of course too late for us, but fortunately, we only have a few days left.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Review: Fight Club

I bought this short novel (Kindle Edition) as a break from reading more Recluce novels.

The premise seems on the surface to be about men living lives of quiet desperation, looking for something to enliven their lives. Calling out a stranger and fighting, and having a club to do that would seem to be that kind of ticket in a perverse world. We get really gross stories (though not Richard Morgan gross), and the fight club escalates in the way all such ideas do, into more and more sinister versions of itself.

By the time the big reveal happens, my ability to believe in this little piece of fiction has been going down. Nevertheless, the novel is short enough and the plot interesting enough that the big reveal was enough to get me to finish it. The novel is also short enough that I can see how a movie wouldn't mangle it, so I guess I'll have to get around to watching the movie as well. Mildl recommended as an airplane novel.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Review: The Order War

The Order War jumps further ahead in the history of Recluce, and uncovers the history of Justen and Gunnar. Those who are alert will remember Gunnar as the parent of our hero in The Magic of Recluce, and Justen his brother.

Justen starts off being unhappy with the state of the affairs in Recluce, where Recluce seems too eager to mind its own business, while Justen wishes Recluce would do something about the Chaos Wizards slowly enroaching upon the affairs of the continent of Candar. He volunteers for a regiment to help prop up one of the countries on the continent, but ends up being isolated from Recluce.

The story feels a lot tilted towards the fan: you get to meet some interesting historical figures. Again, the characters seem rather stilted, and Modesitt's exploration of yet another coming of age story seems rather dull. In fact, for about the first half of the book you can skim yet another smith/healer/warrior story and not miss any important plot points.

Not recommended except for die hard fans (which unfortunately, it seems I am).

Monday, March 16, 2009

Exmouth, Australia

The flight to Exmouth went off uneventfully, despite a 5:40am Taxi pick up and flight attendants that were quite intrigued by the Kindle. We originally planned not to have a car in Exmouth, but the airport pickup shuttle person told us that having a car was a must, so we stopped off in town to rent a stick-shift car for $50/day.

Getting into the Best Western, we discovered that it was right in the middle of the former U.S. Naval base! The owner, Axel, was a German transplant who had lived in Exmouth for 15 years with his wife and kids, and eagerly set us up in a nice room that looked like great value (full kitchen, full size refrigerator, etc.). He then gave us an orientation of the area, lent us an ice box, an umbrella, and rented us snorkels and masks.

We then headed to town for lunch and a visit to the shopping center to fill the ice box, and then drove to Turquoise Bay to try the drift snorkel. The beach is filled with pieces of coral skeletons, just to show you how robust this coral reef is. The drift snorkel is set in a lagoon with a consistent current from South to North. You enter through the South, and the current carries you to the North, the only catch being that if you forget to leave the lagoon before it carries you past the Southern sandbar, a powerful rip-tide will send you right into the Indian Ocean, where there's no landfall between Australia and Africa!

We snorkeled cautiously, and it was a lot of fun --- I even saw a reef shark moving around in the water. Then while preparing for another entry, I saw another snorkeler doing something very smart --- she put on her fins and stepped backwards towards the reef, and by the time she was forced to swim, she was almost right on the reef, and didn't have to fight the current at all. I followed suit and had a great time.

In fact, we had too great a time, since after we were done it was 4pm, and we were feeling a little sun exposed. We drove South to Sandy Bay, which was a pretty place, and then back North to Mandu-Mandu gorge, which was a walk up to the highest place in the park for a good view of the entire Ningaloo Reef. I started the walk, but found the going tough, not because of elevation gain, but because the trail was right on a stream bed which was rocky and painful to walk on. After a while I started looking for short cuts. I found a rock climbing ascent, but on examination discovered that I just wasn't good enough to do it. A little while later, I backtracked and found a chimney. I'd read about how to do this in The Freedom of the Hills about 10 years back, but never had a chance to apply it, and so took the chance to do so. What do you know, it worked like a charm.

Once at the summit, I took a few pictures, and walked back down, and on the return, discovered to my chagrin that if I had only been more patient I would have found the non-mountaineering ascent. C'est la vie. Lisa then wanted to look for turtle hatchlings, while I wanted to see the sunset from the local lighthouse. Fortunately, the two attractions were right next to each other and so we could each do so. I found the sunset disappointing, however, and Lisa found no turtle hatchlings.

We had dinner at Whalers in town, and the food was found to be absolutely top-notch, right up there with the best I had at Google, while the service was slow but acceptable.

The next morning, we were picked up at 7:40 for the Navy Pier Dive, billed as one of the top 10 dives in the world. The U.S. Navy built a submarine communications system that consisted of really high towers (the tallest is taller than the Eiffel, but doesn't look that tall because we had nothing to compare it to), and ran a base in Exmouth in the 1960s. Since then, most of the work has been automated away, except for the pier, which is used to deliver diesel to operate the system.

The dive itself was quite amazing --- you really do feel like you're in an aquarium, surrounded by fish. We saw Rays, Sharks (multiple of them!), Lion fish (also multiple), Potato Cods (big huge ones), schools of Barracuda, the list goes on. The visibility was not great (20 feet at most), but the density of wild life was quite impressive. If you're in the area, this dive is definitely a must do.

We returned to the hotel at noon, went to town to have lunch at Grace's Tavern (surprisingly good food), and then I went snorkeling again while Lisa stayed at the hotel. By the time I returned, it was almost time to return the car, so we did so and had dinner at Pinnochio's, an Italian establishment that was disappointing.

The dive on Saturday was changed on account of the wind --- it was way too strong to go to the Murions, so we were sent to the West Coast instead. We dived two dives and did a snorkel in between, but I wasn't too happy with the dive guides this time. The reason is the Ningaloo Reef Dreaming also trains Dive Masters (known as Dive Control Specialists in the SSI lingo). In this case, the number of trainee Dive Masters outnumbered the paying customers (this is because Ningaloo trains you for free if you work for them as an intern for 4 weeks after your Dive Master course), and I did not appreciate being used as a guinea pig for trainees during a dive I'm paying for. The first dive felt like a race, with the trainees shooting off like a rocket, and us paying customers chasing them. The second one was considerably better, with better wild life viewing, but with all the switching arounds and confusion, I would have preferred getting an experienced guide. If you're signed up for a trip with these guys, I recommend making sure you get a real dive guide, not an intern or a trainee!

By the time the diving was over it was nearly 4pm, so we chilled in the hotel room and did a BBQ for dinner.

The big disappointment this morning was that our whale shark spotting trip had been cancelled, again due to wind. We salvaged the day by renting a car, and going snorkeling again, first at South Mandu (which Lisa loved), a site where the coral is practically at your nose, granting great visibility but few large fish, and then we had lunch at the Yardie River. We finished up the day at Turquoise Bay again, but on the non-drift loop, where we saw a small Manta Ray, and I spotted a clown fish --- but the drift loop really is better. Dinner was at Whalers again, as we tried to drown away our sorrow at not seeing Whale Sharks with good food.

Review: The Magic Engineer

The Magic Engineer is the third book in the Recluce series. I'm starting to see the pattern that Modesitt is putting together: the first book introduced the world, while the later books seem to be filling in back story. This book covers Dorrin, a smith/healer who was exiled from Recluce for dreaming of mechanical marvels. As yet another coming of age story, it's nothing special, but of course, what drew me in was the depiction of the engineer who was the first to analyze Recluce's special brand of magic: while those before him were content to manipulate energies, Dorrin struggled to understand the big picture, and hence becomes the author of a major ground-breaking book depicted in the first novel.

The character is again quite wooden, and we see the flaw to Modesitt's approach to world-building: his characters aren't free to be themselves, but rather must fit into a history that he has clearly designed in advance. This makes the characters feel very shallow.

While I enjoyed this book, I can't put a recommended tag on it. That's not going to keep me from reading newer books in the series --- it just means that I can't say that anyone else will enjoy it.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Margaret River Area

We started driving in the morning after a quick supermarket breakfast and stocking up at a near by super-market. This was interrupted by stops to take calls from our travel agent about the Ningaloo trip, and so we made it only to Bunbury around noon, where we had lunch. At lunch, we confirmed all our arrangements with Ningaloo Reef Dreaming for our dives, but with one snag, they wanted everything faxed to them in writing, which was quite tricky --- there were no guarantees we would be able to arrange that today. Our travel agent offered to deal with that for us, so we remained hopeful.

At Busselton, we stopped at the information center, and saw the ads for the Bushtucker Canoe tour. That sounded like a lot of fun, especially since it meant a chance to try the Australian Witchetty grub, so we signed up for it. I also called the Hamelin Bay caravan park to see if they had a powered site for the night.

Then onwards we went, to Cowaramup, where an road sign for a wine shop stopped us. We had seen signs for a mango wine earlier and had hoped to see it, but it turned out that the shop didn't have it. They did point us at the Berry Farm, and we resolved to see that tomorrow. After that, we gassed up the car and headed to Hamelin Bay Campground, which was right in the middle of Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park. The Australians don't seem to mind having a commercial campground in the middle of their National Park. The campground is quite pretty, and very close to the beach, so after we had a quick dinner, we walked along the beach for some sunset photos. After the sunset, we were treated to a visit to the beach by Manta Rays, who were drawn by fishermen scaling fishes on the beach. Lisa had quite a bit of fun feeding them with the fish scaling remains.

The next morning, we drove the much touted Caves Road, which winds along the Karri forest to the Pevelly Cove for the Bushtucker tour. The tour guide, a former policeman from Perth named Chris, delighted in showing us the forests, the birds of the area, as well as a short hike and of course, the Bush lunch. The Witchetty grub was not bad, tasting a bit like a nut. Well worth the trip! On the way back, we had a canoe race, and with Lisa & I sharing the canoe with Chris, we won the race and a bottle of wine for Yuri and Monique.

After this trip, we went back to Margaret River and used the internet cafe there to finalize our Ningaloo trip. With all that printing and writing and faxing behind us, we headed to the Berry Farm, which to our delight had Mango wine. A tasting, however, revealed a sharp, spicy taste to the wine which made it a disappointing wine, despite my wanting to like anything mango-related. We did try their sparking strawberry wine and their sparkling nashi pear wine, and those were quite good, so we bought a bottle of the pear wine for the evening.

Having done so, we decided to stay at Hamelin Bay again for the night, since an inspection of the Riverside Caravan Park in Margaret River didn't impress us. Rather than provision the caravan for one more night of cooking, we decided to buy take out food in Augusta. While we were in the area, we took a look at the cape (unfortunately arriving at the lighthouse just as it closed), and were surprised to find that the color patch cafe calling itself the last dining house before Antarctica.

The overcast day meant that the sunset wasn't nearly as good that day, but we met an Australian family and spent an evening with them.

Our last day in the Perth region started out overcast, but as we drove back along Caves road, which slowly started to look more and more like other wine valleys in the world (including Napa valley), we started seeing more and more sun, until it became only partly cloudy at the Busselton pier, where Chris had recommended that we rent snorkels and swim back from the end of the pier so we could see the fishes up close and personal. I did so, and the water was cool, but not unbearable. Folks in the underwater observatory took pictures of me, though! I enjoyed the swim for about 20 minutes and then got stung by two jelly fish in quick succession, ending my snorkel in a hurry.

After that, the drive back to Perth happened uneventfully. At Monique and Yuri's home, we unloaded everything, and I borrowed one of their bikes and stuffed it back into the camper van to drive to the return office. I made it back there just in time, returned the van with no problems, and then rode my back. The ride back was initially terrible, with heavy traffic and hot weather. But I soon found the cool bike path along the Swan river, and that made for nice riding.

Lisa & I repacked our bags for Ningaloo, had a final reunion with Yuri (who was going to Europe on business the next day) and Monique, and had dinner at the local Asian food restaurant. We had a 5:45am taxi pick up the next day, so we went to bed early. At this point, I noticed my CPAP mask was damaged from the trip, so had to make some repairs with scotch tape.

Review: The Towers of Sunset

The Towers of Sunset was the second book in the Recluce series, and this one jumps us back several centuries and gets us to see the founding or Recluce.

Told in the third person, the novel mostly focuses on Creslin, who's an extremely talented man. As in Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince, one has to wonder how such a being could exist. Let's see: the guy's a master swordsman, a powerful weather wizard, a talented singer and guitarist, and one heck of a hard worker.

The plot revolves around the Chaos Wizards' dominance and pursuit of Creslin, who eventually flees to Recluce with his wife. While the novel reveals a lot about the world of Recluce and how things came to be, the characterization is weak and the plot is merely an excuse to hang "history" on. The romance is handled badly, in typical Modesitt fashion --- his characters probably reflects his views on romance and morality, but I find it more than a bit unrealistic.

All in all, this book is not recommended, unless you (like me), read the first book and got hooked.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Perth

We got off the plane right on time in Perth, and walked from fall into summer. The weather was well over 28 degrees centigrade, and it was warm just walking to the taxi stand where we took at taxi to the Maui rental. The rental was for 10 days, so we bought a National Park Pass as well as renting the awning. Now that we knew what we wanted, and knew the van well, checking it out was easy.

We then drove to Monique and Yuri's house in East Perth, which was nicely located near the river and seemed to be a pretty upscale location. Just as we found parking, Monique and Yuri walked up and helped us move our luggage into their home. Despite being in suburbia, Yuri and Monique managed to keep a European lifestyle despite living in Australia, by being able to bike to work, and not driving very much. Yuri had just bought a Jeep, though, and was working on installing Roo bars. He needed some parts, and so was glad that we showed up with a van, and he and I made a run down to the store while Lisa and Monique took a walk.

For dinner, we rode bicycles to Fraser's a restaurant on top of the hill in Perth. Since we couldn't find a bicycle small enough for Lisa, Yuri did the gentlemanly thing and gave Lisa a lift on the rear rack of his dutch bike. The views from Fraser's was good, as was the food.

The next morning, Monique had a triathlon she was doing as part of a corporate challenge, and we rode to the start line to cheer her on. After that, we packed everything up and drove our van to a caravan park in Fremantle, since we had a dive scheduled on Monday. Lisa's friend Daniel showed up to pick us up and show us his place of work, E Shed markets, the major tourist market in the area. It turned out that Daniel was the general manager for the market, which is owned by ING.

After the tour, Daniel dropped us off at the Fremantle prison, where we had signed up for the 3:45pm tunnel tour with Tara, whom we had met on the Overland track. Monique and Yuri also joined us, and we got to see the underground part of the prison, which was apparently also featured in The Amazing Race TV show. It was quite a fun tour, and when it was all over we got pictures and went off to have dinner with Daniel and his friend A.

Daniel, Lisa, A. and I exchanged travel stories and food longings, since A. was from Singapore and of course, that's what Singaporeans do when they meet --- discuss food.

The next morning, we drove once again to E-shed to meet our dive guides and get fitted for our dive gear --- we were going to dive Rottnest island today! Our driver was late, however, so we ended up browsing at the store --- they had a brochure for Ningaloo Reef Dreaming, an outfit that did dives up North, and also advertised a Whale Shark tour. Since Ningaloo was at least a 4 day round trip drive, we had written it off, but I thought that if we used a plane to get there, it could work out. I called Swain Travel, our travel operator and asked them to look into it for me, and Ningaloo Reef Dreaming as well, to see if Whale Sharks were in season. The big one was that we would lose the use of our camper van without any refund, but a sunk cost is a sunk cost.

The two dives at Rottnest were great --- the water was a little cold, at 22 degrees, but once the wet suits filled up it was comfortable. The dives were along limestone bottoms, so there were a lot of swim-throughs, and a lot of wildlife, though the water did not have great visibility. Still it was fun and Lisa and I thought that since our Great Barrier Reef dive was so disappointing, we could make it up here.

That night, we went to Woodmans Point caravan park, and had dinner once again with Daniel and A. We would head South the next day for Margaret River.

Friday, March 06, 2009

The Great Ocean Road

We arrived in Melbourne and got a Taxi to the Maui Rentals depot to pick up our campervan. The Maui Spirit 2 is basically a Toyota Hiace Full-Size van retro-fitted to include everything for on-board living except showers and toilets. It's configurable to have sleeping quarters either in the loft or in the main cabin, has a refrigerator (that can run off a deep cycle marine battery), a micro-wave (hooked up only), a butane powered stove, and a full set of cooking and eating utensils.

The first thing that struck us about it was how much like a sailboat the camper van was. Everything stows away into locking cabinets, just like a boat, and there are little cubby holes under the cushions just like on a boat for storage.

Driving a big van around the narrow streets of Melbourne is definitely not for the faint of heart. You always feel like you're hogging way too much space, and it was my first experience with a vehicle that big and heavy. After a few misadventures (including not being able to find a caravan park, and having to return to the rental place because of some misplaced items, and breaking a couple of glasses by forgetting to secure one of the cubby holes), we finally got the boat, uh, campervan provisioned and parked at an expensive Melbourne park --- a powerless unit for $29.50 (including a 10% discount for driving a Maui).

We caught the tram down to Melbourne to chow down some Asian food, knowing we would not be able to get food of this quality for the rest of the trip.

The next morning, we woke up to find that some rain had fallen over night, but the van exhibited no condenstation at all, since it was so well ventilated. We started off along the road to the Great Ocean road. The weather was rainy, and not at all friendly but by the time we pulled into the town of Torquay, things had gotten quite a bit better.

Torquay is supposedly the surfing capital of the world, but when I asked about surfing lessons, none were to be had for the afternoon, apparently due to some regulations about surfing schools. They were happy to rent me a surf-board, but given that I didn't know what I was doing, I felt that to be pointless.

We headed down the coast to Apollo Bay, stopping every so often for sights, but by the time we got there, the sky had cleared up and I decided it would be wise to head over to see the 12 Apostles --- Lisa wanted to do a Platypus spotting eco-tour, but we could not do that day because he was all booked up, and since that tour happened in the evenings and dusk, we would have to camp out in Bruce's town of Forest to participate.

We got to Port Campbell around 5:30pm, secured a powered camping spot, and then proceeded to the 12 Apostles, eating a quick dinner in the car park before heading out to shoot the sunset. I don't know what the results of that shoot are, but we stayed out until well after dark, and then headed back into Port Campbell for some shut-eye.

We had seen some brochures for the Ortways Fly Treetop walk, and since that was along the way to Forest, decided that it would be a worthwhile stop. However, not before a second visit to the 12 Apostles and Gibson's steps for another look at those gorgeous sea-stacks and limestone formations.

The Otway Fly treetop walk was fascinating since you get a chance to see the rainforest at the canopy level, including a 50m tower. What's enjoyable is how cool it is on a hot day. Temperate rainforests are definitely a ton nicer than tropical ones --- I might even be able to walk i none some day without itching all over just from the associasion of a rain forest with nasty creepy bugs.

After that, we noted that we were near the Triplet falls, and went in the for a lunch in the parking lot and a visit to the falls, which weren't too impressive as there hasn't been much rain lately (those of you who've hard of the Australian wildfires know that since it's been all over the news). The walk, however, was nice and cool despite the warm day, and the loop nicely arranged.

The drive over C159 to Forest was narrow and slow --- it would make an excellent cycling road except for all the signs to watch out for logging trucks. I did not see a single other car on the road, however, let alone a logging truck, so a cyclist might very well find himself in luck except on logging days. Arriving in Forest, we found where we were to meet Bruce (our guide for Platypus spotting), and then went to the Caravan park, where I negotiated a $22 stay for the night with power hookup.

The Platypus tour was interesting. Bruce told us quite a lot about running one of these eco-tour business (he also ran a mountain bike tour business in town, as well as a mountain bike rental business). As a one man shop, he spent quite a bit of time in paper-work, getting accreditation (which turns out to be mostly writing policy and filling out paper work), permits, etc. The platypus sighting itself was in Lake Elizabeth, part of the national park (we could have camped for free there, except for all the warnings about how the parks were closed due to weather). The lake itself was only 50 years old, and quite placid when we started off despite a building wind. We did spot 3 platypuses, and Bruce was adept at anticipating where they were. Lisa, however, was disappointed because she got much better views of the platypuses at the Sydney aquarium. You didn't really get to see the entire body of the platypus, just the eyes, and a shadow of a bill, and then a bit of the body when it dives.

We slept well that night, but we awakened in the middle of the night to quite a bit of rain and wind. The next morning was quite cloudy and windy. The wind was the reason why the parks were closed (a bit of fire can spread quickly in a bit of wind), but the rain seemed like it should have kept the fire danger low. Nonetheless, with no way to visit the National Parks, we decided to drive the Great Ocean highway and visit the Cape Ortway Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse in Australia. That gave us a chance to see Koalas in the wild, as well as take in some history.

After that, the rain started up in earnest, so much so that when we passed the 12 Apostles again, Lisa opted not to stop. Past Port Campbell, we spotted a hitch-hiker hiking in the rain, but were too late to stop for him. We went on to see some other sights, such as London Bridge and the Grotto, all artifacts of the limestone in the area being moulded, dissolved, and shaped by the waves. We were relieved to see that someone else did pick up our hitch-hiker, but were surprised to find him again walking the road some time later, and this time stopped to pick him up, which was how we met Evan.

Evan was an industrial engineer in Seattle, and was now travelling in Australia for 8 weeks. He did however seem to have brought rain everywhere he traveled, in Tasmania and elsewhere, and was in the middle of the Great Ocean Walk when the wind and rain came and blew all his hopes of completing the walk out of the window. He was nevertheless in good humor, and seemed determined to get to Portland today.

We weren't going quite that far, however, and when we got to Warrambool to fuel up, I got a tip as to a caravan park that was out of the wind. We dropped Evan off after that and went to the caravan park, which charged $30 for a powered-site and $26 for an unpowered-site. While preparing for dinner, Lisa spotted an ad for a laser and sound show called Shipwrecked. The park even had a discount for the show for us, and was kind enough to call and arrange everything for us, including a taxi (we were reluctant to tear down everything we had put up).

The show turned out to be a video about the two survivors of the Loch Ard, the skipper and crew, and what it was like to travel back in those days (a 13 week journey from England to Australia). Then it was followed by a walk through the historic recreation of the village of Warrambool as it was back then. Finally, the show itself, which was a laser projection onto a veil of water generated by fountains. Lisa was quite captivated and I was impressed. Definitely recommended.

Rain and wind continued to greet us in the morning, and my attempts to find surfing or scuba diving fell completely through due to the weather. We drove to Port Fairy, a nice little town and had a glorius meat-pie for me and a vegetarian pie for Lisa. If someone ever figures out how to import this food to Palo Alto they will be wealthy for life. Port Fairy was charming, but it was too early to stop there, so we moved on to Portland, where we were directed to drive onto the breakwater, and then visit the Enchanted Forest, which was indeed very enchanting. Looking for a caravan park that was out of the wind, we eventually settled on the Portland Claremont Caravan Park, which only had unpowered sites (for $20) left when we decided upon them.

There, we met Isabel and Samuel, who were on a 4WD journey around the world. They had started in Lucern in Switzerland, where they lived, and driven all the way to Turkey, through the Middle East, and then through Russia before boarding a ship to Australia. All through this trip, we'll meet Americans traveling for 4-8 weeks, and then we'd meet Europeans, who'd have been traveling for 1.5 years or more. We had a good time exchanging stories.

The morning started out nice, but soon were interrupted by the now familiar rain and wind. We saw notices about how bringing fruits and veggies into South Australia could result in a $2500 fine, so we had a quick breakfast of all the fruits and veggies we had left, and then set off to Bridgewater. There, we saw the blowholes of Portland, and a "Petrified Forest" that turned out to be a series of tubes created through some natural processes. We did see the strangest series of rainbows due to the weather conditions though --- first the middle part with the ends, then just the ends without the middle, then the left half, all within 10 minutes.

Driven forward by the rain, we drove on to Nelson, then across the border into South Australia. At a gas station, we spotted a picnic area across the street and used that to make a French toast lunch. The driving now became easy, the challenge mostly being the campervan acting like a huge sail, which makes side winds extremely unhappy for me to cope with.

We drove past Robe, where there was a memorial for Chinese who disembarked for the gold rush and then walked 200 miles to the work-sites because of the head-count taxes on incoming ships from China. Then on to Kingston. The campervan's modifications did not include a gas tank expansion, so I was forced to fuel up again there. (The gas tank is only 15 gallons or so!) We decided to shorten the next day's drive by camping out in Cooroong National Park along the south coast. The first camp-site we saw was none too good, though sheltered, so we kept going. This park is huge, lengthwise --- it took a good hour to drive to the next camp-site and scout it. The fees were extremely reasonable, though: $5. It was already 7pm by the time we got there, and with the overcast skies, there wasn't much of a sunset, despite the scenic nature of the campground.

The next morning, we woke up to the sound of birdcalls instead of car doors and stoves, which is what it should be like camping out in a National Park instead of a commercial campground. Rob, a camper next to us was going to be counting birds over the weekend as part of an international agreement to track migratory birds, and gave us quite a tutorial on rare birds and what they look like. Lacking binoculars, however, we could not do more than squint at little dots on a faraway lagoon.

The drive to Adelaide went very fast, much faster than I expected, given the long distance between drives. By noon, we were checking into the Adelaide Shores Caravan Park, which was where the rental place recommended we stay the night before our return, given our early flight the next day. We then cooked and ate lunch, took showers, and went for a walk on the beach, which was again bereft of swimmers, and then went to downtown Adelaide, where the information center told us we arrived right in the midst of the Fringe Festival, a collection of live events in the city. Lisa went and got a foot massage while I walked around figuring out that most of the comedy venues weren't sold out, and I could just pick up tickets at the door.

Lisa had found during the massage the name of a good place that made Curry Fish-head. We went to the "Best of Adelaide" comedy show at 6:00pm, where we found out that Adelaide was half an hour off from Melbourne, a strange time-zone difference. The show itself was worth $20, and got a good sampling of local talent, and got to see Gordon Southern live for about 15 minutes. It was a pity that his main show was at 9:00pm, or we would have gone for it.

The Curry Fish-head was excellent, with the right taste, though not perhaps with the right amount of spicyness, but Lisa already thought it was quite hot, so it was a good compromise.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Review: The Magic of Recluce

Fantasy writers rarely like to write about Wizards as protagonists, preferring to keep the workings of magic secret and mysterious so they can use magic as a Deux Ex Machinas to pull characters and plots out of the hole fantasy writers so often find themselves in.

L.E. Modesitt, however, takes a different approach in this excellent first novel of the Recluce series. The protagonist is a disaffected youth, sick and tired of the incredibly boring society he grew up with, and questioning every thing his elders tell him to do. The society of Recluce, valuing order against all else, decides to exile him after his apprentice-ship, ostenibly because he seems to be too dissatisfied to fit in, but later, as he discovers, for some political reasons.

At this point, a typical novel would have him journey on a quest, take up apprentice-ship with a Wizard, or go to Wizard school, and then take up the fight against some great evil. Modesitt eschews all that, and gives Lerris an incredibly vague set of directions from his exilers, and gets him in trouble one after another until Lerris decides to resign from it all and take up wood-working, the apprentice-ship he had given up on at the start of the novel.

Even funnier, Lerris was given an extremely boring manual by his father on his departure from Recluce, and this turns out to be an incredibly important book that Lerris in his inability to handle boredom, ignores until pointedly told otherwise by another friendly Wizard.

The characterization is done extremely well, though I question the realism of a teenager behaving as wisely as Lerris does. Then again, as a coming of age novel Lerris' maturation is quite something worth reading, and I enjoyed his realization that answers have to be found, not given.

Highly recommended as a great coming of age novel, as well as an interesting approach to magic that works as both puzzler and problem poser. I will pick up the next book in the series eagerly.