Suicide Squirrels Revisited

Recently I learned something about myself. When faced with a squirrel who seems determined to be bisected by my 100-psi 28mm bicycle tires, my response is to shout “Dude!” at the rodent. Perhaps better spelled “Doooooode!”

It is an involuntary response on my part, and it has expressed itself a few times lately. So far my shouting has worked.

The Best of the First Million

Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas first started in 2003, when the Internet was young and even tiny backwater blogs could score high on search engine rankings. It really started to gain traction a few months later, when I hopped in my car and started a road trip for “a few weeks” to see more of the lovely United States before relocating to Prague.

The road trip lasted more than seven months, and one of the best things about it (from my point of view) was the blog. I kept the driving short most days, and allowed plenty of time for writing. I was enjoying it so much, I actually tried to get Mazda to hire me to keep doing it. I was really living the Miata life. Alas, I never found a contact with a remote understanding of what I was proposing. (“Good luck with your book!” they would often say.)

So eventually I stopped driving, hopped on a plane, and found an apartment in Prague. Living in a foreign country is of course the source of many good stories, and the blog grew and flourished. (For certain, very small values of “flourish”.) It never became big, or popular, but it did form a nucleus for a wide-spread community. That made me happy.

When I came back to this country the tenor of the blog changed again; I can’t give too many details about my work, and now I’m in a relationship that makes much of my life none of your damn business. Facebook continued to grow and fill the community role that blogs like mine once did (more easily, if not as well), and the list of regulars here has diminished. Still I keep blogging.

Today, however, I’d like to climb in the way-back machine and look at some of my favorite older posts.

Suicide Squirrel Death Cult

It was today that the truth became obvious to me. Driving peacefully up Glenwood from the main town, two six-packs of beer placed carefully so that the side-to-side forces of the upcoming twisty road would not dislodge them, a squirrel came dashing out from the far side of the road and ran full-tilt to intercept me.

Sometimes the blog episode is merely a catalyst that gets people talking. This episode debuted early in my road trip and sparked a lively conversation in the comments. It was that post, I believe, that began to gel the blog community, or bloggcomm, as it was soon to be known. 84 comments followed, covering black holes, David Bowie, and squirrel activity around the world.

The end of the Road Trip

On the penultimate page our hero is hurtling across the heartland, thinking deep thoughts. You turn the page, and it just says, “And then he stopped.” You blink at the sentence, feeling gypped. “That’s it?” you ask the book, but the book just sits there, ignoring your ire. “And then he stopped.”

It was a bittersweet time when I gave up the road trip and moved on to a very different phase of my life. I thought of the story I had been telling, and how it ended. It turns out, it ended in a way very satisfying to Eastern Europeans, with more questions than answers.

Allison in Animeland

“Transfer student!” called one student as he dove under his desk.

“We’re doomed!” shouted a panicky girl, cowering in the corner. “So young… I’ve barely lived at all.”

“She’s so cute…,” said a boy holding a handkerchief to his nose.

“Everybody stay calm!” bellowed another girl over the noise.

“I don’t see what the big deal is,” huffed a pretty blonde.

“Don’t turn me into a monkey! Please don’t turn me into a monkey,” sobbed another boy.

The teacher seemed unaware of the bedlam. “Allison has come all the way from America. She may not be familiar with all our customs, so be sure to do your best to help her feel welcome.”

One of the serial fiction pieces on this blog. I noticed that in many Japanese cartoons, untold mayhem is wrought by transfer students. It occurred to me that any student in that world would immediately recognize that the presence of a transfer student was Big Trouble. Transfer students are always demons, or robots, or escaped lab experiments. Allison, however is a perfectly ordinary American girl who knows nothing of those conventions. Or is she!? I intentionally did not spend a lot of time honing the episodes of this adventure, but just let myself be silly. I am tempted, one day, to carry this forward. There’s so much more anime to lampoon.

The Accidental Actor

“Hey,” Soup Boy said to me, “you want to be in James Bond?” “Sure,” said I. Now, because of a simple accident of logistics, you will quite possibly see my mug on the silver screen, while interesting things happen behind me.

While in Prague I had span of a few months where I landed several gigs as an extra in large films and an actor in small ones. It started with Casino Royale, where my job was to look American. Then followed a gig looking like a bum, and then looking like a lab assistant, and others. Good times.

The Stan-Man Plan

“Please, sit,” the border guard said, unconcerned for the busload of people who were waiting. Close up, Robert could see that his uniform was faded and worn almost through in places. “May I see your passport, please?”

Robert handed over his passport and his visa paperwork. The soldier looked at the visa, nonplussed. “You intend to stay here?”

“Yes.”

The guard set down the papers and scratched his head while he regarded his guest with open confusion. “Why?”

Each November 1st I publish an excerpt of the writing I did to kick off NaNoWriMo. In 2005 that effort was The Stan-Man Plan, in which venal Washington politics land a mild-mannered language expert in the forgotten land of Ztrtkijistan, which may be a country, or may be a province of a neighbor. No one has ever cared enough to figure it out. It’s that kind of place. In fact, when Ghengis Kahn came through, he took one look at the little valley and decided to go around. McFadden quickly admits he is a spy, thinking that would get him sent home, but of course it’s not that simple, and hijinks ensue.

The Cowboy God

“Hello,” I say. Suddenly I feel like I’m intruding. I should have knocked. “The door was open.”

The door on the right opens and a figure emerges, small and gray and lost in the gloom. “Of course,” she says. She steps forward into the splash from one of the windows. Her hair is dark and very long. Her skin is pale. She looks moonlit. “Preacher’s not here,” she says.

“That’s all right,” I say. “I’m looking for the Cowboy God.”

She takes another step forward and stops, back in shadow, but I can feel her watching me. After a moment she says, “We got the same God as everyone else.”

I nod slowly, but then shake my head. “No,” I say.

The first straight-up fiction I recorded here (I think), and there’s still a lot about this one I like. It grew in my head after I passed a sign at the side of a Texas road, white in the gray of a rainstorm. The story grew in my head as I drove, heading toward North Carolina in the final weeks of the Homeless Tour. That night, somewhere in Louisiana (I think), I sketched out a draft. The Wanderer shows up in a lot of my stories; someone traveling, seeking, without knowing what he is searching for. Most of those stories appear elsewhere, but there are a few here.

A Couple of Fragments I Like

“I just can’t believe what a big deal you all make of this.”

“Listen, we have to look out for each other, and it’s traumatic for the newbies. We’re not like you. We don’t just sniff each other’s butts and then go out and get drunk.”

I let that pass. I had tried the “more hygenic than shaking hands” argument before, but it never worked.

Though complete short stories are rare around here, I do like to share little bits and fragments of stories I will never write. The ol’ Vampires-n-Werewolves-n-shit sector of the urban fantasy genre has been beat to death, but honestly I think there could be more butt-sniffing. And leg-humping. So I provided it. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.

Graybeard

I laughed, accepted the pen, and signed the back of the photo. Around me people were trying to figure out who the hell I was, that a man with a long gray beard would stop me, already have a picture of me, and ask me to sign it. At that moment I was implicitly a celebrity, and if only they had known how to ask they could have got my autograph, too. I was a supermodel.

Graybeard is gone now, but he made Prague interesting, to say the least. This day saw us crashing a promotion for a fashion magazine. I was, I must say, the best model in the bunch, but not the prettiest. Not by a long shot.

Feeding the Eels

Among a certain type that booth is legendary. It’s the booth where Louie the Skunk shook hands with Precinct Captain O’Malley, giving Louie control of a large slice of Midtown, the booth where Six Finger Frankie proposed to a dancer named Lorraine before she took off with Old Ed in Frankie’s car, and it’s the booth where Lumpy Gannett accidentally shot himself twelve times with his revolver. There’s a mystique surrounding that booth, and it repels those who don’t belong. Maybe the faint smell of corruption and blood speaks to some part of the human animal, pushing them away. If she noticed it she was unaffected.

The link is to the first episode, which is a hyperbolic exaggeration of 1950’s hard-nosed detective pulp written as part of a Google-bomb experiment. What follows is my first shot at serial fiction here at Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas. Since I didn’t want this project to interfere with my “real” writing, there were rules: I couldn’t spend more than 90 minutes on an episode (though in the later episodes I sometimes spent much more than that), and at the end of each episode I’d pick a title for the next one that was intentionally difficult. No planning, no vision for how the story comes out, but almost by accident there are some sweet moments. Ah, Meredith. I should probably bang out the last couple of chapters sometime.

Heisenberg’s Daughter

She may still be out there somewhere. I hear rumors now and then. Moscow, or Cape Town, or Jackson Hole. She’s the kind of person who could be in any of those places. She could be anywhere. Her potential is everywhere…

Because nothing says romance like particle physics. This is a piece of what the kids call “flash fiction” these days. This little piece actually found its way to print, with a little tweaking.

The Remains of the Night

Dreams can be complex and confusing things, not bound by the rules of logic or waking life. When I wake up slowly from a dream-filled sleep the transition can be gradual, as the elements of the vision scatter and fade before the onslaught of rational thought that (usually) marks my waking hours. Sometimes, however, there remains a last vestige, like the Cheshire Cat’s grin. Like a grin without a cat, it can certainly be an odd scrap of thought.

I suppose the brief, inconsequential little episodes should have representation here as well; this is one I stumbled upon while looking for something else. If you like it, there are plenty more.

I think I’ll stop there. I’m omitting some of my most popular episodes; for instance for several weeks this blog was the top hit on Google for the phrase “New York Sucks” (back when humble blogs could top Google searches), and the episode “Eggs Over Easy — The Definitive Step-by-Step Guide” stayed near the top for a long time. There are more technical episodes as well; my treatise on CSS border-radius, with up-to-date info on support in various browsers, got a notice from a big tech publication and became so popular that my web host of the time shut me down.

The other thing not well-represented here is the community. Funkmaster G-Force, gizo, Dr. Pants, bug, Mr7k, and all the rest who made this thing worth doing. The commenters, the lurkers, the people far apart but all right here. This million-word celebration is about you guys. Thanks to all of you.

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Life in the Matrix

The other night I had a dream. In that dream I had a truck, but it was the wrong kind of truck. So I changed its CSS.

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Never Been So Close, Never Been So Far

In a few minutes the San Jose Sharks will take the ice in Pittsburgh. Their backs are against the wall, down 3-1 in the championship series. Winning the next three straight is… tough. The hardest of those three is tonight; so we’re all just sitting tight and pulling for a win.

The Sharks have never been in the final before. Never been this close to the big prize. In a league with 30 teams, championships come far apart, and who knows when the next chance will come. This year, right now, is their best chance to win it all. Next year, they have to beat all thirty teams all over again. Right now, there’s just one team between them and glory. They’ve never been so close.

But, dang, the Penguins have been playing really well since January. So have the Sharks, but for long stretches the Penguins have been clearly the better team on the ice. Three in a row against those guys is a huge mountain to climb.

Win this one though, and the series comes back home. That’s a winnable game, and it sets up a game for all the marbles in Pittsburgh, with the Sharks mojo running high. Storybook shit.

It’s been my longest hockey season ever, and I’m not ready for it to end.

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1,000,003 Words!

Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 2.23.02 PM
It has happened. Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas has rolled over the odometer and has blasted well beyond the 1,000,003-word line. I decided to celebrate by taking the day off work to throw out a bit of a redesign here; the old code simply did not support some of the cool new WordPress features I’ve been wanting to leverage. A ground-up rebuild is long overdue.

Even when you start with a fairly clean off-the-shelf theme, however, a great deal of fiddling and tweaking ensues. Some of the old widgets, like the colorful tag cloud and the sweet-o-meter, seem to be awol right now, and I’m not sure about the typography for reading my longer-winded treatises.

Also missing, and a little more difficult to bring back, is the poetry feed that was playing in the header. I’d like to bring it back, but at this moment I’m not sure where to put it.

What do you think? Too dark? Please leave comments here on the blog, while I work on getting the styling of the comments on the blog looking right.

Later tonight, after the celebratory single malt, I will compose the Inevitable Retrospective Episode.

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Strava vs. MapMyRide

One of the first decisions I made after choosing a bicycle was choosing an app. I did a search on the ol’ app store and found quite a few options, but only a few were what you might call “feature-rich”. Strava, the most popular app for bicyclists, did not appear in my search results for whatever reason, and I ended up choosing MapMyRide.

Later I heard about Strava — first from a comment on this very blog, and realized that most of the cyclists around me were using that service. Strava is especially popular among “serious” cyclists, which I’m really not, despite the miles I rack up.

There are, I’ve heard, people who ride bicycles without an app, if you can believe that. I find the app extremely valuable, from logging how well I did and guessing calories I burned (MapMyRide seems… optimistic in that regard) to totaling up my miles for my maintenance log. (Hint to both services – maintenance log would be sweet.)

When I got my Apple Watch I found that Strava has a a watch app but MapMyRide does not. It was time to try out the senior service, but I wasn’t ready to walk away from MMR quite yet. It’s about the data. In MMR’s database there are hundreds of my workouts – not just bike rides but walks and machine training as well. MapMyRide is part of a family of apps and Web sites that go under the general moniker MapMyFitness. MapMyWhatever started with MapMyRun, so its features aren’t terribly bike-centric. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

While I was interested in Strava, I was not about to abandon all that data. The obvious answer: use both for a while, and then choose the better service.

So I have been using both for quite some time now, and this episode is intended to compare and contrast the two services. The comparison is, of course, subjective, but I think I can be honest about where my subjectivity comes from.

Technology:
Strava wins hands-down. The core functionality of the two apps is similar — you push the start button when you begin riding, you push the stop button when you’re done. Both apps (and the corresponding Web sites) show how you did and draw your path on a map. Both apps have a lot of other features that are done better on the Web sites. It’s a fundamental law of human nature: time on task is inversely proportional to screen size.

Strava’s iPhone app just works better, and MapMyRide doesn’t even have a watch app. MMR’s app crashed my phone on a couple of rides, but that problem seems to have been fixed.

Technology doesn’t end with the app. While MapMyRide.com has a cool-but-useless feature that allows you to relive your ride in 3-D, Strava has a mind-blowing heat map that will show you where the locals ride, anywhere in the world. It’s great for finding the best route in unfamiliar terrain, and it’s great for city planners and those with a vested interest in improving bicycle infrastructure. And heck, it’s just fun to drift through. It’s awesome.

They sure do ride a lot of bikes in England.

Also Strava offers a “fly-by” feature. If you interact with someone on your route, or are merely curious about the guy who blew past you while you slogged up Homestead Ave, you can use the fly-by feature and if the person was using Strava and makes their data public you can see a little about them. (I have chosen not to share my data close to home, but the rest of my trip I have made public. It seems like a good compromise.)

Bike-centricity:
Strava. Strava is a bike service that now does running as well; MapMyRide is a running service that expanded to cover all fitness. This has echoes though both services. For you, bike-centric might be a plus, it might be a minus.

Web Site – General:
The phone apps gather the data, but it’s the Web site where you really dig in. I’m giving MapMyRide the nod here. The dashboard is what a dashboard should be, not just a list of events but a meaningful summary of your recent activity. When you look at a particular ride, you get the information you’re most likely interested in, in a simple-to-survey, color-enhanced display (were I red-green colorblind, I might not feel the same way). Overall, I think the information design is better at MMR.

Web Site – Social:
Both sites have ways for you to connect with other riders. I don’t use them. I ride alone, mo-fo’s. Though I am part of a group of Apple riders on Strava, and it does motivate me to be in the top ten for mileage each week. Last summer I could hang in there on weekdays, but I got blown away when the weekend warriors come out. I’m trying to get back up there again this month. But really, as a guy who’s no big fan of Facebook, I’m not qualified to judge this category.

Web Site – Performance:
Performance in this case means your performance. Both services offer a great deal of analytics to help you evaluate how your ride stacks up. The way the information is presented demonstrates the fundamental difference in thinking between the two services, and it probably what defines which service is right for you.

Here’s the deal: Strava pits your best against everyone else’s best. MapMyRide compares you to your previous efforts, and rewards consistency.

Each service starts with a similar concept. Strava calls them “segments”, MapMyRide calls them “courses”. They are (usually) fairly short bits of your overall ride. The mighty servers in their air-conditioned warehouses recognize when you traverse a segment/course (hereafter, “bit”) and provide a wealth of analytics to compare you with everyone else who has ridden the same bit.

The analytics offered between the services are very different. Strava ranks your best performance on that bit with the best performance of everyone else. If you pay for premium service, you can filter those numbers so that you can measure yourself against people of your own gender and age. If you’re riding your bike to break records, then this is what you would want to see.

MapMyRide instead has a point system. Sure you get points for being fast, but you get even more points for being consistent. You might not be the fastest over that half-mile stretch of trail that month, or even the tenth-fastest, but if you do it day after day you will rise to the top of the rankings.

Here are a couple of screen shots, showing one small part of the data each gives. Both show data from my ride this morning. On the surface, Map My Ride shows much more. Each allows you to dig deeper into your performance on each bit. Map My Ride shows how you stack up using their points system (which greatly rewards riding the same course many times), while over at Strava the most important thing is how your best time stacks up against other riders’ best times.

Here’s a look at the top of the summary of my morning’s ride from Strava. At a glance, there’s not much information, but with a click one can dig deeper. On the right of the expanded section is my best time compared to the best times of everyone else. My other rides aren't really represented. But holy crap – how did I get in the top 10%? Now that I think about it, I don’t even think that’s right. So, that’s a bit of a problem.

Strava data about my morning ride

Below are the first three bits of my ride summary from this morning on MapMyRide, comparing my times with my own past performance. I was not exactly fast this morning, but I’m slowly getting back to form. You can dig down into each of the courses in the list to see how you’re doing compared to others for speed and consistency. The default period for the comparison is this month.

Map My Ride course summary

The difference between Strava and MapMyRide might be summarized as performance vs. health. The MapMyFitness family is about habits, about getting out there every day and doing what has to be done. Strava is about the result of that fitness regimen, that one day when you fly over the hill and bank a great time. They both have their merit.

Missing from both (as far as I can tell):
I want to have my own, private, way to stack overall commutes and chart my progress, without creating a route that is visible to the public. I want it to be a little flexible so if I take a different zig through the cemetery or a zag through Santa Clara it will still be in the comparison.

As mentioned above, a maintenance log integrated with the service would be awesome, and would provide ample selling opportunities. “Hey, that’s a lot of miles on your chain…”

Web Site – Promotions:
MapMyRide has better promotions with better free stuff.

Data Freedom
I won a premium membership in a MapMyRide promotion, otherwise my data would be hostage to that service. Dicks. Strava acknowledges that my data is mine. This is actually a big deal.

Use of Spaces
Ugh. I wrote this whole episode with words separated by spaces – “Map My Ride” and whatnot. But their own copy smushes the words together, so I went back and applied a global-smush algorithm.

Conclusion
Are you a plodder? An everyday grind kind of person hoping to maybe get stronger but mainly getting from place to place and burning a few extra calories in the process? Perhaps you’re trying to lose weight, and the most important measure is whether or not you’re doing what needs to be done. Then MapMyRide is for you.

Are you a competitor? When you get on your bike is your primary goal to kick ass? Then probably Strava is for you.

Personally, I’ve managed to get into the top 66% on most of my Strava segments (ignoring the clearly incorrect reading I’ve discovered lately). I’m right around the bottom third. On a couple of odd backwater segments, I’m actually way up there. If I were to pay for a premium membership I could see how I stack up against other 50-year-olds, but in all likelihood the results would be more depressing, since my main excuse for slowness will be stripped away, so honestly I don’t want to know. MapMyRide, on the other hand, says, “Good job, Jerry, you got back out there and did it again today.” I don’t need to be best. I need to ride.

BUT — Today I chatted with a spandex-clad man on a fancy bike. A teacher, celebrating the first day of summer vacation. He even rode slowly enough to chat with me for a bit after the light changed. As soon as I got to work I fired up Strava and checked the fly-bys for my ride to see if he was there. Alas, he was not. But if I hadn’t been running Strava I would have been gnashing my teeth and rending my clothing over not being able to check. So I can’t ride without Strava anymore. I just can’t. You never know when you’ll run into an engineer from Tesla on your ride and want to follow him.

But the information provided by MapMyRide fits my style so much better. I have to use that.

For the foreseeable future, then, I’ll be using both.

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Going All-Out for the Finals

We’ve applied a lot of science to ritual cannibalism in this house, trust me. It started a few seasons ago when we had roast duck for dinner on the first night of the season when the Sharks hosted the Anaheim Ducks. The duck didn’t turn out as well as it might have, and the Sharks lost. In the ensuing seasons, the duck has been ever-more delicious, and the Sharks have won the season opener against the rival Ducks by ever-more comfortable margins. Last year, after stuffing the duck with orange quarters, we shut them out. Orange county, you see.

The science of ritual cannibalism is, therefore, irrefutable. We eat the duck, we beat the Ducks.

This year, as the home team has progressed through the playoffs, we (and by ‘we’ I mostly mean the Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas) have explored the proper dishes required to vanquish ever-more-fearsome foes. For Nashville, whose fans throw catfish onto the ice, we ate catfish.

St. Louis was a little trickier: They are the Blues. How do you eat a musical style? We went with the color, which is slightly less tricky. We started with (yummy) Blueberry Crumble, but of course that didn’t work: we took their crumble, leaving them steadfast. We switched to a (delicious) blue cheese sauce on pork chops and never looked back.

Of course, there’s plenty of other Fan Science at work as well. Official Sweetie’s old-school Sharks t-shirt is banned from the living room at game time. When things aren’t going well, a glass of Canadian Whiskey will reverse our fortunes. The list goes on.

Pittsburgh has proven to be our greatest challenge yet. You don’t just pop down to Costco and grab a family-size tray of frozen penguin. Happily there are gummy penguins, and where there’s a will there’s a sauce.

For game one it was chicken (a flightless bird) with penguin sauce, and while it was most tasty, it was not effective. The Sharks started the game poorly, and though things stabilized after I turned to the whiskey it was too late. A heartbreak goal in the waning minutes sent our boys back to their hotel with heads bowed.

The menu for game two: Game hen with penguin sauce, with black and white rice. Really, really, tasty. Another close game; the whiskey brought the team back but they gave up a goal in overtime and were down in the series 2-0. Either game could have tilted the other direction, and while the Penguins seemed to be in charge much of the time they weren’t scoring very much. It wouldn’t take much to turn things around.

More research was required.

Thank goodness for the Internet. Sidney Crosby, the captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins and a darn good hockey player, is a man of ritual. On game day, he always has a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Aha! we had found the chink in his armor.

And speaking of science, pork chops are a proven winner. Forget the symbolism of the flightless birds; go with what works!

For game three tonight, we pulled out all the stops for victory. Pork chops grilled outdoors with a peanut butter and jelly and melted penguin sauce. Do not cringe, my friends, it was absolutely delicious. The char from the barbecue added the perfect bitter note to work with the sweet/salty sauce. Rice and grilled green beans rounded out the meal. I wore the black t-shirt, not the gray one. Canadian Whiskey, as always, stood at the ready.

We found out not long before game time that one of the Sharks’ best young players would not be playing due to injury. Tomaš Hertl had hit the iron frame of the net three times in the game two heartbreak; had any one of those three shouts bounced the other direction the Sharks could well have won. It was going to be up to the pork chops to make up for the critical loss for San Jose.

It was a nail-biter, I have to tell you, but in the end the good guys prevailed, scoring in overtime after steadily looking more confident all game. Joonas Donskoi, or “Donkey” as we call him, slipped a shot past the Pen’s excellent net minder as the home crowd made enough noise to be heard in space.

As we celebrated at home the Official Sweetie said, “I hope we have more pork chops.”

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