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Friday, August 23, 2019

Post Tour Review: Arkel Drylite Panniers

Cycling bags are a compromise. For my trips on my single bike, I avoid panniers as much as possible, preferring saddlebags or bike-packing bags to keep the bike as light as possible and without drawing the weight penalty of carrying a rack on top of it.

For this year's tour, I knew Xiaoqin's rental bike would have a rack. With a bike weighing in at 50 pounds, there's no point skimping on weight, and you might as well have panniers. On the other hand, Xiaoqin doesn't ride her bike every day, and certainly wasn't about to go practicing on fire roads the way I regularly do, so I couldn't overload the bike enough to cause handling problems.

Arkel Dry-Lite Panniers are billed as the lightest waterproof panniers ever made. Xiaoqin went for the red color, which actually made them tough to find, as nobody seems to stock them in that color. The panniers are light and fold up really nicely. I didn't weigh them as an e-bike was going to carry them, not me. The tops are the usual dry-bag roller tops, where you fold them over 3 times before you clip them to prevent water intrusion, and there are no compartments inside.

The mounting system is unusual: instead of hooks on the top, the panniers grab onto each other using an intersecting set of velcro: a layer of hooks sandwiched between two loops. The result is that the panniers can go on and off the rack as a pair. Once you figure out the system this is a very fast and easy on-and-off system, though god help you if you get the velcro system mixed up. At the bottom is a hook attached to a bungee cord that helps you stabilize the panniers horizontally. These do a good job but we didn't figure that out until the second week of the tour, and the panniers still never fell off, because the rental bike's rack had a spring-loaded mechanisms that held the panniers down securely anyway.

The capacity is mediocre: Xiaoqin carried her own clothing, some of Boen's clothing, and Boen's PS Vita. Everything else (including bike tools, backpacking towel, Bowen's clothing, my clothing, most of Boen's clothing, raingear, etc) went in my venerable Robert Beckman panniers, which are much more substantial, but of course weighed more and were way more bulky.

For single bike touring, I think the Revelate Designs bags at 517 are lighter (these are spec'd at 540g) and eliminate the need for a rack. These are mostly good only if you're renting a bike that has a rack that you're not going to take off. They are lighter than the traditional English saddlebags (a Carradice low saddle longflap comes in at 904g), but only have similar capacity.  Keep in mind that a typical bike rack weighs north of 600g, so even though these panniers are lighter than a traditional Carradice, after you add in the weight of a rack you're no longer better off. From that point of view the new Revelate Designs bags are substantially better and I'd recommend them over these.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Review: The Hidden Life of Trees

After reading The Weather Detective, I had to read The Hidden Life of Trees, which many have praised as being a better book. It's definitely a fascinating one, about how trees can communicate to each other:
The acacia trees that were being eaten gave off a warning gas (specifically, ethylene) that signaled to neighboring trees of the same species that a crisis was at hand. Right away, all the forewarned trees also pumped toxins into their leaves to prepare themselves. The giraffes were wise to this game and therefore moved farther away to a part of the savannah where they could find trees that were oblivious to what was going on. Or else they moved upwind. For the scent messages are carried to nearby trees on the breeze, and if the animals walked upwind, they could find acacias close by that had no idea the giraffes were there. (Pg. 7)
 I loved the chapter on "street kids", on why the isolated trees in cities, suburbs, and even various preserves and parks don't do well, which is because they're not actually part of a forest, and therefore not part of a community. He explains why trees that grow naturally in a forest are longer lived than the "street kids": the reason is that for trees to be long lived, they need to grow slowly, and straight up. A tree in an open area would grow in all directions quickly, but that would lead to a short life.

There are lots of little secrets for your garden:
 These secret reserves can be activated at any time, and depending on the tree species, they contain a selection of defensive compounds produced by the tree. These so-called phytoncides have antibiotic properties, and there has been some impressive research done on them. A biologist from Leningrad, Boris Tokin, described them like this back in 1956: if you add a pinch of crushed spruce or pine needles to a drop of water that contains protozoa, in less than a second, the protozoa are dead. In the same paper, Tokin writes that the air in young pine forests is almost germfree, thanks to the phytoncides released by the needles.56 In essence, then, trees disinfect their surroundings. But that isn’t all. Walnuts have compounds in their leaves that deal so effectively with insects that garden lovers are often advised to put a bench under a canopy of walnuts if they want a comfortable place to relax in the garden, because this is where they will have the least chance of being bitten by mosquitoes. The phytoncides in conifers are particularly pungent, and they are the origin of that heady forest scent that is especially intense on hot summer days. (Pg. 156)
 There's also lessons in forestry, on how to get back those old growth forests. Unfortunately, the time scales involve are truly immense, on the order of 500 years:
if the conifers that have now fallen into disfavor were to be removed, the future old-growth forest would develop a bit more quickly. But once you understand that the first generation of trees is going to grow too quickly anyway and, therefore, is not going to get very old—and that the stable social structure of the forest is not going to be laid down until much later—then you can take a more relaxed view. The plantation trees growing in the mix will depart in less than a hundred years because they will grow above the tops of the deciduous trees and stand unprotected in the path of storms that will ruthlessly uproot them. These first gaps will be vanquished by the second generation of deciduous trees, which can now grow up protected by the leafy canopy formed by their parents. Even if these parents themselves don’t grow very old, they will still grow old enough to give their children a slow start. Once these youngsters reach the age of retirement, the future old-growth forest will have achieved equilibrium, and from then on, it will hardly change at all. It takes five hundred years from the time a national park is established to get to this point. Had large areas of an old deciduous forest that had seen only modest commercial use been put under protection, it would take only two hundred years to reach this stage. However, because all over Germany the forests chosen for protection are forests that are far from their natural state, you have to allow a little more time (from the trees’ point of view) and a particularly intense restructuring phase for the first few decades. There’s a common misconception about the appearance of old-growth forests in Europe (pg. 237)
 In any case, the book is well written, easy to read, conversational, and education. How often do you get that great combination all put together? Recommended.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Review: Salt - A World History

I read Salt while touring across Bavaria, and it was a surprisingly appropriate read! The book covers the history of Salt's importance, of how roman soldiers used to get paid in salt, and the history of various forms of salt existed throughout human history and the role of salt in preserving food.
It was said that in the markets to the south of Taghaza salt was exchanged for its weight in gold, which was an exaggeration. The misconception comes from the West African style of silent barter noted by Herodotus and subsequently by many other Europeans. In the gold-producing regions of West Africa, a pile of gold would be set out, and a salt merchant would counter with a pile of salt, each side altering their piles until an agreement was reached. No words were exchanged during this process, which might take days. The salt merchants often arrived at night to adjust their piles and leave unseen. They were extremely secretive, not wanting to reveal the location of their deposits. From this it was reported in Europe that salt was exchanged in Africa for its weight in gold. But it is probable that the final agreed-upon two piles were never of equal weight. (Kindle Loc 650)
The Italian mainland was originally much farther away from the islands that are now the city of Venice. The area between these islands and the peninsula of Comacchio was called the Seven Seas. “To sail the seven seas” meant simply sailing the Seven Seas—accomplishing the daunting task of navigating past the sandbars of those treacherous twenty-five miles. About A.D. 600, Venetians started using landfill to extend the mainland closer to the islands of modern-day Venice. The Seven Seas became a landmass with a port named Chioggia. Below it, in a now much-narrowed lagoon, was Comacchio, overlooking the delta of the Po. Ravenna, formerly a port, became an inland city, and nearby Cervia became its port. (Kindle loc 1070)
 Another example: I didn't know that Ketchup came from Indonesia:
Ketchup derives its name from the Indonesian fish and soy sauce kecap ikan. The names of several other Indonesian sauces also include the word kecap, pronounced KETCHUP, which means a base of dark, thick soy sauce. Why would English garum have an Indonesian name? Because the English, starting with the medieval spice trade, looked to Asia for seasoning. Many English condiments, even Worcestershire sauce, invented in the 1840s, are based on Asian ideas...The salt in ketchup originally came from salt-cured fish, and most early anchovy ketchup recipes, such as Eliza Smith’s, do not even list salt as an ingredient because it is part of the anchovies. But the English and Americans began to move away from having fish in their ketchup. It became a mushroom sauce, a walnut sauce, or even a salted lemon sauce. These ketchups originally included salt anchovies, but as Anglo-Saxon cooking lost its boldness, cooks began to see the presence of fish as a strong flavor limiting the usefulness of the condiment. Roman cooks would have been appalled by the lack of temerity, but Margaret Dods adds at the end of her walnut ketchup recipe: Anchovies, garlic, cayenne, etc. are sometimes put to this catsup; but we think this is a bad method, as these flavours may render it unsuitable for some dishes, and they can be added extempore when required.—Margaret Dods, Cook and Housewife’s Manual, London, 1829 Ketchup became a tomato sauce, originally called “tomato ketchup” in America, which is appropriate since the tomato is an American plant, brought to Europe by Hernán Cortés, embraced in the Mediterranean, and regarded with great suspicion in the North. (Kindle loc 2344)
 It covers MSG, the history of salted fish, and the modern use of "natural salt", which ironically has more dirt and doesn't have iodine, which is actually an important mineral that many do not get enough of:
The salt in ketchup originally came from salt-cured fish, and most early anchovy ketchup recipes, such as Eliza Smith’s, do not even list salt as an ingredient because it is part of the anchovies. But the English and Americans began to move away from having fish in their ketchup. It became a mushroom sauce, a walnut sauce, or even a salted lemon sauce. These ketchups originally included salt anchovies, but as Anglo-Saxon cooking lost its boldness, cooks began to see the presence of fish as a strong flavor limiting the usefulness of the condiment. Roman cooks would have been appalled by the lack of temerity, but Margaret Dods adds at the end of her walnut ketchup recipe: Anchovies, garlic, cayenne, etc. are sometimes put to this catsup; but we think this is a bad method, as these flavours may render it unsuitable for some dishes, and they can be added extempore when required.—Margaret Dods, Cook and Housewife’s Manual, London, 1829 Ketchup became a tomato sauce, originally called “tomato ketchup” in America, which is appropriate since the tomato is an American plant, brought to Europe by Hernán Cortés, embraced in the Mediterranean, and regarded with great suspicion in the North. (Kindle Loc 5437)
There's a lot more in this big book, including coverage of the salt mines in Salzburg (the name means "salt city!"), and how much of lower Bavaria was important because of the presence of the salt mines. It even put the mining exhibit and the salt mine visits that we made during the tour into perspective. The book can be a bit repetitive and a bit of a chore at times to read, but I was very happy to have read it when I read it.

Recommended.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Review: Exhalation

Exhalation is the latest collection of Ted Chiang stories. If you're a fan of Ted Chiang, you probably didn't need to know more, and you'd just click through, buy or checkout the book from the library, and read it. Unlike other writers, nearly every Chiang story is a gem.

Outstanding stories in this collection include: "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate", "Omphalos", "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling", and "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom." I thought the title story "Exhalation" was good, but not as outstanding as the others, but it was nevertheless far better than most stories you'll find anywhere else. I also enjoyed "The Lifecycle of Software Objects," but thought the story went on far longer than it needed to to make his point.

The remaining two stories "What's Expected of Us", and "Prisms" were far less interesting, but nevertheless do not detract from the book. You can pay full price for this book without any qualms.

Recommended.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Review: The Uninhabitable Earth

I'm an environmental pessimist. That doesn't mean I don't do everything I can to avoid increasing my carbon footprint --- I ride my bike everywhere instead of driving when I can, and I do try to avoid flights. (I almost never fly to weddings, for instance, or do weekend trips) I've told friends that I don't expect humans to be around in 200 years, because as a species we seem to be hell-bent on destroying the environment that we live in.

The Uninhabitable Earth makes me look like an optimist. To my surprise, I learned a lot more about the global climate crisis than I already knew:
more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades. Which means we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries—all the millennia—that came before. The United Nations established its climate change framework in 1992, advertising scientific consensus unmistakably to the world; this means we have now engineered as much ruin knowingly as we ever managed in ignorance. Global warming may seem like a distended morality tale playing out over several centuries and inflicting a kind of Old Testament retribution on the great-great-grandchildren of those responsible, since it was carbon burning in eighteenth-century England that lit the fuse of everything that has followed. But that is a fable about historical villainy that acquits those of us alive today—and unfairly. The majority of the burning has come since the premiere of Seinfeld. (Kindle Loc 75)
Think about what this means. You can't blame your ancestors, or the WW2 generation for the climate disasters that are facing the earth every year from now on. It's the responsibility of this generation and of course, the generational cohorts just before us (the silent, the boomers, gen x, and the millennial are all in it together). It means that when Bowen and Boen are entering college and remember that back when they were 7 and 4 it was still possible to do a summer bike tour in temperatures under 100F, they can (and probably should) blame us for doing nothing about our greenhouse gas emissions.

And it's not just about driving. It's also about food wastage and construction:
Fully half of British emissions, it was recently calculated, come from inefficiencies in construction, discarded and unused food, electronics, and clothing; two-thirds of American energy is wasted; globally, according to one paper, we are subsidizing the fossil fuel business to the tune of $5 trillion each year. None of that has to continue. (Kindle Loc 551)
Americans waste a quarter of their food, which means that the carbon footprint of the average meal is a third larger than it has to be. That need not continue. (Kindle Loc 556)
Five years ago, hardly anyone outside the darkest corners of the internet had even heard of Bitcoin; today mining it consumes more electricity than is generated by all the world’s solar panels combined, which means that in just a few years we’ve assembled, out of distrust of one another and the nations behind “fiat currencies,” a program to wipe out the gains of several long, hard generations of green energy innovation. It did not have to be that way. (Kindle Loc 557)
If the average American were confined by the carbon footprint of her European counterpart, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by more than half. If the world’s richest 10 percent were limited to that same footprint, global emissions would fall by a third. And why shouldn’t they be? Almost as a prophylactic against climate guilt, as the news from science has grown bleaker, Western liberals have comforted themselves by contorting their own consumption patterns into performances of moral or environmental purity—less beef, more Teslas, fewer transatlantic flights. But the climate calculus is such that individual lifestyle choices do not add up to much, unless they are scaled by politics. (Kindle Loc 567)
These problems are all problems of scale, and it's not enough to do it one person at a time. You have to scale up the solutions. Think about that last paragraph above: the Europeans live well, in many ways better than Americans, with fewer health problems, more income mobility, etc. There's no reason Americans have to live their current lifestyle, but the courage to make that change will be hard to come by: humans don't measure their material progress against absolutes, but against what their neighbors and their friends' lifestyle is. That's why wives compare their husbands' incomes against each other, and people in the office gasp when I tell them that I don't currently own a car and have no desire to change that state. And that's why I'm a climate pessimist: our concern for survival pales against our greed and envy. Consider the millions of people who smoke despite knowing that it's likely to cause a painful death. That's the state of humanity today.

n the modern age, at least, there is also the related tendency to view large human systems, like the internet or industrial economy, as more unassailable, even more un-intervenable, than natural systems, like climate, that literally enclose us. This is how renovating capitalism so that it doesn’t reward fossil fuel extraction can seem unlikelier than suspending sulfur in the air to dye the sky red and cool the planet off by a degree or two. To some, even ending trillions in fossil fuel subsidies sounds harder to pull off than deploying technologies to suck carbon out of the air everywhere on Earth. This is a kind of Frankenstein problem, and relates to widespread fears of artificial intelligence: we are more intimidated by the monsters we create than those we inherit. (Kindle Loc 2434)
At the same time, that this has all happened in one lifetime is also cause for hope: that means it's possible to try to stop it to happening in one lifetime as well, and that we (and definitely our children) will live long enough to face the consequences of our (in)action means that maybe a few more catastrophes will change people's mind. I'm realistic enough to not expect it to happen (I've watched more than one human organization deliberately adopt policies antithetical to their existence)

In any case, I hope I can convince you to read this book. If the book causes you to change your lifestyle and vote to end our current suicide pact with each other, it would have been well worth your time. Recommended.

Friday, August 16, 2019

A Man for All Markets

A Man for All Markets is Ed Thorp's autobiography. It's a great book about how Thorp went from being a mathematician to being the first person to systematize and develop a system for beating blackjack, and then created the modern hedge fund. It's filled with great anecdotes:
We had been told that slide rules would be allowed for the first time this year but that they weren’t necessary. As an afterthought I brought along a ten-cent toy slide rule—all I felt I could afford—thinking I could always do a quick rough check of my calculations if I had any extra time. As I worked through the test I knew every answer. But then the last section of the test was distributed. This part of the exam required many more calculations than I could do by hand in the time allowed. My cheap tiny slide rule was worthless. Out came the full-sized well-machined slide rules all around me. Surprise! Slide rules were not merely optional—they were necessary for anyone who wanted to win. There was no credit given for showing the correct method, only credit for a numerical answer, to a specified level of “slide rule accuracy.” I was sickened by the realization I would likely not place high enough to get the scholarship I needed and unhappy with myself for not preparing by purchasing a hard-to-afford top-of-the-line slide rule. It seemed so unfair to convert a test about chemistry into one about slide rule arithmetic. Be that as it may, I set to calculating by hand as quickly as I could. In the end, I was only able to complete 873 of the entire exam’s 1,000 points’ worth of questions, so this was the most I could possibly score. I knew the top winner typically got 925 to 935, so I had no chance at first place. When my father picked me up I was forcing myself not to cry and could barely talk. In class Mr. Stump could see that I was chastened and obviously had done badly. We didn’t talk about it. I wrote the episode off to my own naïveté. But I did go out and buy the best slide rule I could afford. A couple of weeks after the test, Mr. Stump called me aside to tell me the results. My score was 869 points out of the 873 points I had answered. First place was far ahead at about 930, but second and third place were just a few points ahead of my fourth-place finish. With a good slide rule I could have been first. (Kindle Loc 716)
 And once again, Thorp emphasizes how important public universities like UC Berkeley is to the poor and under-privileged:
The scoring pattern of the chemistry exam was repeated, only this time I was first with 931 points. The second-place winner was fifty or sixty points behind. Surpassing the smug and privileged, I had first pick of the scholarships that were offered, wavering between Caltech and UC–Berkeley. Caltech, my first choice, offered full tuition, but I did not have an extra $2,000 per year for the dormitories and expenses. Pasadena was expensive and I knew of no place nearby within my budget. I simply couldn’t afford Caltech. My UC–Berkeley scholarship, the largest they then gave, was for $300 a year. Tuition, which was $70 a year, was covered separately for me by a scholarship for children of World War I veterans. Berkeley also had low-cost room and board just off campus. Cheaper yet was the Student Cooperative Housing Association, with room and board for $35 per month and four hours of work a week. When I picked Berkeley, I consoled myself with the hope that at least there would be plenty of girls and my social life might bloom. (Kindle Loc 831)
My kindle highlights page from the book is chock full of great stories:
 Most people I’ve met haven’t thought through the comparative values to them of time, money, and health. Think of the single worker who spends two hours commuting forty miles from hot and smoggy Riverside, California, to a $25-an-hour job in balmy Newport Beach. If the worker moves from his $1,200-a-month apartment in Riverside to a comparable $2,500-a-month apartment in Newport Beach, his rent increases by $1,300 a month but he avoids forty hours of commuting. If his time is worth $25 per hour he would save $1,000 ($25 × 40) each month. Add to that the cost of driving his car an extra sixteen hundred miles. If his economical car costs him 50 cents a mile or $800 a month to operate, living in Newport Beach and saving forty hours’ driving time each month makes him $500 better off ($1,000 + $800 − $1,300). In effect he earned just $12.50 per hour during his commute. Does our worker figure this out? I suspect he does not, because the extra $1,300 a month in rent he would pay in Newport Beach is a clearly visible cost that is painfully and regularly inflicted, whereas the cost of his car is less evident and can be put out of mind. (Kindle Loc 4724)
 What's amazing to me is that Thorp, unlike many of his cohorts who made tons of money at Wall Street, decided to fold up his company (which had been brought down not by poor investments, but by poor ethical decisions on the part of one of his partners):
Vivian and I would make the most of the one thing we could never have enough of—time together. Success on Wall Street was getting the most money. Success for us was having the best life. (Kindle Loc 3647)
Clearly, this is a man who's thought through everything, and made good decisions at every step of the way. I hope to get Bowen to read this book one day, because I think that not only does it explain why it's great to be good at math and thinking, but also that many of the most important decisions aren't just about probability and money, but about choosing the right people to partner with.

Recommended!

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Review: Stiff

Stiff is Mary Roach's book about what happens to Human Cadavers. If you've read her other books, you'll discover that this one is much like the others: lots of pithy quotations, such as this discussion about the most ecologically pure thing to do with a body:
I used to think the traditional navy burial at sea sounded nice; I pictured the sun on the ocean, the infinite expanse of blue, the nowhereness of it. Then one day I had a conversation with Phillip Backman, during which he mentioned that one of the cleanest, quickest, and most ecologically pure things to do with a body would be to put it in a big tide-pool full of Dungeness crabs, which apparently enjoy eating people as much as people enjoy eating crabs. “It’ll do the thing in a couple of days,” he said. “It’s all recycled, and it’s all clean and taken care of.” My affinity for burial at sea—not to mention crabmeat—was suddenly, dramatically diminished. (Kindle Loc 3292)
That's not to say that the book doesn't cover lots of different topics. Cadavers get used everywhere from crash testing to firearm effectiveness to improving footwear for bomb clearing squads. Many of these applications sound interesting, but as you can imagine,  it takes all her skill as a writer to make a giant ass book about them, because most of the applications are obvious. By the time I was done with the book I was quite bored.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Post Tour Review: Google Pay

At home, NFC payments are at most a minor convenience. The local safeway takes it, but Costco doesn't, and the gas stations and USPS definitely don't. At any given store, there's at most a 30% chance that NFC payments will be accepted, and they are never accepted at any restaurant.

During this year's trip, I switched my Google Pay to a no foreign transaction fee credit card, and to my surprise nearly all stores and restaurants accepted Google Pay. (The lone exception that I remember was the Deutsche Bahn train station) This is a huge advantage for someone with a US credit card in Europe. If you pay with a regular credit card in Europe, even one with an NFC chip built in, the cashier will sigh, look at you in exasperation, dig around for a pen, print out the receipt and have you sign it.

With Google Pay and an NFC receptor, however, your fingerprint authenticates you, and your transaction is like with a chip-and-pin credit card in Europe, except you don't even have to enter a pin. Everybody's happy, and you're no longer holding up the line at the supermarket checkout stand.

No, most hotels won't take NFC payments (I don't know why hotels are an exception), and some places demand cash, but I eventually programmed my wife's phone with Google Pay and she even got out of the habit of bringing a wallet to the store. Even if you don't normally use Google Pay, if you visit Europe, it's worth the effort of setting it up.

Recommended.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Post Tour Review: Continental GP 5000 700x32 tires

Just as I was packing the bike for the Mt Shasta trip, I noticed that the Fairweather by Traveler tire on the rear had wear indicators that were barely visible. The tire had just been rotated from front to rear a month ago, and had seen only 4-5 major rides, so I knew it was unlikely to survive a tour. It was too late to do anything about it for Shasta, but I went and order the Continental GP5000 700x32 tires in time for the Tour Across Bavaria. At $40 per tire including shipping, these tires were the most expensive tires I'd run in modern times. However, I remember never actually managing to wear down a Continental Gatorskin down to the threads, so I figured even their racing tire would be fine.

The picture above are from the front and rear after 372 miles of touring. The rear is significantly worn compared to the front (unsurprising --- the total weight on the bike was in excess of 300 pounds), but could easily get another 400 miles in. The tires handled both gravel and pavement well, and never flatted during the entire trip. At 271g per tire, these tires came in below the manufacturer's spec of 295g, and lighter than the Fairweather tires as well as the Michelin Pro Endurance 700x28 tires!

These will remain my new "go to" tires for the triplet. In fact, I'm looking at switching all my bikes over to various widths of these tires in the future. They might wear a little faster (though again, the triplet is an extreme use case) but have behaved far better than my previous experience with Continental tires. Recommended.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Post Tour Review: Polar OH1+

I  brought the Polar OH1+ on this tour half expecting not to use it. But boy I was wrong. In fact, the worst thing I can say about the Polar OH1+ is that it's too comfortable. There have been days on tour when I would put it on in the morning and forget that I'm wearing it and therefore forgot to turn it on until the bike ride had already started! This is phenomenal, and never happened with the chest strap. The device doesn't have great battery life, but it always survived the day. I find myself using it much more than the traditional chest strap. Highly recommended.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Post Tour Review: Pixel 3A XL

For mother's day this year, I got Xiaoqin the Pixel 3A XL to upgrade her from the (still wonderful) Moto Z Play. Several items drove the upgrade:
  1. Much better camera. The debate for the trip we had was whether to pick up a Ricoh GR 3 or to upgrade her phone. The idea was that the phone would be used all the time, while a compact camera might not be gotten out except for special occasions like bicycle tours.
  2. More primary storage. I was concerned about the 64GB storage without additional add on SDcards, but I audited her Moto Z Play and discovered she wasn't using more than 64GB in total anyway. And having a simplified storage with less management was better. To augment the storage for movies while off-line, you can get a USB C flash drive to load it up with content. Unfortunately, this absolutely will not work if you're depending on streaming apps such as Google Movies or Amazon Prime video --- those insist on using your internal storage. And clearly, unless you intend to keep that USB C drive plugged in all the time, it's not going to work for music, either.
  3.  Improved processor, larger screen, and more RAM. In 2019, I'm discovering that 3GB of RAM just doesn't cut it any more.
The Moto Z Play wasn't waterproof, so that wasn't an issue, and it had a headphone jack as well, so both those issues were a push.

Let's start with the camera. In many situations, the camera provided great pictures:
This picture clearly benefited from the in-camera HDR processing, and the clarity and detail were obvious. I was very pleased by it. By the way, I tried RAW mode and couldn't get similar effects in lightroom from a RAW file, so my conclusion is that RAW mode is a waste of time on the Pixel 3a XL.
Some times, however, you get a pixelated mess, with no idea what happened and how to correct it. It wasn't predictable to me why certain pictures were fundamentally unusable. This didn't happen often, but it was glaring when it did. The Canon G7X II, by contrast always performed consistently, though for best results you needed to tweak the output in lightroom. When my G7X II died during the trip, the Pixel 3a XL became our primary camera. My Moto X4, by contrast, had horrible latency (5s to turn on the camera), and never showed any moments of brilliance.

The phone was always fast and never ran out of battery: despite my wife using Google Maps and turning on voice as her primary navigation (she turned up her nose at the Wahoo ELEMNT and never bothered to learn how to use it), it always survived to get to the hotel. While my Moto X4 would turn off Google Maps whenever I tried to take a picture, her phone never did that. The phone wasn't waterproof, but when we got caught in a thunderstorm all that needed to happen was that the phone went into a zipper in a waterproof rain jacket, and never came out again until after rain was over.

The phone is also light, much lighter than my Moto X4. Some people actually consider this a negative, but a cyclist who weighs every gram will not complain about reducing weight.

I'm usually vocal about my disdain for Google phones by being a poor imitation of an iPhone (no SD card expansion, no headphone jack, expensive storage options, all point to someone at Google HQ suffering from Apple Envy), but the Pixel 3a XL by bringing back the headphone jack and providing a lower entry price (we paid $479 but got a $100 gift card during the B&H promotion), I can actually recommend the Pixel 3a XL. If prices drop sufficiently I might be tempted to replace my Moto X4 with one.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Tour Across Bavaria: Thoughts

One big thought that crossed my mind in April and before the trip was "How young is too young to go touring?" Now I've heard of people who've taken their toddlers on a bicycle tour in a trailer, but Bowen had raised such a ruckus in a day ride in the bike trailer that we never even tried. Bowen did so well on his first bicycle tour that I thought that if he'd been tall enough at age 4 he would have thoroughly enjoyed it. Boen at age 4 was physically tall enough to ride on the back of the triplet without the kid-back stoker kit. During the Spring tour, he didn't fall asleep even once on the triplet, so I thought he was ready.

Well, on this trip during several occasions, he fell asleep in the afternoon. On the ride into Salzburg, he did so twice! That last time I thought I was going to have a heart attack during that last kilometer. In retrospect, I should have just eaten the weight penalty and brought the stoker kit and seat belt and secure Boen in the middle seat. On the other hand, we were already having trouble getting up some of those hills, so I'm not sure the tour would have gone well with extra weight.

Now, the big factor was Boen himself, who enjoyed the trip enough that whenever he was asked if he wanted to stop he never wanted to go home. (Bowen went through something similar from age 3-4, where he never wanted to go home) To the extent that he enjoyed the trip, I felt like he belonged on tour. Bowen as usual enjoyed bicycle touring. 8 days after we returned home, he said to me: "Did you know that none of my friends have done backcountry camping? Or bicycle touring? You must be the best dad ever!" The flood of emotions that rise up in you to have your 7 year old say that (whom just 2 months ago was writing "I hate daddy" on notepad paper to leave on my pillow!) is indescribable. Over the cause of discussing parenting, I've frequently had people not believe me when I told them about the trips I'd taken with Bowen (and now Boen). Frequently, other parents would assert that there's no way their kids could stay put on a bike for even as much as an hour. Yet whenever I managed to get that same kid on the triplet or tandem, I would discover that the kid was just as engaged in cycling as Bowen and Boen were, despite their parents' assertion otherwise. This leads me to believe that the real barrier to enthusiastic cyclists touring with kids isn't the kids --- it's the huge amount of work the parents do have to put in to make the tour work: from acquiring a tandem to putting in the time to learn enough bike handling skills to handle the big bike, it's something that most parents wouldn't be willing to do, so it's just easier to blame the kids for not being able to do it. I'm now much more willing to dismiss parents' complaints about their kids asking for screen time as a result: on the tandem, no kid has ever asked for screen time. Outdoor cycling time with parents is so much better and more stimulating for them. It's the parents that aren't willing to do it, not the kids.

What I was unprepared for was how much Bowen regressed  in behavior when traveling with his brother. The same kid that climbed Stelvio, the Sella Rondo, Hahntennejoch, and Albula pass without complaint would moan and groan when asked to walk a couple of blocks. He would turn around and mess with his brother, and the two of them would continually shake or manhandle the bike. And of course, there's the continual monitoring of both brothers for privileges one would get but the other wouldn't. Thus, having 2 kids along isn't twice the work of one, it's 4 times the work, since instead of having a 7 year old and a 4 year old, you're getting two 4 year olds!

Despite all this, the biggest challenge wasn't the physical challenge of riding the bike. I always had plenty of gas left in the tank, and at no point couldn't have ridden another 20 miles at the end of the day. With 2 kids, you always have to have something in reserve because after you're done with laundry you still have to entertain the kids, either by taking them swimming, taking them out to ice cream, or walking them around town. (As you can surmise, the kids were never exhausted, either) And of course, with a bike this long, any physical exhaustion was limited to core body strength and flexibility from fighting the kids' shaking the bike, not aerobic capacity or leg strength.

I wouldn't bother buying cycling gloves for kids riding on the back of a tandem. My wife reported that their time on the bike was spent mostly with hands off the handlebars, except on descents, which were of course in short supply on this trip.

Overall, I was surprised by how challenging the Bodensee-Konigsee bike route was. I'd pigeon-holed designated bike routes as being flat and unchallenging (the Rhine river bike path in Switzerland is a prime example), but this one is definitely worth doing. If you're in decent shape on a single bike it probably wouldn't take a week, but obviously anything done on a triplet would take far longer.

This was Xiaoqin's first bike tour of any length. The e-bike was a good idea --- I don't think she could have made the trip without electric assist, and the rental bike was of surprisingly high quality and reasonably cost effective ($560/19 = $30 a day, about half the price of renting a car, but without toll fees, parking fees or fuel costs, which would have been substantial). I kept her bike as lightly loaded as possible, but she too had to learn that on a steep hill you cannot stop, or it'll be impossible to get started again: the assist isn't enough to start on anything steep or on dirt. Other than the fiasco at the start of not actually  having a decent reservation, I would rent the same bike again --- it was useful for running errands, which would have been much more challenging with the triplet.

One of the biggest burdens of the trip was the heat wave. There are few places with AC in Europe (and we were lucky to have found one of them), and my favorite solution (climbing to about 6000' in elevation) was denied to us since we weren't anywhere close to the mountains and even if we were we probably could not have done that much climbing. Staying near lakes was good, but not nearly as good as it being higher in altitude would have been.

I think a much more enjoyable trip would have been that rather than having both kids on a bike at once, would be to take turns having the kids on the back of the tandem, and switching them out at intervals of a week or so, maybe swapping out with mommy who might prefer a different type of trip. You might think that a mini van follow vehicle would work, but my spring break trip proved that when given a choice, the kids would just take the lazy way out and ride in the mini van, so that's not a good idea either.

During an overhaul done before the trip, I opted to use single-speed chains for the timing chains rather than 8-speed chains. This was a mistake: the chains interfered with each other in the middle timing ring if anything was even slightly off (which happened after the train ride to Zurich). You can use single-speed chains in tandem mode or as one of the two timing chains but not both. Upon my return to the USA I replaced the front with an 8-speed timing chain and the problems went away.

All in all, I'm happy we did the trip, but the expense, effort, and the challenges might cause me to experiment with some different configurations of the two. And a lot of it is driven by how much less I like Bowen when he's with his brother and reverting to being 4 years old, rather than anything else. None of the parenting books I've ever read have described this phenomenon, and I have no clue as to how to overcome it, whether it's a desirable behavioral phenomenon or whether it's harmful and should be minimized.


Wednesday, August 07, 2019

July 3rd: Epilogue - Zurich to Rumlang


 It was only a 6 mile ride back to Holiday Express Zurich airport, but it was a nerve-wracking ride, as the kids were back to wriggling on the bike and shaking things up in city traffic with bike lanes, not bike paths. The tandem timing chains interfered with each other, locking up the cranks once in a while if the kids fought me on the bike even a little. Nevertheless, we rolled down to the airport hotel in just 50 minutes, where the checkin was once again smooth and fast.


I then adjusted Xiaoqin's seat height, unloaded her luggage, took care to have the ebike contract in my wallet, and rode back to Winterthur to return the ebike. Google estimated a 90 minute bike ride but with the ebike assist set to high, I got there in just over an hour, with the extra 2 minutes spent circling the city trying to find the rental return/train station. Once there, a 13CHF ticket got be back to the Rumlang train station, where I got back in time to finish the pizza the rest of the family had ordered for lunch, to disassemble the bike, pack it into our bike boxes, and weigh everything and repack to stay under the 23kg flight limit.
We found one last zipline near the hotel so the kids could enjoy a real European zipline before we ate at a fancy Italian restaurant for dinner, which was marred by a wedding shower full of smokers. It's funny how the Europeans consider GMO foods deadly but smoking is still tolerated or even encouraged in many places.

The next morning, the shuttle took us to the airport, where the Swiss checkin agent, puzzled at not finding our outbound flight from the USA in his system (because we'd flown in on a United Flight, not Swiss Air), said: "OK, since you flew out here without getting charged, I won't charge you on the way back!" We cheered and had a mostly uneventful flight home.

The Supershuttle, however, delayed us an entire hour on the way back. The service has deteriorated to the point where it is probably not worth using them any more. But we got home all safe and sound, and none the worse for our European adventure. The next day, Boen asked to go to the water-slides, and was very disappointed when I explained that the European water slides he'd loved so much were no longer accessible.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

July 2nd: Zurich

We woke up before the alarm rang, and packed up and got the kids ready. It was just as well that we were early, as I had a snafu getting the triplet out of the garage --- the exit was locked and it took several tries to find the staff that could open the gate!
At the platform, I took apart the bike and put it back together as a triplet. But I shouldn't have bothered. When the train arrived, I discovered that the bike compartment was so narrow (unlike the German long distance trains, where the bike car would easily accommodate a full size tandem) that there was no way to get the tandem onto the bike rack.
When the conductor arrived, he told me to take apart the tandem or the Swiss would have a fit, so I accommodated him by taking everything apart. In fact, the boarding of the train was very stressful, as I barely had time to get everything on board, kids and all, before the train departed with a station agent bugging us but not helping!

Once everything was nicely stowed away, the train ride itself was 5 hours long, which caused the kids to get more antsy than any long bike ride they'd been on the entire trip. It was scenic, and granted views of the Inn river valley, and I tried to get Bowen to be interested in parts of the bike path that he'd not ridden before, but all scenery through a train window is just more TV, so he was too bored to bother.
Despite my having visited Zurich many times before, I'd never actually visited or stayed in old town before. Upon arrival, with Xiaoqin's help, I put together tha tandem and we rode to the old town hotel we were to stay in, and after we were given our rooms and moved in, we proceeded to walk along the river after lunch to visit the Sprungli cafe, which gave Boen free macaroons because he would stare at the station and keep pointing at the macaroons!
After that we were pretty stuffed, and only came out to dinner at 8:00pm for a light pizza in old town.


Monday, August 05, 2019

July 1st: Various Salzburg Attractions

I woke up early so I could scout out the platform where our train would arrive early the next day. To my relief, it was relatively accessible, with a stairwell and an elevator which would take the ebike but not the triplet. I paid extra attention to the diagram telling you where the bike car was, but didn't stick around to see the train arrive, which was a mistake, as it would give me a clue as to what I was in for the next day. Perhaps that was just as well, as I might have spent the day stressing about it.

Bowen had asked a couple of nights before if we could see the fortress. Rather than walk around town and listen to the kids moan and groan about the "huge" amount of walking they had to do, we extracted the bikes from the parking garage, and rode to the foot of the funicular! There, rather than buying tickets for the fortress and funicular, we bought Salzburg cards, which would grant us access to practically all the museums and attractions, while also giving us transit. It might or might not have been a better deal than paying separate tickets for all the attractions we would visit that day, but on the other hand, it also gave us the potential for skipping the lines.
The fortress was quite impressive, granting us great views of the city, as well as a brief history of the area, including who Leopold (where various towns, hotels, etc were named after) was. Both Bowen and Boen were given audio tour handsets, and Bowen seemed to actually enjoy listening to the introductions and pressing the buttons. It turned out that he was given a special kids version of the tour, which I was impressed by and must have been very well done, because he didn't get impatient, bored or skip a single number on the tour!
From there, we rode downtown to Mozart's birthplace museums, where the tickets let us into the museum and we got a nice small museum that didn't have an audio guide. Here Bowen and Boen were bored, since the exhibits required more reading skills, and they weren't terribly interested in Mozart. But it was interesting to me to see the various artifacts of Mozart's life, as well as the display of early pianofortes, which are much less impressive and bulky instruments than what you see today even in family rooms.
Lunch was followed by a visit to the hand-made candy store, where the staff happily gave samples of various candies to the kids and adults, and of course we ended up buying some of that very expensive candy based on the results of the sample. Then we got to ride across the bridge to the Mozart's house museum, which was actually a museum not about Mozart, but about his father, who was probably the original prototype for a tiger parent. The exhibits were interesting, and more importantly, the place was air conditioned and had listening stations where you could actually listen to Mozart senior's music, which occupied the kids enough for the parents to actually tour the museum proper.
It was so hot that kids were running around the street in swim wear. We walked over to an ice cream shop and had some ice cream but felt rain drops as we walked back to the bikes. We hurried rode back to the hotel, and got into the rooms just as a thunderstorm blew through!
That cooled down the city, but not as much as you might think. We ended up having dinner near the hotel, packing everything up and setting multiple alarms so we wouldn't miss the train the next morning.

Friday, August 02, 2019

June 30th: Berchtesgaden Salt Mine

We woke up, made breakfast, loaded up the bikes, and rode over to Arte Hotel Salzburg, which was prohibitively expensive on Friday and Saturday, but was relatively cheap for Sunday and Monday night. I'd picked the hotel not just because of air conditioning, but also because of its proximity to the train station, and I was delighted to discover that it was basically 100m from the train station entrance. I'd never been to Salzburg since the renovation of the train station had been completed, and was very impressed by how nice it was. Not only that, it had the only supermarket that was open on a Sunday, so we could still pick up milk for Boen, who would still wake up in the middle of the night to demand milk.

It was way too early for our hotel to check us in, but they happily held our bags, and had us park in the underground garage where there was a special bike room. "You don't want to keep your bikes on the street!" admonished the hotel clerk. Earlier in the morning, I had done a Tripadvisor search, and discovered that there were excursions for the Berchtesgaden salt mines, where you got to slide down to the mines using the old chutes, visit an underground lake, and actually tour a working mine. The excursion prices included both the entry and a bus from the Salzburg train station to the salt mine, but the prices were such that it was cheaper for the 4 of us to catch an Uber, pay normal entrance fees, and then take an Uber back!
Well, it being a Sunday, there were only 2 drivers, and both of them declined to give us a ride way out into Germany, but no matter, we walked 100m to the train station, where the taxi driver happily let us into his taxi, promptly turned off the meter, and charged us 60 EUR and told us to text him for a pickup on the way back.

The salt mines, being underground would be cool despite the heat outside, which was the main reason I did this. But both kids really enjoyed the tram ride into the salt mines, the slide down, and the presentation was very good, reinforcing what Bowen had picked up at the Deutsches Museum mining exhibit. It happened to be reading Salt, and the exhibit brought to life how much the area was developed because of its proximity and access to Salt.

The driver happily picked us up and delivered us back to the hotel, where unfortunately our rooms were not ready. Boen threw a temper tantram but the staff gave him some chocolate to soothe him, which worked. After we moved into our rooms we enjoyed the view from the 10th floor of the building. The family room at the Arte Hotel occupied an entire end of the building, so you got a 180 degree panorama of the city. Rather than being a building with windows, the entire wall was glass, with button-operated exterior shutters in case you wanted to sleep in. I was very impressed.

It was very hot, but Xiaoqin found myIndigo, which had lots of indoor seat and was very cool despite the exterior heat. The food wasn't up to par, but they had sushi, which kept both kids satisfied, despite German/Austrian sushi being absolutely horrible compared to their Bay Area counterparts.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

June 29th: Mondsee Strandbad

When I first visited the Salzburg lakes in 2008, Mondsee made a deep impression on me as being the prettiest, as well as having the best riding. It's a 40 mile round trip from Salzburg, but it's all uphill in one direction and all downhill going home. I proposed the ride to Bowen and he said: "Let's take the bus instead."
It turned out that Uber had recently introduced service to Salzburg, so using Xiaoqin's phone we snagged an Uber and got to Mondsee superfast using the freeway, which was a good thing, because by the time we arrived there was already a line to get into the Mondsee strandbad, which had multiple slides, a ton of water toys, an in-house restaurant/cafe, a swimming area, and even diving stations. Unlike an American park of equivalent size, there were very few lifeguards, and most of the slides and water toys were self-regulated or automated, with lights telling you when it was safe to use it, with many locals blatantly ignoring the rules with no repercussions. It's amazing how cheaply you can run things when the country isn't full of liability lawyers.
It was warm, but since the elevation was higher, it never got really hot until around 3:00pm, at which point the boys were pretty much played out. Boen discovered that one of the lower slides was so much fun that he repeatedly did it over and over, and Bowen made a bet with me about jumping off the highest diving board. It looked scary but of course, once you get to the top with 8 year-old girls jumping off it in front of you there's no way you weren't going to jump!
We got out of the park at just the right time to catch a bus back to Salzburg downtown, where we ate dinner at the Italian "Wasserfall" restaurant before heading back to our apartment to deal with the heat, which the fans barely made bearable. I was glad I had the foresight to book a hotel with AC for the last 2 days in Salzburg, as it was forecast to get even hotter. Forecasters were comparing the heat-wave to that of 2003, where thousands of elderly died from the heat. Despite that, the AC is still not prevalent in Europe, which is always a surprise to me.