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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Garmisch Partenkirchen to Bad Tolz

Garmisch to Bad Tolz

GPS Log here.

This morning, I got up extra early and headed out to the train station. Hoping to catch the 8:34 train, I barreled along in the morning with no traffic whatsoever on the road --- a cyclist truly owns the city this early in the morning! In fact, I got there so fast that I made the 8:11am train by running through the station (which gave me knee a bit of a twinge), which already had two cyclists aboard.

The ride to Garmisch was scenic, and I shot a few pictures through an open window. Getting off the train, I turned on the GPS and set my route. When I set my route two days ago, I didn't have any elevation information whatsoever --- my concern was to simply find the most out of the way road that I could. Imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered that I immediately started climbing in Garmisch Parternkirchen and it was a significant grade, causing me to shift to my 39x34 and stand up in parts. The road was lonely, rought, single track, and every bit as scenic as I had hoped for, mountains looming up behind and to the right of me.

Someone at the office had persuaded me to head towards Mittenwald, and after a little bit of paradise, I ended up on the main road towards Mittenwald, using some side roads, bike paths, and a few isolated roads, which it being Sunday, had a lot of Sunday drivers. I entered Mittenwald to find the road strewn with horse poop. It turned out that Mittenwald was having a parade --- horses and horse carriages took up the whole road, including an escort. I overtook the lot, and snapped a few pictures that didn't turn out, and missed a turn. Since I was doing a loop around the Mittenwald valley, I considered skipping the loop, but then spied my designated route winding around the mountain --- well, that clinched it --- I wasn't going to let a chance to do more climbing bypass me!

I pulled a U-turn, looped back and overtook the parade again, and started riding up along side the mountain into the Leutasch valley, which at 1000 meters actually had snow still. I was very sad when the road leveled out, because I then had to face a 10kph headwind. All things considered it was very light, but still very annoying. I pushed on for the better part of an hour against this wind, all the while enjoying the lovely scene around me --- mountain meadows, snow capped peaks and all that. This was what I took the train all the way out here to see, and I was not disappointed!

Finally, just when I had had about enough, the road finally turned up hill and away from the wind, and I found myself switch-backing once before cresting the summit of the pass into the Scharnitz valley. A left turn and I had a long fast descent, this time with a tail wind! The road surface was good and the corners were gentle so I did not touch my brakes at all until I rolled onto the main road just outside Scharnitz and had to deal with an inordinate amount of traffic.

Back into Mittenwald, I navigated through town and decided it was time to eat lunch. I wolfed down a sandwich, washed down with water, and then discovered that my GPS unit had decided to take a break as well. I reset the unit, but decided to take a path that I had spied on my earlier entry into Mittenwald, and ignored the belated bleepings of my GPS navigator as it realized that I was not behaving like it wanted me too. I was glad I ignored it, however, as the bike path I found climbed and climbed and granted me a lovely view of the surroundings, including the Barmsee, before descending into Krun. From Krun and Wallgau it was a gentle ride along a river towards the Walchensee, where I made a right onto the toll road, which did not charge for bicycles.

The Walchensee was big and lovely, and I stopped several times to take pictures of this peaceful looking lake. Past the lake, the road became a gentle descent that was unfortunately right into a headwind --- fortunately, I was well fueled before I headed into the Lenggries Valley, where the side roads I had chosen worked very well. Once into Bad Tolz, I decided that I would have some ice cream, so I rode down town and had one. Alas, that caused me to miss the train by about 5 minutes. I should have immediately then ridden over to Wolfrathausen, but I mistakenly thought there was a train every 30 minutes. Not to matter, for I met a number of German mountain bikers and had a good conversation while waiting for the train.

What a lovely day: 111km, 1067m of climbing.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Review: Altered Carbon

One of the unforeseen consequences of having a Kindle as my reading instrument is that I end up finding new authors that I some how missed over the last few years just because I stumble over them in the Kindle store.

There are easy ways to describe Richard K. Morgan's first novel (kindle edition). A blithe and sound-bite description would be Raymond Chandler for the Grand-Theft Auto crowd. But that's probably quite unfair --- while there is sex and violence galore in this novel, it also manages to deal with interesting issues: what if we could separate mind from body? What if we could treat bodies just the way we treat clothing, considering them sleeves. What does that do to the human condition?

For one thing, wealthy people would never die --- they would always find a new body to inhabit. For another, if your mind could easily wear another body just by being downloaded into it, you could split yourself into copies and be in two places at once. That sounds kinda confusing and possibly illegal, and in Morgan's world, it is.

Morgan's protagonist Takeshi Kovacs is an Envoy, a super-soldier, trained as the ultimate guerrilla fighter, capable of downloading into a new body without repurcussions, and capable of assimilating into the local population, picking up nuances, blending in, and learning his way about. That makes him an ideal detective or commando. After being blown to bits in the opening sequence of the novel, Kovacs is brought back into a new body by a wealthy man to investigate his own murder --- done under strange circumstances and written off by the police as suicide.

Unknown to Kovacs (at least at the beginning) is that his body comes with a few surprises, and he is soon pursued by assassins, beautiful women, the police, and alternatively threatened, kidnapped, and beaten like just like any Chandler protagonist. Morgan has at least taken Chandler's advice to heart: If in doubt, have a man walk through the door with a gun. On the other hand, Kovacs isn't Chandler's hero either --- he definitely isn't a good enough man for every world, and is in fact, more than a little mean. By almost any definition he is in fact psychopathic --- this novel isn't for the weak of stomach (though perhaps, it's less objectionable than Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory).

The plot is big, complicated, and convoluted. Nearly everyone commits criminal acts, and Kovacs definitely thinks that the ends justifies the means, and near the end the hero's armor isn't just tarnished, it's positively rusted out. But lest you think that this book is one big James Bond explosion-filled blockbuster (which I'm sure the movie version would be), there are lots of little tidbits scattered throughout that mark this as more than just a slaughter-fest. For example:
As a child I'd believed there was an essential person, a sort of core personality around which the surface factors could evolve and change without damaging the integrity of who you were. Later, I started to see that this was an error of perception caused by the metaphors we were used to framing ourselves in. What we thought of as personality was no more than the passing shape of one of the waves in front of me.

All in all, this book occupied me for several days, reading breathlessly, yet at times exhausted by a long section that seemed merciless. Yet even at the end of it all, with the loose ends tied up and the anti-hero relinquished, I find myself wanting to run to the Kindle store and buy the next Takeshi Kovacs novel (or rather, the kindle edition). Recommended for those with the stomachs to handle it.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

More YouTube Loving

Found some more old songs courtesy of Youtube.

First up is Subaru...its a song that actually sounds a lot older than it is. Its really only about 28 years old (1980), but could easily pass for something a lot older.

What is interesting about this song is that its covered by quite a few Chinese versions....some versions here (Michael Kwan version), and here (Teresa Teng version). Incidentally, Michael Kwan's probably most famous for this song.

The singer/composer apparently also considered Leslie Cheung to be a good friend and wrote quite a few of his this one.

Another oldie but goodie...its a song that's quite famous all over the globe, but just recently discovered for myself.

Unbelievably, I found this song while just trolling through YouTube...the story behind it is fairly amazing, the only Japanese song to hit #1 in all of America's Billboard history (did it in 1963). It might be the only foreign language song to hit #1 in all of the US's billboard history, but I'm not 100% sure of that.

There's enough covers of this that I won't bother going through it all, but suffice to say that those who think the tune is familiar, might just check out the English covers.

I've espoused before how much I love YouTube..well, here's another ode. =)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Council Wars

So along with the Kindle comes the ability to read all the ebooks at the Bean Free Library (linked in the title). Just simply download the prc/MobiBook format, and boom, you're good to go.

So one of the series that I started out, courtesy of my brother who preloaded the Kindle I got with a bunch of books is the Council Wars...The Council Wars consists of 4 books starting with There will Be Dragons.

The premise is fairly decent, in the far future, there's this utopia where no one is wanting of anything and everyone can get what they want, within reason. Most diseases are cured, and everyone can turn into anything they want (fish, mermaids, though some races are restricted, like elves or dragons).

Then there's a difference of opinion at the top level of the folks who control the all encompassing, all powerful computer called Mother, and all of a sudden the world is plunged into the middle ages.

Its a bit of a weird setup, and even more of a weird "fall" seems more of an excuse for the author to write modern military fiction with a medieval slant. The protagonists for example know all about the wars of the past, and leverage that to their best advantage, they use modern military training techniques and modern military tactics but are forced to use medieval technology.

Overall the story reads quite well, and if you're interested in military matters at all, its quite a treat, but you'll have to ignore quite a bit of problems with the premise.

Primarily, my biggest beef is how 13 people can decide the fate of the rest of the world in this utopia...and that it hasn't happened for a few hundred years prior. Given that it only took 6 people to plunge the world into the dark ages, it seems rather silly that it hasn't happened before, or that the original programmers of Mother would do something silly like this. =)

So read the books and series for what it is, which is modern military tactics with a medieval slant. The later series just gets into the various aerial and naval warfare and the author uses his imagination to imagine stuff like Dragon Carriers (instead of aircraft carriers), and there's even some amount of space combat in the last book.

The other somewhat annoying thing is how the author loves to take swipes at liberals and the left wing side of the country. Given the author's military history, it perhaps might not be surprising, but its still somewhat annoying. The series also suffers from the invincible heroes, there's never a doubt who's going to survive at the end of the book, and that the enemies will commit some sort of idiotic a way, its like reading a Tom Clancy novel.

I give this some slight recommendations as its entertaining, but you really have to turn your brain off. Its the literary equivalent of pop music. =)

Amazon Kindle back in stock

I guess Amazon's fixed their production problems, because they've taken care of a whole month worth of backlog, and now can ship new orders immediately. My "long term" report is that it's a great product, given the teething issues, and I've done way more reading than I would have without the Kindle. It's now the one thing I will carry in my backpack or my saddlebag whenever I go out --- much more so than my ipod. Both my brothers now have one as well, sharing an account, so whenever one brother buys a book, all the others get it as well. I don't usually like being an early adopter for a product (I wasn't an ipod early adopter, and I still don't have HDTV, or surround sound, etc), but this is definitely one that I'm a fan of.

Judging by the responses to this thread, most of the early buyers are older (35 and above), which explains why even though the fashionistas and the techno-literate have disdained it, it still was sold out for 3 or 4 months after launch. I doubt if it'll be as popular as the ipod, but perhaps as prices come down, it will be more and more widely seen.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Review: The Salmon of Doubt

Somehow, I missed The Salmon of Doubt(Kindle Edtion) when it first came out a few years after Douglas Adam's death, but while browsing through the Kindle store, I saw it and couldn't resist the Kindle price.

I actually met Douglas Adams (thanks to Brian Moriarty) back when I worked for Mpath Interactive. He was frequently invited to Mpath's developer conferences, and always gave the same talk --- the one about the cookies.

More than half the book is articles published in magazines previously --- for instance, he wrote several MacUser columns, including a very prescient one about power wall-warts which really should all be standardized. Other articles included a comparison survey between an underwater diver towing device and a manta ray ride (with a typically Adamsian punch-line), his appreciation of Richard Dawkins, and several interviews, in mostly chronological order. These articles all had wit, intelligence, and are well-written, as you might expect from Adams.

The last third of the book is the unfinished novel, The Salmon of Doubt. When I say unfinished, I really do mean unfinished. Not only does the book stop as though the author dropped dead of a heart attack in the middle of it, but the plot threads are disconnected, with no sense that they even all belong in the same novel. To be honest, I'm afraid Adams lost me as part of his audience with his later work (past Last Chance To See, which was also one of Adams' own favorites), so another Dirk Gently novel wouldn't have appealed to me anyway.

For the price I paid though, the collection of articles and interviews granted me fresh insight into Adam's character, and sadly, many of his complaints about technology are still valid today. The nature of this book is such that it's very easy to read in little spurts, such as when sitting in a train or waiting for one. It probably wouldn't do so well for a long sit down. Recommended, but pay for a used copy if you don't own a Kindle.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Day riding in the Bavarian Foothills

Holzkirchen - Wolfrathausen Loop

The weather forecast was for beautiful, 60 degree weather today, so I went into the office yesterday and mapped out a route on Garmin's Mapsource software. This morning, I got onto the 9:00am train (note to self: the 8:40 train does not go all the way to the end of the line), and went to Holzkirchen to start my ride. The weather was cool, but warmed up quickly as I headed up one hill after another. The small roads I had picked the day before proved to be very very conducive to cycling --- winding around and up and down hill and dale, with many a descent lined with beautiful trees.

Soon, I reached Tegernsee, a lake with plenty of development along its side. I stopped briefly for some pictures but pushed on. At this point, I quickly became a fan of GPS navigation --- while I had laid out a route the day before, I found that I could deviate from the route however I liked, and let the navigation system compensate and get me back on track. So whenever I saw something on the ground (including dirt roads, or bike paths), I could choose to explore, confident that I would find my way back on track somehow.

Nothing I rode today was steep --- I never dropped into my granny, though I did go into the 34t sprocket a couple of times. Yet I still got up to about 900m or so, whereupon I saw snow on the ground as I rode by. Perhaps it's a good thing I didn't try for anything higher. I rode past the Austrian border, and then headed for the Achensee, which didn't look like anything interesting from afar, but was quite beautiful up close (see pictures).

After a quick lunch, I saw that there was an official bike path that would take me all the way to Wolfrathausen if I wanted, but since I was relatively high, I eschewed the bike path for a proper road descent. At the bottom when the road levelled out, however, I quickly discovered that the bike path was preferable --- car traffic was fast and there were a lot of Sunday drivers.

From Bad Tolz, I took a series of small roads which were delightful, and provided more steep climbing that the brief visit to the Alpine lakes I had seen. As I got close to Wolfrathausen, traffic picked up and soon I was on the bike path again, getting to the train station 5 minutes before the train left. The ride was 63 miles but less than 2500' of climbing. I'm going to have to find more climbing to do, but as a starter, this ride has me satisfied that my choice of location wasn't a mistake, at least from the cycling point of view.
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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Review: Crystal Rain

There was a time known as The Golden Age of Science Fiction, when men were real men, women were real women, and furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were really furry.

Tobias Buckell's Crystal Rain is a shining example of why the Golden Age of Science Fiction is over. Yes, all the trappings of science fiction are there: the airships, the steam punk type warfare, even the boat that converts (however laboriously) into an snow-going vessel. The protagonist is someone who's lost his memory, but has amazing powers. The world even remembers that humans did not evolve on the planet they are on, but came from some mythical place called Earth.

The writing is readable, but not great. After all, real men do not indulge in developing characters, or even in having emotions. Every character is entirely wooden, but of course our heroes are ridiculously competent. I kept reading in hopes of a payoff, but never found it. While this book wasn't a total waste of Kindle storage, it was pretty close to a waste of my time. I will avoid books by this author in the future.

Review: Bringing Down The House

Bringing Down The House(Kindle Edition) is the story of 6 MIT students (or in some cases, MIT drop-outs) who used their knowledge of statistics, team work, and chutzpah to milk Las Vegas for money in the 1990s through the game of black jack. A short excerpt from the book can be found here.

This book is compelling reading --- Ben Mezrich has a talent for keeping you at the edge of your seat, moving the narrative along at a good clip. It also helps that the subject matter is fascinating --- not only is it fun to see smart geeks do in the Casinos, but the exposure to the seamy side of Sin City in the game of high rollers is just as much fun. The explanation of tiers of players (and how the casino decides who to bestow all those VIP treatments on) is entertaining.

The plot is perhaps inevitable --- eventually the Las Vegas casinos do catch up to our heroes, and the scene becomes ugly. But in the mean time, you get a lot of fun. The book even ends with a semi-technical appendix by Kevin Lewis on the background behind card counting. It's by no means technical enough --- I guess he didn't want to reveal too many of his tricks. All in all, a good read, and I'm sure it'll be better than the movie that it's based on (which will come out later this year). Recommended as an ideal airplane book.


I landed in Munich in the middle of a lightning storm, 2 hours late due to Lufthansa having mechanicals earlier in the day. Fortunately, all my luggage arrived, and my bike was intact, though the Bagman support had come loose, no doubt from the rough handling that rendered the bike box pretty much dead. I was hoping to salvage that box for use on the return trip, but it looked like that was not to be.

My Taxi Service guy was waiting for me with a "Mrs Piaw Na" sign. I was still male, but fortunately, he believed me when I identified myself, and proceeded to help me and my cart over to his Taxi. The rain started coming down as we loaded my bike and luggage into his station wagon, but we were on our way without getting too wet.

The driver was surprised to see a bike (despite my reporting on the form that I had a bike with me), but he was competent and drove on the highway at a good clip. In fact, at one point a flash that was not lightning came from one of the overpassing structures, and he identified it as a speed-trap camera.

By the time we arrived at the Hotel, it was 9:15pm. Seeing the rain, my driver then gave me an umbrella he happened to have in the trunk. I checked into my hotel room, which ended up being no larger than a walk-in closet with a bathroom and "kitchen" so small that while cooking was possible, cleaning up afterwards was not. Todd met me at the hotel soon thereafter, and we went out to a restaurant. Germany had passed a law recently that made smoking illegal in restaurants, and I was very pleased with it.

By the time dinner was over, it was past 11:30pm. Todd gave me a quick tour of the office, we made arrangements to meet the next day, and I went to bed a little past midnight after taking some melatonin, hoping that my jet-lag would be mild.

(By the way, because my writing will be several days late at best, the best way to check up on me is via my friend feed)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Review: Spin Control

The nice thing about discovering Chris Moriarty so late was that I got to read Spin Control (Kindle edition) immediately after Spin State, while the characters and the Universe were still fresh in my mind.

Rather than the single protagonist featured in Spin State, Spin Control features multiple protagonists, starting with a construct from one of the Syndicates, Arkady. Since all constructs created by a syndicate effectively have the same DNA, it is surprises Arkady when he discovers that his cohort on a terraforming mission turns out to be a bit of a maverick, having stretched the limits of normalcy for his gene-line. He even takes on an individual name: Arkasha, which is not at all normal for a Syndicate construct. We learn a bit more about background behind Syndicate constructs, including the brutal nature of their upbringing --- where creches are regularly culled to eliminate abnormality.

Catherine Li and her AI lover Cohen returns in this novel, which is set 3 years or so after the events in Spin State. Moriarty wisely avoids the happily-ever-after syndrome for this couple, and it is quite clear that she herself is far from attached to this character, as we see them from Arkady's point of view.

What happened was that during a routine terra-forming run, Arkasha's team discover what they think is a bio-terror weapon of interest to Earth's political entities, including at this point, the Palestinian and Israeli authorities (that the two factions are still at war in the year 5700 or so indicates Moriarty's fundamental pessimism about the nature of the politics in place). Cohen has ties to Israel, and is brought in to assist with the bidding between the factions (the fundamentalist American government also gets involved).

The science fiction themes this time include terraforming, entomology and complexity theory. The genre themes include espionage and tradecraft, the perpetual war between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the role of increasing automation in war. There's also a reference to Ender's Game, in naming an army of AI-shunted soldiers Enderbots.

While the plot makes more sense this time, the story is a lot less compelling, largely because the major viewpoint character, Arkady, is so innocent that any increased knowledge overwhelms any character development in place for him. In fact, even as he learns who to trust and who not to trust, it seems as though his realizations always come a little too late. Other characters such as Catherine Li and Cohen, unfortunately come across this novel as cardboard cut outs. Not quitefleshed out. Compared to its predecessor, Spin Control is definitely the lesser novel. Nevertheless, it was a good, compelling read --- I shall look forward to Moriarty's next novel, Ghost Spin.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

First Ride in Munich


For a change, Lufthansa did not damage or lose my bike (given that it was a direct flight, losing the bike would have taken some effort). My visit to a local bike shop was disappointing --- the floor pump they had that could do Presta valves didn't even have a gauge. Even my Topeak Road Morph looked better.

This morning, I went for an easy spin along the Isar river. It was kinda flat, but with enough dirt to keep things interesting. I eventually ended up in a park with dirt roads, and followed the road all the way to the end, carried my bike over some stiles and started riding. Of course, it turned out to be a Motorway! I got honked at a few times before I found an exit and zipped back down. At that point, I followed the crowds of cyclists back home. Lesson: just because there's a stile that can be hopped doesn't mean you should do so.

My chain is squeaking a bit, so I guess I'm going to have to go back to that bike shop and buy some expensive European lubricant.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Review: Spin State

As a rule, hard science fiction novels have extremely poor character development and uninteresting characters with lots of exposition, while softer fiction frequently has good characters, but usually has scientific plot holes you can drive a starship through.

Chris Moriarty's debut novel Spin State (dead-tree version, Physical Review. She even provides comments on what general introductions to quantum mechanics you might want to read before delving into those pieces.

With that sort of hard science credentials, one might expect her characters to be no more than wooden, two dimensional pieces, but delightfully, that is not true. Sure enough, the book starts with an action sequence, a preamble to introduce you to the universe and the lead characters, and to provide motivation for the main character (Major Catherine Li). After an operation that went down the tubes, Catherine is provided a chance to redeem herself by investigating the murder of a famous scientist who was conducting experiments of strategic importance.

Catherine Li is the kind of character that traditionally belongs to the macho male hero category --- stubborn, unable to face her own emotions and her past actions, and prone to trying to settle things by fighting rather than by thinking. Yet her motivations and character is so well drawn that interactions such as the following amused me:

“Two-thirds of the gross national product of France, to be precise.” Li choked on her wine. “For a piece of jewelry? That’s ridiculous!” “Mmm.” Cohen looked amused. “I seem to recall you spending a good six months’ pay on a certain original-issue hand-rebuilt Beretta, O Parsimonious One. What did you call it? Sweet?” “That’s different,” Li protested. “Professional equipment.” He puffed on his cigar, grinning. “Well, just think of diamond necklaces as professional equipment for queens.”

And amidst all this character development and exposition of quantum mechanics, the author manages to squeeze in a pretty good depiction of the mining environment into the novel, evoking Charles Dickens, or even How Green Was My Valley, which still somehow never made me feel as grimy or dirty as Spin State managed.

The slow, gradual build up gives Moriarty time to work through several themes --- FTL travel through quantum teleportation, the nature of emergent intelligence (she's clearly read Minsky!), and the implications of genetically designed sapients. The book's ending is one long action sequence, and quite well written, but the aftermath feels a little rushed. And for someone willing to put her protagonist through hell, the consequences feel just a little bit too easy on Major Catherine Li. Moriarty might not have wanted a total downer for the story.

Lest you think the book is too serious, there is a bit of humor sprinkled around, just enough to give me a smile, even in the middle of an otherwise tense sequence:

“Yeah, yeah. And if wishes were horses . . .” “. . . horses wouldn’t be extinct!”

In conclusion, I think this is the best novel I've read so far all year, even taking into account The Atrocity Archives, which I love dearly. Archives succeeds because of its many in-jokes and references, but you can clearly see the author's manipulations of its characters and protagonists. Spin State succeeds because the author manages to keep everything in control: character, plot, exposition, and story. Highly recommended at the Kindle price, and worth paying for the dead tree version even if you don't have a Kindle. In fact, I've already bought the Kindle edition of the second Moriarty book, Spin Control, and I'll look for more Moriarty books in the future.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Sydney Pictures and Honking Cool Lizard!

First, Sydney Pictures

Horned Lizard

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Berkeley Hills Ride


Today was a beautiful day for a reprise of the Berkeley Hills ride. Kekoa, Roberto, and Ryan PC Gibson joined me at the starting point where the Western Wheelers were, but we opted to go our own special route. The weather was cool, but with fantastic views of the Bay, where San Francisco was foggy. Looking to hurt ourselves, we went up El Toyonal and Loma Cantadas from Wildcat Canyon road for a bit of a gratituous climb. Unfortunately, Kekoa developed a cramp up the first Bear, and had to bail via the Happy Valley route back to BART.

The rest of us tooled along on Reliez Valley road and the bike path into Moraga, and then rode up Pinehurts in the afternoon, where I ran into Greg Merritt. Greg and I had a nice chat, and he rode with us the rest of the way and showed me a new path to the BART station. At 62 miles and 6660' of climbing, it was not bad for what will likely be my last long ride in the Bay Area for a while.
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Friday, April 04, 2008

Australia - Part 10 - Diving the GBR

I woke up at 5:30am, took a quick shower, packed my stuff, and then set off to wait outside my hostel's front door. Already there were two other people who were also part of the dive package that I signed up with.

A quick peek at the dive crew that I signed up with. They are Pro-Dive, and I found them using Google. Search terms I used were "Dive Great Barrier Reef" and "Dive Package GBR". I found numerous crews and finally picked them because they seemed to offer the most for my money. 480 dollars covered 3 days 2 nights of diving (11 dives total, including 2 night dives) and lodging and board. Also included is all equipment. As such, it seemed the best deal all around.

Anyhow, Ben and Roos (pronounced Rose) were already waiting outside the hostel's front door and I joined them. We talked a little bit about our various dive expeirences, and it was obvious I was the newest diver having just been certified before my trip to Australia. Ben's already had 9 dives as did Roos. A few minutes later, we were joined by Sanne and Diana, both also of Dutch nationality and both enrolled in the Dive Certification program ran by Pro-Dive. They were gonna get certified while out diving in the Great Barrier Reef. I was most certainly envious as they were going to get certified in probably the most picteresque dive spot in the world! At the same time, 4 of their 11 dives were going to be wasted on skills, so perhaps I didn't envy them as much as I did. =)

About 10 minutes later, a Pro-Dive van pulled up and we all piled into it. One more pick up at another hostel later and we were in front of the Pro-Dive shop. I dropped off my bag at their luggage drop (we were only allowed one small bag with the necessary clothes and stuff needed for 3 days/2 nights), and registered with the dive crew. I showed Tristan, the dive master, my certified diver card and was soon waiting around for everyone else to finish registration.

Pretty soon we were all repacked into the van and were off to the boat. Greeting us was breakfast (bread, fruits, and beverages), and we all got settled into the boat dining area. A roll call was done and a safety number was given to each of us (I was #9). In all, there were 32 of us, and about 2/3 of the divers were undergoing certification. The crew consisted of 6 people and were Tristan, dive master, Mark, skipper of the boat, Jay, Eri, and K (short for karou) as dive instructors. Rounding them out was Yukari as our chef, also termed the most important person on the boat. =)

Tristan was pretty much the de facto spokesperson for the entire crew and he was both incredibly funny and clear about all topics he broached on. He gave us the once over about the boat and emergency procedures, making a rather dull subject incredibly interesting, and told us to strap in for a 3 hour boat ride to the first outer reef that we would be diving from. Also room assignemnts were given out (I was roomed in with Jay, one of the dive instructors).

So began the journey out of Cairns, the weather didn't look too great, and everyone who were prone to sea sickness took their medication, meanwhile I went above deck to take a look.

A quick note about the boat. It was obviously fitted for 38 people and purpose built for diving/snorkeling, a double decker boat with 3 levels (engine deck, dining deck, upper deck with rooms on all decks), the dining deck had an external area which was where our dive prep area was (tanks, wetsuits, and weights were all hanging out here), and finally there was the upper deck which was the only area that smokers could smoke (given that they dumped ashes and butts into a specialized container) and where people could sunbathe and enjoy the best view possible of the seas. Also on the upper deck was the bridge where the skipper also slept.

Since we were just leaving Cairns, I decided to go top deck to get the best possible view of the city of Cairns. At the same time, I also realized I forgot my dive log book, but fortunately had my blackberry where I was going to log all my dives. As the most important part of the dives were bottom time, max depth, and location, I decided having buddy or divemaster signature wasn't all that important anyhow. Not the most official, but its a honor system anyway.

Anyhow, top deck...from up top, Cairns looked pretty unimpressive. There were only a few high rises and was pretty flat all things considered. As unimpressive as it was, I decided to just chat with my fellow divers and found most interestingly that the passengers consisted almost 90% full of Europeans. =) Most prominent were the Dutch, British, and the Germans/Swiss-Germans. The Japanese were fairly well represented as well if you counted the crew...but as part of the passengers, there was only one.

I managed to chat up with one of the Dutch couples around and found out that he was an economics professor on exchange currently. He travels all around Australia and gives talks and holidays on the side. We briefly discussed economic theories and then had a good discussion about Google (I told him where I worked, something I don't usually do on trips). I noted that Hal Varian worked for us and he was both delighted and surprised. Later on his wife expressed how delighted she was to meet someone who worked at Google...but her delight was geniune and I remembered how friendly and warm the Dutch people were.

Yet another interesting thing of note, this time about the Dutch. =) The Netherlands consist of 12 provinces, and only 2 of the Provinces are actually called Holland. The rest of them aren't, and you can always tell if a Dutch person is from one of the two Holland provinces or not because they'll always refer to themselves when asked about Nationality as "Holland". The rest of the provinces always refer to themselves as "Netherlands" =) Apparently there was a bit of a dispute about the whole country being called Holland in the 80s and since then, the country has changed its name to "The Netherlands" =) You can tell that folks from the province of Holland have a hard time changing that habit though. =) Irregardless of how they refer to themselves, the Dutch are easily the most congenianl of Europeans that I've met, always well spoken in English and incredibly friendly.

Asides aside, the trip to the Reef was a little bit bumpy and I noticed a few people throwing up or not feeling well. The trip out to the Reef took about 3 hours, and I just enjoyed myself chatting with the various passengers and also getting my scuba gear ready.

Soon enough, we were at our Dive site, and they sent the students out first. Tristan gave us a briefing and also told us that he was going to lead the first dive. A few things I noticed...I got certified in the US and was used to things like PSI for air and feet for depth. Well, in the metric system, they use Bar for air and meters for depth. Meters to feet I can get, but bar instead of PSI threw me in for a loop. Add to this that their low air sign is 70 bar (whereupon your dive stops and you make your ascent to the surface), and I was thoroughly disturbed. Not so much that I couldn't figure it out, but enough that I decided I was going to just play it safe the first few times out.

My dive buddy was Ben, a young strapping Brit who was also the person I met outside my Hostel. It probably wouldn't matter for the first dive since we were going to be all with the divemaster, but still, having a buddy is always a good thing!

Soon enough, we were all in the water, and descending. My first time at the GBR! For the first dive, I didn't bring my Camera as i wanted to get used to my other unfamiliar equipment first. I also wore the wetsuit they provided for the first dive, thinking the water might be a bit cold. As a consequent, I had a hard time descending since I wasn't weighted enough. The divemaster had to slip another weight into my BCD before I could descend. With that part out of the way, we began the dive.

And it was a bit of a personal disaster as far as good dives were concerned. I only lasted 22 minutes before I hit the 70 bar mark and had to ascend. We were only halfway through the dive, and me and 3 others were forced to ascend and kick our way to the boat. I also didn't see much the first dive since I was too busy avoiding getting kicked or running into other divers. I also resolved that I probably wouldn't go on another dive master led dive since it meant that the group we were in, all 10 of us, were too squished in together. Reminders from my dive instructor in California came about when he said that we might not have as good a time on a big boat due to crowding came back to my mind.

Back on the boat, we had a surface interval of one hour before our next dive. In between the first dive and the next one, they started the advanced diver's course. The next dive was unguided and I resolved to sip my air more carefully. Additionally I also decided that I'll break the limit of 70 bar and hit 50 bar before I started my ascent. I had figured out that starting at 200 bar mapping it to 3000 psi meant that they wanted us at the boat with about 850 PSI worth! Where I got my diver's certifiate, we started our ascent at about 500 psi or about 30 bars, so it meant they wanted us out with about 20 minutes less dive time.

I'm not such a good diver that I could consume so little air in that time i decided to just report 10 bar more than what I had anytime asked me how much air I had.

My next dive was far better. At around 38 minutes, it meant I nearly doubled my time in the water. I also went deeper than i ever had at abou 19.1 meters.

The diving was quite incredible. It was my first time in the corals, and the seas were alive with colors. Corals, fishes, anemones, and all the other denziens of the seas. Once I was more relaxed about my breathing, it truly was like gliding through a colorful underworld. Quite the difference from the drab colors that Monterey presented.

After the second dive, we arrived back at the boat in time for lunch and more surface interval. Lunch was a simple affair, cold cuts, bread, salad. We ate rather heartily and then the weather took a turn for the worst. It started raining. Fortunately that doesn't have much affect underwater aside from our visibility becoming worse.

The third dive went much the same as the second dive, except this time I took my camera with me. It took quite a bit of concentration to use since everything was different underwater. We took our time and I took as many pictures on as many subjects as possible. One thing about underwater photography is that your subject is fickle (fishes) and buoyancy is very hard to control.

After the 3rd dive came dinner. It wasn't a memorable affair, but it did its job. The food wasn't bad, but at times it was plain.

Right after dinner was our night dive. Tristan gave us the briefing and led the dives for the advanced students. I was led by K as I had never done a night dive before.

Night diving differs quite a bit from day diving in that everything seems different. There are no obvious corals and you have to look for all the fishes. On the other hand, you see completley different fishes and life...I also saw my first job. Seeing as how I didn't think a camera would show up much of anything, I didn't bring it with me.

The night dive also proved to be my longest dive, at 40 minutes, finally I was getting good at controlling my air!

One thing I realise from writing these logs is that my report is quite dry. The actual expeirence isn't! It was quite fun and the dive briefings were always incredibly interesting due to Tristan's very wry sense of humor. These are unfortnately things that I cannot convey in a report...I could have filmed him giving the briefing I suppose. =)

Another thing I realized...the divers undergoing certifications could not dive more than twice a day! So they couldn't go on their night dives, and they had to skip a dive in between. So Their dive trips went from 11 to 7! And they pay a little bit more. One more thing to note...if you wish to dive the GBR and want to do a liveaboard course, don't. You'll enjoy yourself more if you come pre-certified!

Lea is Famous!

My friend Lea Kissner got interviewed for a Women in Engineering event. Like many of my other friends, she's a very direct person, and I enjoyed reading her interview:
In terms of being a woman in computer science, you have to just realize that some people are idiots. And you're unfortunately going to have to deal with some people being idiots.
When Lea was shopping for a bike, I was appalled by some of the responses she got from bike shops, even some really well-respected ones! Just like computer science, cycling (at least when you're talking about the nice bikes I like to ride) seems to be very male dominated, and this attitude towards women in cycling or in computer science is very harmful to the sport, hobby, or profession.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Most Expensive GPS Mount...

Lately, Pardo and I have been making jokes that we've been running the most expensive bike shop in the world out of his garage. Obviously, we're being facetious, but the amount of engineering time we've put into our bikes have been enormous, and at Pardo & my billable rates, would be incredibly unprofitable if we had tried to do bicycles as a business (the average bike mechanic in our area probably makes $20 an hour, with the good ones earning as much as $40 an hour --- really good mechanics make 6-figure salaries at the BMW dealerships). At one point we had Lea building wheels in Pardo's garage, and of course, that meant that we were spending on the order of $600 of engineering time per hour. Of course, if the average bike mechanic paid as much attention to detail to our bikes as we do to ours, we'd be happy to pay $40 an hour.

Well, I recently wanted a 31.8mm space grip type mount. It turns out that all existing mounts (including my favored Nitto Lamp Holder) are designed for 25.4mm handlebars. I did, however, find the FSA Control Center mount, and bought it. To my disappointment, mounting my Garmin 76CSX on the mount was too much --- the unit shook and vibrated all the way down the road, making the display absolutely worthless.

Well, any other bike shop would have given up and told me to buy a Garmin Edge 705 instead, but the most expensive bike shop in the world does not give up that easily (after all, we're open even on Easter Sundays)! Pardo machined a couple of aluminum mounts to fit the carbon fiber rod that came with the FSA Control Center, mounted it to my bars with a couple of hose clamps, and a little bit of fiddling later, we had ourselves a working GPS mount for the 76CSX unit that works very well, and is in fact, probably overbuilt. The total weight of the mount comes up to about 150g, which is a bit on the heavy side.

Another interesting thing is that the Garmin 76CSX when turned on, disables the 2006 MHR Sigma Computer, which really surprised me --- both units are supposedly passive receivers, but I guess the circuitry in the Garmin confuses the Sigma. Not a problem, since the 76CSX contains a barometric altimeter anyway, so we're still good to go.
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Kata Tjuta Pictures

Eventually I will split out the pictures for all of the walks, but for now this will have to do. These are pictures for the Kata Tjuta walk.

Australia - Part 9 - Kayaking, Daintrees, and a Nice Dinner.

Today was an early get-up at 7am. My Kayak trip was booked at 7:40am. I cleared out the bedsheets, packed my stuff, and went and stood to get ready for my Kayak trip. Only one other person was coming that I knew of, and promptly at 7:40 the trip set off.

We had a couple to pick up from the Beach house a few miles up from the PK Jungle Resort, and after we had picked them up, we were off.

The group consisted of the Guide, Marco, a swiss youth, a British couple whose name i can no longer remember, and myself. We parked not too far from the Beach house and started making our way into the rain forest. Picking up our gear, paddle, life vest, and a dry bag, we then set off to the beach where the kayaks were.

The kayaks were a simple affair. Sit-on-tops that were practical in the very calm, very flat water in the Daintree area (the Great Barrier Reef protected most of the beaches starting from Cairns onwards to Cape Tribulation from swells, hence the very very flat waves hitting the beaches), a sturdy paddle, and a life vest that i didn't bother wearing. Dragging out the kayaks onto the water, and off we went.

I've previously kayaked lots of times before, but I have to say this is easily one of the easiest kayaking trips I've ever had. The water was flat and the wind was non-existent. We started at the north end of Cape Tribulation, and paddled south Cape Tribulation and through to the next beach. We then made a pit stop at the beach and did a nice beach walk. Along the way, our Guide showed us the wildlife on the beach, the surrounding coconut trees, and entertained us with anecdotes of stories he's heard or seen.

We then paddled back to the original beach and had ourselves some coconut. The guide instructed us in the correct method of dehusking and opening a coconut...the flesh was firm and tasty, but not quite the way I'm used to. I'm more used to the meat being a little bit less firm and crunchy, and the Guide told me that that meant the coconut was overripe and a little bit old.

We then got dropped off to our respective hostels where I took a quick shower and met up with my coworkers & friends. It was then off to back to Cairns! On the way back, we stopped for fresh made ice cream. It was simply delicious and little did I know it was the start of our four ice cream day. =)

My Coworkers & friends dropped me off at my hostel and we went off to their hostel. We wanted to have dinner, but first we had to return the car and they had to check into their hostel. I also stopped at my dive shop to get fitted for the wet suit. =)

Dinner was a rather spectacular affair, we had berrimundi, and a seafood platter that consisted of crab, craw fish, fish, prawns, fries, and calamari. We made short work of the platter and was out of the restaurant by 7pm. We then went off for more ice cream and some shopping of souvenirs. The night market was quite good for souvenir shopping because everything was about 50% off what I saw in Sydney!

At the end of the day, I went back to my hostel, put my stuff in the Laundry, and got ready for the start of my Dive trip. 6:15am pickup meant yet another early start to my day.

I should expect it by now, but I realize that on my holidays, I always wake up the hell earlier than on my work days. =)

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Pictures are up!

Not all of them, but about 2/3 of them.

First up are the Kakadu Pictures:

Second up are the Cairn Underwater Pictures:

Missing are the Ayer's Rock Pictures, which are coming right after I finish splitting them up.


Australia - The Daintrees ( Part 8 )

Cairns to daintrees

I woke up at 6:50am to catch my shuttle up to the daintrees. The recommendation to go to the daintree was made to me by my coworker V who's been diving to the GBR before as well and told me that it was a must see.

The tour books also recommended it highly as well.

So I booked myself a tour even though I kind of wanted to stay in Cairns. Cairns was kinda cool even though its completely touristy. Actually, even though I've been holidaying for the last two weeks, I haven't seen any touristy spots so perhaps it was a relief for me to see one. :)

Anyhow I had two days to kill before my diving trip, so I decided to visit the daintrees. The daintrees was a rain forest system that's supposed to be the oldest in the world, but all the brochures recommending it made it seem more like an amusement park than anything else.

The pickup was right outside the hotel at 7:40 and I was waiting with another bloke from England.

We were picked up promptly and I found myself in the backrow of a 24 man bus. This made me more glad my kakadu tour was only a 9 man tour. This group was also far less lively but perhaps given the time, it made sense that everyone was trying to recover from the night before. :)

I decided that I wanted to do a kayak tour as well as the night walk during my time at the daintrees. As I didn't prebook these tours, I had to wait until I arrived at the hostel I was staying at to book my activities.

We then set off on the way up to the daintrees along what is supposed to be a beautiful stretch of beach laven road.

Well, the results weren't quite what I expected. :)

The stretch of road up to the daintrees, while pretty and laden with a few beach views, is for the most part, flat and boring.

The views are pretty, but its for less than an hour and it never gets very high. Compared to something like highway 1 off the california coast where it extends for over 400 miles of coastland, and this is pretty much a letdown.

And the mosquitoes. We had a pitstop at one place for toilets and snacks and the bus driver basically told everyone to put on bug spray, or buy some. :/

Having been bitten badly already in Darwin, I wasn't going to take the chance and decided to buy the local brand of bug spray. As it didn't have DEET, I was wary about how well it would work.

I sprayed it on nonetheless and hope it'd work.

The next stop was for a riverboat cruise. This was the cruise to cross the Daintree river (normally not crossable unless you're on a cable ferry).... but they did more than just ferry us across the river. They explained a bit about the local ecology as well as try to find crocodiles. Total time spent on the ferry was about an hour, of which 30 minutes of it was spent sleeping by me. The crocodiles was fairly unremarkable as all they did was sleep on the banks, and most of them were quite small. Of course, I had the jumping croc cruise from Kakadu to remember, so I mostly just ignored the crocs and wished they did more mangroves cruising.

At one point, the ferry operator asked for a show of hands on who wished to look at crocs versus mangroves, and i believe I was the only one asking for Mangroves. =) Needless to say, I spent the time after that sleeping.

After the ferry, we were back on the bus, and I spent the rest of the time sleeping. We had a short stop at a boardwalk walk through the rainforest, but I felt that the walk was incredibly rushed. We didn't stop to look at anything, and I'd liked at least 30 more minutes than the 10 minutes or so that it took for the guide to blow through the tour. Advise to those who wish to do the Daintrees, forget the tours, rent your own car!

We arrived quickly at PK Hostels, a self declared "Jungle paradise", although I had a hard time seeing what was so parasidic about the place. =) It was your average hostels with a few private rooms, a kitchen, a few shower stalls, and a small pool.

I settled in quickly and went off to buy some food, seeing as how nothing on the menu pleased me.

It was during the cooking of my lunch that my next pleasant Australian surprise came around, and that was the visitation of a gigantic lizard. =) This lizard crawled around the kitchen, looking for food, and just sunning itself on a sunny patch when it was bored of tramping through the garbage bins. Surprisingly agile, it jumped on the garbage bin a couple of times thinking perhaps it was food. I have yet to identify the species of lizard, and it terrorized a few other kitchen folks, but I thought it was a great addition to my Australia Expereince.

I then spent the rest of the day in the pool, visiting the rather flat ocean (made unswimmable currently because of Jelly fishes), and surfing the internet.

I had just posted my last blog entry "I'm sorry i summited Uluru" when a "hey Sy! What are you doing here" greeting reached me. I turned around and was surprised to see a friend of my coworker at the Internet Center.

After a few quick enquiries and greetings, I realized my luck must have turned dramatically because my coworker has a working blackberry charger! =) So my fears of not being able to wake up early enough during my flight back from Cairns was no longer a problem. Even better, they had a car, and would be happy to taxi me back to Cairns after my kayaking trip tomorrow. They had just finished their own dives and was currently here for their night Jungle walk. I had thought about joining it, but apparently it was very full. =\

But all the same, my luck had changed, and i was the happier for it. =) Plans were made to meet up with them tomorrow.

Later on in the evening, more happy coincidences occured as I met Corin and Sven from my Kakadu trip. We had quite a bit of a happy reunion and lots of talk were made about how our times were passed since we last saw one another.

I retired very happily that night, meeting new people, meeting old friends, seeing new sights, that's what travelling is mostly about to me!