Bicycling’s Ultimate Wingman

It was a hell of a day on the bike today, but I’m not ready yet to tell that story. So let’s talk about the Tour de France instead.

Today, a rider named Mark Cavendish tied the record for most stages ever won in the Tour. The Manx Missile once seemed to be on track to shatter the old record, then injury and misfortune almost ended his career. After a brutal few years, he got his last chance on a major team, and likely because of internal politics he was selected to ride for that team in the Tour.

There are a lot of different ways to win at a stage race like the Tour de France. The most-remembered winner is the rider who completes all the stages in the smallest aggregate time. But there are also awards for the best in the mountains, and the fastest in the sprints, and each day is a mini-race; winning a stage is a great accomplishment. winning lots of stages, over many years, makes you a legend.

Cavendish, with his come-back story, adds an element to this year’s Tour that would not be there otherwise. He is crafty, knows just what he can do, and especially knows how to work with his teammates.

One of those teammates is Michael Mørkøv, my new favorite rider. Yesterday he did such a good job pulling Cav through a confused and chaotic 100 meters to the end line that he nearly won the stage himself. But his job is to get the main guy to the line, and he does it well. I looked today and in his long career he has won exactly one stage in a major race. But his teammates have won many.

If you watch a stage race that ends with a sprint, you will see the star of the show about four wheels back, behind teammates who are creating a draft the star can ride it, saving energy. In the last few hundred meters those teammates will peel off, and other teams will make their moves, driving their own trains toward the line.

If you’re that sprinter, having ridden 100 miles already that day just to get to this moment, as your crew peels off one by one and the pace of the final dash to the line builds, there is no one you want in front of you more than Mørkøv for those last few meters.

I have oversimplified the role of the leadout rider; there is a lot of strategy involved to set up your teammate for the last dash. Wind, the tactics of the other teams, the strength of the rider you are pulling, of course the terrain — all of that matters.

Cavendish has a burst that no one else on the tour can match. Those same twitch muscles that put him across the line first in the sprints are actually a liability through the mountains. So let’s not forget the rest of the team that kept Mark Cavendish in the race (those too far behind the lead are mercifully eliminated). It was the effort of many that even put Mark on the road today.

It has been the effort of Michal Mørkøv that allowed him to make history. Let us not forget that.

They are Not Like Us

Clearing out the email today and found one from Strava, the bicycle-centric performance-tracking app. It turns out that some of the riders on the Tour de France are sharing their rides with the rest of us.

Poking around today, I got the data for Ben O’Connor, the rider who won Stage 9 today, and I also found the data for a serious contender who today lost concentration for a second and went off the road. The full list is here.

O’Connor doesn’t share his heart rate data, but some of the others do. There was one guy who I can’t remember the name of whose heart rate almost never broke 150. Another guy climbed a near-vertical road for a minute, pushing his heart to a casual 149, before it dropped right back to 108 a minute later, while coasting downhill.

I’m only starting to appreciate the power numbers, as on my rides power output is a very rough estimate based on slope and speed (I could buy toys to give much more precise power readings, but I don’t think I would actually benefit from that information.) Here we see athletes who can sustain more than 400 watts of power for half an hour, and then do it again on the next hill, and then be able to get back on the bike and do it all over again tomorrow. The riders, even the ones with no hope of winning, are capable of producing crazy amounts of power pretty much forever.

But while all that’s impressive to me, it’s all quantifiable. That changes when it’s about going down the mountain. I will tell you right now, despite the hardship, I prefer going up to going down. I was watching a repeat of last year’s Giro a few months back and a Slovenian kid got his first stage win by smashing up the mountains and then barely not crashing on the way down the other sides. There were times my heart went up into my throat as his rear wheel skidded on the winding roads. He is a beast, but a crazy beast at that (I think I was watching Tadej Pogačar introduce himself to the world, and who has in the last three days turned the Tour de France into a race for second place, but there’s another Slovenian kid who is also a monster.)

It should come as no surprise that the riders who qualify for one of the world’s most prestigious athletic endurance events are superhuman. It’s extra-fun for me, though, because when I look at one of those riders, Strava helpfully puts my recent and career stats next to theirs. (But please note that my post-return-from-Prague career miles are roughly twice what is shown there, since I didn’t start using Strava right away. So it’s not really so different, right?)

By the way, here I’m being compared to Ben O’Connor, who won Stage 9 today. I suspect that his longest ride is much more than 160 miles, so maybe only half his work is showing up in Strava as well. Even from what we see here, he’s closing in on one million feet of climbing. If he did that all in one climb, he’d officially be an astronaut and then some, but he wouldn’t quite reach the ISS. It would be a hell of a ride back down.

I couldn’t find any names on Strava that I knew to be sprinters. They are bigger-legged riders who can put on amazing bursts of power (and therefore speed). I’m really curious what their numbers look like in the final meters of a closely-contested sprint. If I find anyone in that category, I’ll let you know.

Meanwhile, I’ll push the pedals, and while I will never produce huge power numbers, I am about 120% of a climber right now — I just need to shed 20% of me to be in good trim for a romp up a mountainside. I’ll leave the descent to someone else.

Punkstalgia

When writing I used to listen to music much of the time, but not so much anymore. But for some reason tonight I was inspired to put the pods in my ears and fire up some Stiff Little Fingers, starting with Suspect Device, one of the best Punk songs ever, then through Alternative Ulster and Can’t Say Crap on the Radio.

For a band with such an incendiary start, they have stayed together for a long time, and they produced memorable music for a couple of decades (it seems they are still making music together, which gladdens my heart). But those earliest, raw anthems that sing about “them” are my favorites. Stiff Little Fingers are punk, but the musicianship is there, always twisting, sometimes surprising, never dull.

Like all true punk bands, they were political. As a band in Belfast during the Time of Troubles, they were playing in a war zone. Those early concerts must have been damn near riots. I wish now I could have been at one, but I probably would have shit myself.

I haven’t got much writing done tonight, but I’m not sorry. It’s been a long time since I performed Suspect Device at Punk Rock karaoke down in San Diego (Yeah, I fronted a band with Greg Hetson (Circle Jerks) and Eric Melvin (NOFX) for one awesome and really loud three minutes. I’d like to believe Jennifer Finch (L7) was there too, but things are fuzzy), and it’s time to get back in touch.

Punk still lives today, but it’s not white guys with guitars who are making punk, it’s hip-hop and the countless variations I am not qualified to enumerate that carry that political torch of protest and disruption. But I like the guitars.

CODA: As I make my way through their catalog, I am reminded what pioneers that band could be on occasion. “This sounds like what <insert band here> did, only… [checks date] before them.”

1

The Right Way to Build a Hotel on the Moon

There are three reasons to visit the moon:

  1. Low-gravity sex
  2. To say you did it
  3. It’s the fucking moon.

I have seen in my day more than one plan for a moon hotel. A few of those plans have some good ideas (really tall towers you can jump down the core of), but none of those designs understand a fundamental truth: Construction matters — every mark the construction crew makes on the landscape will outlive humanity.

On Earth, bulldozers level the property, the hotel goes up, and then the landscapers erase the scars of the machines used to create the hotel. On the moon, that won’t work.

Those footprints will still be there long after humanity is forgotten

When I’m looking out the window of Lunar Hotel 6, I don’t want to see the shattered remains of a landscape that will remember each footprint for tens of thousands of years. I want to see the moon, the way it is now. Every mark made during construction cannot be undone, so construction can make no marks near the hotel.

One of my best stories (note to self: submit story to next market) takes place in a hotel on the moon. Much of the story takes place in a dome that was raised from an underground tunnel and deployed like an umbrella, so that no human disturbance is evident on the other side.

I’ve got nothing against towers, either, but unless you want the tower dwellers to forever look out over wretched destruction, those towers have to be built from the inside. (Flashing to a 3D printer that turns material excavated from the tunnels below into the walls of the tower, lifted up one level at a time until the tower is two miles high and the horizon is curved. I might have a spiritual sequel.)

My note to any who might be considering building a hotel on the moon: It’s the moon. Respect that. Understand that. Hire me as a consultant. I’ve just given you good stuff for free, but I have more.

A Matter of Consistency

While I was attempting (and failing) to write an episode thirty days in a row here at Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas, a kid named James, known as the Iron Cowboy, today wrapped doing 100 full-length triathlons in 100 days.

Yep, 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, followed by a full-ass 26.2-mile marathon.

100 times. In 100 days.

He did it to raise funds and awareness to rescue children from sex trafficking and sexual exploitation, so maybe he’s crazy, but it’s the right kind of crazy. My pals at Fezzari Bikes are proud sponsors, and I love them for that as well.

I can only imagine how it will feel for the Iron Cowboy to take a day off tomorrow. Congratulations, James!

A Tale of Two Bicycles

According to the Velominati, the correct number of bicycles to own is n+1. However, I’m pretty content with two.

I bought the first bike in 2014. I went in to a Mom-and-Pop-and-Kids bike shop and told them I would be commuting on a bike but I didn’t need anything fancy. They pointed me to the Escape 0 by Giant, which I think was discounted because it was being discontinued. It is a “hybrid” bike aimed at commuters – mountain bike drive train with lots of gears (important for skinny-leg people carrying lots of stuff), an upright posture good for traffic awareness, but narrower tires intended for road use.

I kind of fell for the upsell when I chose that bike, but I have no regrets. And I had a list of other stuff to load up on before I even left the store: cushier seat, floor pump, helmet of course, and on and on. I left a fair chunk of scratch at the bike store, and I’ve paid quite a bit more since, yet conservatively all of that has been paid and then some with gasoline not burned driving to and from work.

To say nothing of the other benefits. Health, happiness, and Yet Another Bike Episode here at MR&HBI.

Over time I’ve added a beefier rack, gone through a few different panniers (the bags that attach to the rack), put fenders on for rainy days (I kind of like the rain), various lights (including Revolights, which were a great idea but never found their market), and on and on. My mantra was, “the weight I take off the bike should come from my gut.” I’ve put a lot of miles on that fine machine; many good hours being out in the world instead of boxed in metal and glass.

When I commuted by bike regularly, I started to recognize some of the others out there. A lot the other riders were decked out in tight-fitting bike gear, riding their fancy bikes. I would measure myself against those riders, pushing a little extra to maybe catch up with the Big Bald Guy at the next light. I could sometimes keep it close with one spandex-wearer, but if another came along, that was it. they would vanish over the horizon with a wink of light.

Most of that, of course, is because I’m a skinny-leg big-belly graybeard, but it turns out the hardware matters as well. Enter the Fezzari.

When the pandemic came down, I had not been riding regularly. Early on I took the disruption of my life as an opportunity to rebuild some good life habits, and the bike was at the center of that. Things were going great, until a mechanical issue during a major supply-chain disruption left me with no bike for a while. Late one night, I thought, “What if I buy another bike?” The only bikes available were the really high-end ones, but if I was gong to justify another purchase, it had to fill a different role than my commuter bike anyway.

You know how that turned out. And now here we are.

Wednesday I rode the Giant to work, lugging along a change of clothes, a laptop, shoes, about five pounds of food, and other odds and ends. Even if I could fit all that in a backpack (doubtful), then my back would be a swamp by the time I got to work. No problem on the Giant. It is a stable ride, comfortable, with an upright posture and wide handlebars for easy control. Thirty different gear ratios to choose from and that good ol’ cushy seat means that while I’m riding I’m just traveling, getting where I’m going with a minimum of fuss. It’s not a bike commute, it’s simply a commute.

It’s the bike I ride to the store (usually the bike store).

When I got on the Fezzari I discovered a new sort of bicycling. The bike is small, and twitchy, and fast. I’m still learning to ride it, still getting used to the more aggressive seating posture (I’m very happy I asked them to set it up with a “relaxed” posture, adding a bit of height on the handlebars so I’m less hunched over.) My hands tend to go numb on long rides; I’m still searching for the right posture and grip to deal with that extra weight on my arms.

But there are times, many times, when all that is forgotten and I’m cranking along to the sound of my tires whooshing over the pavement and it’s sublime. I love that bike.

I think, in fact, I love it more because I still put in the miles on the Giant. I am constantly reminded just what makes the fancy road bike special. Without that contrast would I start to take my new bike for granted? (Actually, probably not, but it’s still a good reminder.) And what about my faithful pack mule? I love it more, too, for having ridden the Fezzari; I appreciate the comfort and the capacity and the simpleness of riding it. It’s the perfect tool for the job.

Special bonus: twice the time tinkering in the shade of the tree in our backyard.

3

Bitcoin is Cool, but It’s not Money

The subject of blockchain technology in general, and cryptocurrency in particular, has come up a few times lately, and I’ve been doing some reading. When you look, you mostly find stuff that does a bad job describing what blockchain is, before jumping to some particular use for it – generally cryptocurrency, and why you should buy some.

But “blockchain” is the second-least important word in this discussion. “Cryptocurrency” is the least important. Blockchain is a way to achieve a utopian dream, and it’s the dream we will talk about today. The dream is the Distributed Ledger – a system where there isn’t some central institution who decides who owns what, instead that information is all kept in an encrypted ledger that we all share and maintain, and magically we can only read the parts of the ledger that are our business to read.

All the blocks and chains and whatnot are an implementation detail that is not really that important. But… later we will see that some implementation details matter a lot.

Let’s talk about the distributed ledger. Instead of some bank tracking how much money is in everybody’s account, there are thousands of copies of the ledger, spread around the world, immune to deprivations of institutions who use the ledgers to control us. It’s a pretty sweet idea. Better yet, ideally even when the ledger is spread around the world, only the right people can read the parts about you. For all the rest, the ledgers just have to agree.

To make this happen there are two key concepts: redundancy and consensus. Redundancy we just spoke of. Thousands, maybe millions of instances of the ledger, all verifying that they are the same, even if they can’t see the individual transactions.

But imagine if Ronald McDonald decides to give a Bitcoin to Mayor McCheese. He duly records the transaction and that information propagates through the network as all the instances of the ledger are updated. But at the same time, on another ledger it is recorded that in fact Ronald gave that same Bitcoin to the Hamburgler! I heard that gasp of horror, and it is well-placed!

With every distributed ledger, there has to be a way to resolve discrepancies that through sloppiness, bad timing, or malice will inevitably arise. Eventually all those ledgers have to concur about what actually happened. Therefore, the people who run the system need to make it difficult for the bad guys to overwhelm the honest transactions. They need to allocate deciding power based on some resource they control that makes the holders invested in the success of the platform.

In the case of Bitcoin, that resource is pure computing power. Solve math puzzles, get Bitcoins. Once you have Bitcoins, you will protect them. So to push false transactions onto Bitcoin, you would have to to solve those math puzzles faster than everyone else on the network combined.

That would not be easy. I read an estimate today that the current Bitcoin puzzle-solving economy, which uses extremely efficient hardware designed to solve these particular problems and nothing else, is currently chewing through the amount of electricity consumed by the entire country of Austria – at the low end. So to fool Bitcoin, you’d need about 1.1 Austrias (at the low end) of power. That’s pretty impractical, and that’s what keeps your Bitcoins safe.

Or, to defraud the system you could find a different way to generate sha256 hashes (that’s the Bitcoin puzzle). If you came up with a new way to do that calculation that took 1% of the power, you could destroy Bitcoin. Quantum computing would trash Bitcoin, but the latter will be long gone before the former arrives on the scene. Yep, Bitcoin will be long gone.

There are other ways for distributed ledgers to form consensus that are far less carbon-awful. In fact, there’s a currency that was recently announced that awards blocks (coins) for each ton of CO2 sequestered. And away from cryptocurrency, the distributed ledger promises to transform some really complex problems like adaptive energy grids and a world filled with self-driving cars. All the new cryptocurrencies are finding less ecologically-disastrous ways to manage consensus. Etherium is launching a new less-eco-awful version of their currency, and leaving their old version to the winds of fate. The power bill will eventually destroy Bitcoin.

I mentioned above redundancy and consensus. We have seen that consensus can be extremely expensive. New distributed ledgers are working to reduce that cost. But redundancy also has a cost.

All the ledgers have to share information, constantly updating each other. For the blockchain implementation, each update itself requires a great deal of computation to ensure security — digital signatures, hashes, more signatures. Recording a single transaction in thousands of ledgers eats up CPU time, to the point where processing a single Bitcoin transaction takes the juice to run your house for a week. (Actually, a German house for a week, whatever that means.)

And this is where we get to “Bitcoin is not Money”. Despite demanding the power of a European nation to operate, Bitcoin can only process a few transactions per second. Like, less than ten. How many credit card transactions take place every second? A global-scale distributed ledger makes each transaction very expensive. It is simply impossible for Bitcoin to be a factor in everyday commerce.

EDIT: In fact, bitcoin intentionally adjusts the difficulty of adding a block to the chain so that one 1MB block is added every ten minutes, so that transactions can be “digested” and shenanigans rooted out. This puts a very hard limit on the number of transactions that can be added to the chain, and as computing power increases, the difficulty of adding a block to the chain increases with it. Bitcoin by design cannot handle the transaction rate of an actual currency.

(Although I have to say that since you can know the entire history of each coin, you could, for instance, simply refuse to accept any coin ever touched by a company that dealt with blood diamonds, effectively making their money worth less. That is the true power of the distributed ledger. Someday it will be real.)

When it comes right down to it, our current attempts at the distributed ledger are way better at things that aren’t money – things where there is value in decentralizing, but they don’t move as fast as we need money to move. Or things that move fast but in a smaller context, like an office or a company.

Or, God help us all, Non-Fungible Tokens. A topic for another day.

When you hear about the ways blockchain technology will change the world, quietly, to yourself, substitute the term “distributed ledger”. That is the idea that has the power to change so many things for the better, and it’s a lot easier to fit in your head. Blockchain is an implementation of that idea, but it’s got warts big enough to mostly obscure the magical toad underneath. Moore’s Law may finally get us to the promised land, but computers will literally have to be a million times faster than they are now to turn blockchain-based cryptocurrency into actual money. My bet is now that we have seen the value of the distributed ledger, we will find a better way to accomplish it. And that’s pretty exciting.

2

A New Tool (almost)

This weekend Harlean (who is a fiction) and I had a really fun photo shoot. We were using our Lensbaby gizmos for the first time, and allowed ourselves the emotional room to experiment and accept when things didn’t work right, and celebrate when changing something actually had the predicted result. A wonderful day in the studio.

There is a part of me that believes that getting good results with your current gear is an indication that you don’t need better gear. But over the years I have identified a few cases where new gear would be better. And heck, I used to watch a series on YouTube that included “Good Photographer, Shitty Camera” episodes where respected pros would be handed a Barbie doll with a camera embedded in her chest or a LEGO camera or what-have-you, and invariably these pros would manage to find a remarkable image.

But none of them said, “I’m ditching my Nikon for Barbie!” Sure, some of those folks are probably still using Canon 5D Mark III’s, but I suspect not many of those do a lot of self-portraits. Here in this house the limitations of the 5D started to become apparent when self-portraiture became a regular occurrence. On the 5D, you have to make choices — not all autofocus modes work when you are using strobes or speedlights. Specifically, the autofocus modes that don’t require you to look through the viewfinder are absent. Additionally, the presence of the viewfinder itself can interfere with autofocus, as light coming in through the viewfinder can confuse things.

### For a bit here, I go on about Camera Stuff that is interesting (to me) and relevant(ish), but does not really build on the narrative of this episode. You could probably skip to the picture below if you’re not interested in the evolution of modern cameras or how that solves specific problems in our studio.

Anyway, at the heart of those problems is the very nature of the SLR itself. SLR stands for “Single-Lens Reflex” and is a system where there is a mirror in the camera that while at rest diverts the light coming through the lens up to the viewfinder. When you push the shutter button, the mirror snaps up out of the way and the light hits the sensor (or film) instead. It is the mirror snapping up and back that gives an SLR its distinctive shutter sound.

The reason some focus modes aren’t always available in our 5DIII is that those focus settings require computer processing to identify eyes, faces, and whatnot, and when the light is going to the viewfinder rather than hitting the sensor, that processing cannot take place. There is a mode that lifts the mirror to allow that processing, but then the camera can’t trigger the flash for “electronic shutter” reasons I don’t quite understand.

SLR was a big deal because it gave the photographer a much better idea what the picture was going to be like. Before that, the viewfinder had its own lenses, which tried really hard to match what the main lens would show, but as the “main lens” became ever more complicated, that became impractical.

But your phone doesn’t have a mirror in it, now does it? The light doesn’t need to be diverted to a viewfinder, the sensor chip itself sends that info to a screen. Then when you push the “shutter”, it sends a signal to the camera to take a much higher quality image off the same sensor and send off for storage.

All the big camera companies have lines of “digicams” that try to be better than a phone and easy to carry around and shoot with. They have the screen on the back, and depending on where you live, they might be legally required to play a recording of that SLR mirror-clack when they take a picture.

But until fairly recently, all the high-end gear continued to be SLR. Honestly, I know there were compelling reasons, but I’m not entirely sure what they were. But then Fuji and Sony made exciting high-end “mirrorless” cameras. As mentioned above, “mirrorless” itself wasn’t huge news, but now that word is used to describe the top-end gear out there that doesn’t have a mirror.

Canon responded with a thud, creating the EOS-M format, that utterly failed to establish them in this market. Maybe not a Zune-level flop, but in the neighborhood. Nikon did a little better, and Sony pulled ahead while Fuji found a very comfortable niche to totally dominate, while still pushing Sony.

Now, Canon and Nikon have stepped up their games, and Canon at least burned their boats on the shore. There will be no new major updates with a mirror from Canon, and no new lenses to fit their SLR line. It’s all about the R.

With that long-winded explanation, you might not have noticed that a mirrorless camera solves two of our current issues: “Aha! No optical viewfinder means no light leaking in from the eyepiece to mess up autofocus!” and (less obvious) “Aha! There’s no mirror! Sensor-based focus modes are available all the time!”

So, after one very frustrating shoot that might have been somewhat less frustrating with different technology, and two very smooth shoots to prove we deserved it, we helped pay off Canon’s gamble:

This lovely photo of our new hot-shit camera was taken with my phone.

It is physically smaller than the 5D it is replacing, because there’s no need to make room for a mirror to flip up and back. The geometry of the mount means that lens makers can go crazy. Hopefully, somewhere at Canon is that troublemaker saying, “hey, remember when we did that 50mm f/1.0? We can beat that.”

So there it sits, radiating potential. In the camera world, as in computers, the chips are obsolete before they even land on your doorstep. I’m honestly surprised that the 5DIII is still not obsolete after eight years. But in photography the real investment is in the lenses. Camera bodies come and go, but glass is forever. Mostly. There are better versions of almost every lens I own made specifically for the new camera, but not enough better to justify replacement.

All one needs is an adapter to connect the old EF-mount lenses to the new RF body. (In fact, because of the new geometry, I can now attach other, non-Canon lenses I’ve long longed over. There’s a Minolta…)

Anyway, all I need is an adapter, and my library of lenses will be ready to go. That’s all I need.

The adapter is on backorder. Sitting in a box is a pretty dang incredible camera, and I can’t attach any of my lenses to it. The L-plate arrived today, so I have a lot of flexibility attaching the new camera to a tripod. Just… no lenses. I can hold it, I can admire it, but I can’t take any pictures with it. “Coming soon!” the reputable camera company says.

Not soon enough.

2

Outdoor Hockey

In general, I enjoy the NHL games played outdoors. I might argue that they are turning to that gimmick a touch too often these days, robbing the event of its inherent specialness, but I’m still on board for at least one outdoor game each year. It’s different and fun and the players just seem a little happier.

Most years, it’s also a chance to have a hockey game in a giant arena that holds tens of thousands more fans than fit into a traditional hockey venue. After a couple of dicey years, the NHL developed a mighty mobile refrigeration unit that could maintain a good sheet of ice just about anywhere.

Just about. Today’s outdoor game in South Lake Tahoe was a disaster. The sun shone down and any ice over painted areas, like the logo in the center of the rink or the red dots, turned to slush. After the first period it was decided to postpone the rest of the game until long after nightfall. Luckily no one was hurt before that decision was made.

When you schedule an outdoor game, the weather will always be a risk. It seemed smart at first blush to put a game where there was no need to accommodate fans in a beautiful wintry setting. So the NHL decided to play a couple of games in Tahoe, setting up the rink on a golf course next to the lake. Lovely.

The thing is, when you don’t have to accommodate fans, you don’t have to build a rink. There are thousands (probably) of outdoor rinks on this continent that could have hosted this game — and imagine all the extra hometown color that could have enhanced the story.

I have been skating plenty of times — as ai kid I hit the ice fairly regularly in the winter — but I’ve never skated indoors. Not once. The little rink in my hometown was nestled in a deep canyon and shaded by ponderosas and long banners of fabric hanging from wires overhead to thwart the Northern New Mexico sun. At 7200 feet altitude, the air was cold and dry. Good for ice.

For the cost of building a rink on a golf course and then destroying TV ratings by moving most of the game until after most hockey fans were asleep, the NHL could have installed glass at our little rink and played the game in the most nostalgic setting imaginable — a little rink in a little town (high enough up that even the Avalanche might have been short of breath), and the players could have got their hot chocolate in little plastic cups just like the rest of us do. It could have been fuckin’ magical.

Much fancier than back in the day, but ready to host a big game.

Addendum: I went looking for a picture of the ol’ rink, and apparently it has glass now. In fact: “Built in 1936, the Ice Rink is the only refrigerated, NHL regulation, outdoor Ice Rink in New Mexico.” Those who know the history of Los Alamos realize that in 1936 the town didn’t exist; the rink was part of the Ranch for Boys that occupied the land before the Manhattan Project. Maybe there’s an old photo somewhere of Colgate and Pond in hockey garb. All more fascinating material for the TV yakkers to gush over.

The rink in this picture looks WAY swankier than it did was when I was a kid. Maybe not so good for nostalgia, but that ice is just waiting for the NHL to figure out how to get a no-audience outdoor game right. And with the glass they won’t have to send someone up the slope into the woods to find the puck quite so often.

5

Use It or Sell It

I don’t spend nearly as much time in video conferences as many of the people around me do, but even after we figure out what normal is anymore, it’s likely to include a lot of telepresence. I have been mildly dissatisfied with some of my gear for these gatherings, but it has recently occurred to me that I already have excellent alternatives.

The first annoyance is my dissatisfaction with my older-generation little earbuds. They have an elegant design, but they are persnickety. I think keeping the case in my pocket has introduced grime in the connector and inside the case as well, but where else am I going to put the case if not my pocket? I’m not buying a fanny pack to carry around my too-hip earbuds. And beyond that the buds have this slick, “I know when I’m in your ear” feature that doesn’t always know when one or the other is in my ear.

I have another set of headphones, the over-ear type, that I really like. I can save swearing at the sleek little ear buds for when I’m on the workout machine, and wear the superior cans the rest of the time. The only catch: no microphone. My laptop has a microphone, but it turns out I have an even better solution.

I have an actual microphone. A pretty good one, in fact, purchased roughly 25 years ago. Maybe 30. I’ve been paying to store it and I’ve been dragging it along with me ever since, but I’ve hardly used it. (it was bought as an expression of commitment for a project that failed to launch.) It is a condenser mic, but it has a battery if you are in situations where you can’t provide phantom power. It turns out somewhere along the way I also picked up a little tube preamp to supply phantom power and provide knobs to twist. Used even less.

All I need to get that rig up and running is a cable that has XLR on one end and USB on the other. That’s not as simple as it sounds, because on the microphone/amp end of the wire the signal is analog, while on the computer end the signal is digital. So it’s not just a cable but an a/d converter. But those converters are out there. You can pay as much as you want, or twelve bucks.

Also, I will need a desktop microphone stand, or a Tinkertoy set.

But the bottom line is that I have utter overkill for the microphone requirement. And if I don’t use that microphone now, what the hell am I holding on to it for?

But it doesn’t end there. There was much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments when my employer introduced their new line of laptops this year. Sure there is much excitement around the new chip (I have no information about it that you don’t, but it sounds pretty dang awesome), but the laptops still have the same barely-adequate cameras their predecessors did. Back when the new lineup was finalized, that probably didn’t seem like such a big deal.

Software has improved the quality of the video from these laptops, but for a company that makes a big deal of the awesomeness of the cameras (plural! working seamlessly together) on their phones, they sure seem to be slacking on the laptops. (My uninformed opinion is that this will change when FaceID come to the laptop line.)

My “office” corner is fairly dim, and I like it that way, but it doesn’t work so well in virtual meetings. If only I had a better Web camera! Like, that Canon right over there. Huh. And then with the 50mm at a fairly wide aperture the background back-lit liquor cabinet would just be an interesting blur, rather than a testament to what I have become. Turns out Canon rushed out software to make many of their cameras work with many of the conference platforms. All I need is… the cable to connect the camera to the computer.

I am two cables away from having a pretty high-end conference station. Because I TOTALLY NEED one. And hell, If I can’t justify owning that microphone now, it’s time to let go.

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Hank Aaron

I was a kid in 1974, and not particularly attached to baseball. Yet I felt the buzz as Henry “Hammerin’ Hank” Aaron approached the all-time home run record.

Aaron was approaching a record set four decades earlier by Babe Ruth. He accomplished this (I read today) by being the singly most consistently great player in baseball history. This is something that can only be accomplished by a talented athlete who never takes a day off, mentally or physically, for decades.

In 1974, there were a lot of other things I didn’t know. My recollection of the game is vague, except for the part where Hank went long. While I watched the TV to see if this would be the at-bat that made him a legend (not even really understanding what that meant, but I was caught up in the spectacle), I did not know that Hank Aaron was receiving death threats every day. A lot of people were threatening to kill him if he, a Black man, were to break Ruth’s record.

When Aaron’s team relocated from Milwaukee to Atlanta, he wasn’t too stoked. He had played minor league ball in the South, and the fans had not been pleasant. But his team moved, and so did he, and he quietly became a voice of racial justice in Georgia.

But (I read today), rather than being filled with anticipation at breaking a legendary record, Aaron was living in hell, and just wanted that final home run that put an end to the conflict, one way or another. That angers me, that such an accomplishment would only be a source of catharsis, rather than joy. That the last part of the climb to that summit would be tainted by fear of something not natural but simply evil.

Aaron broke the record set by a man who played in a league that excluded black players. Imagine what might have become of Ruth’s numbers if he had had to face Satchel Paige occasionally, or any of a number of powerful pitchers and fielders relegated to the Negro Leagues.

Aaron’s record was eventually broken by the bioscience industry, with Barry Bonds as its representative.

Neither of those two were dealing with thousands of hostile letters every week. Neither of those were just wanting to get this whole thing behind them.

Hammerin’ Hank, you’re still my hero. You’re still the home run king.

I Learned Two Things Today

Today while reading a math puzzle column I have mentioned before, I learned two things.

First, there is a mathematical concept called a derangement. Second, there is (or at least was) a publication called Journal of Recreational Mathematics, which is about the best title for any publication ever. Were I remotely qualified, I would revive it, but I’m actually not even qualified to subscribe to it.

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Gotta Ride, Part 5: 300+ Fezzari Miles Later*

Coyote Creek Trail

There is a section of my favorite bike trail, a sinuous stretch that winds between ancient trees, that is far enough from picnic spots that there is little foot traffic or large family bicycle outings. Along that stretch, I am occasionally able to flout the local speed limit and really have fun. Or to be precise, a different kind of fun, because it fills my heart with gladness to see a whole family out there enjoying the air and the trees and some of the good things about life.

And now there are bike helmets for kids that are awesome. I saw a young girl with a unicorn lid today that was just plain cool. I could be tempted, is all I’m saying. I’m never going to grumble about having to slow down for groups like that; in ten years I’ll be the one getting in the way of the girl who has eschewed her unicorn for an aero helmet. Hakuna-matata, or something like that.

But I digress.

I am thankful for the quieter stretches, on this trail and elsewhere, over which I can put my head down a little bit, and see what I can do. The stretch on Coyote Creek Trail was always one of my favorites, but then I got the new bike. The Fezzari Empire changes things in ways I could never have imagined.

The Coyote Creek segment is flat by bicyclist standards, but it rolls a bit, with rises that seem gentler than they used to, and descents that seem more fun than ever. Ascending, rather than drop down a couple of gears and pedal enough to preserve some of my momentum, I’m more inclined now to stand up and mash, the challenge to never break my cadence as I attack the slope. Often now I’m going faster when I get to the top of these minor obstacles and my heart is pumping harder and I feel good.

Then through the twists and turns, and as confidence increases (see Rule 64) I find myself slicing through the corners, my bicycle eager to carve a path as my tires hiss over the pavement and my shirt ripples with the wind. It is a singularly awesome moment.

I mentioned somewhere in Part 4 that the new bike loves to turn. In fact, it is much like the little two-seat sports car that is buried under bike stuff in my garage. Quick, twitchy, and communicative, if a little more demanding and rougher than my good ol’ Giant commuter bike. The Fezzari is talking to me all the time, and listening as well. And if I don’t pay attention, things go astray much more quickly than when I am on my other bike. Kind of like my storytelling.

Perhaps now is the time to mention, for people who don’t know me, that when I speak of my recent triumphs on my new bicycle, that the successes are relative. I will not be competing in the Tour de France any time soon; I am a gradually-less-overweight guy with skinny little legs who has earned his long white beard. Most of the Spandex Crowd** still passes me. (Hehe… most.) I’m probably not saying anything here that experienced cyclists don’t already know. But maybe the experienced cyclists out there have forgotten just how awesome getting on a good bike and riding really is. And that joy is what I’m here to tell you about.

On the subject of communication with a bike: Never has a chain lube given such instantaneous gratification before. I had not considered that the repair stand I owned would not work on a bike with a through-axle, and I suddenly found myself scrounging. It was 250 miles before I did the first cleaning/lube (factory chain lube is supposed to last a while… right?) and I had identified a rumbling feeling coming through my cranks. I thought it might be an alignment problem with my fancy derailleur, but nope, after routine chain maintenance it was like I was pedaling a cloud. A badass cloud. The sound of the tires actually rises and falls with my pedaling cadence. Zhoosh-zhoosh-zhoosh.

Along the Guadalupe River Trail there is a brief, very steep slope up from the river to the top of the embankment. The other day I stood up and mashed, increasing torque on the pedals by pulling upward on the handlebars. The front wheel was lifting off the ground as I pushed up the slope, and I leaned forward to put more of my weight over that wheel.

Like a real goddam cyclist. For the rest of that outing, my longest single ride ever, I was taking it easy to conserve energy, especially while fighting a fierce headwind for the first half, but for the few uphill bits I turned into a maniac.

How does my Fezzari compare to a Trek or Specialized with similar components? Honestly I have no idea. Fezzari is a smaller outfit out of Utah, and they make a big deal of their production techniques. The marketing copy sounds convincing, anyway, and there are some good reviews. And for a bike with the same components I’d be out at least another $2000 to go with the big name. Probably more. That’s a lot of dollars. And the water I carry weighs more than the frame does.

Someday in the future I will haul my pedals down to visit my roadie friends in San Diego, and try not to destroy their gear as we ride about more slowly than they are accustomed to. Maybe then I can do a comparison. In the meantime, I can only gush about the game-changer I’m riding now.

The Fezzari folk are awfully friendly as well, although I think this road bike is new for them. In a couple of cases I feel a bit like a beta tester — a couple of conversations with their staff were a little confused, the assembly instructions didn’t apply to this bike at some points, and the brace for the seat post needs a little design work. The front derailleur was not adjusted properly when it arrived, but they may have been rushing because I was pestering them with “is it ready yet?” messages every seven minutes and they just wanted to give an excitable old man his bike.

Would I recommend the Fezzari Empire to other cyclists? Oh, heck yeah. Am I the guy other cyclists should be taking advice from? Only if you love to ride.

_____

* As well as a fair number of miles on my old Giant.
** The term is not to disparage; I will be a member of this crowd soon enough.

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In Parting, a Nod to Operation Warp Speed

If you’re not familiar with the name, “Operation Warp Speed” was what the Trump administration dubbed its all-out blitz to partner with the pharmaceutical industry to create a coronavirus vaccine. And historically, even given the head start we had working on other similar vaccines, OWS has been a pretty monumental success.

Had this been part of Trump’s coronavirus response, rather than the entire response, we might actually be (guardedly, with qualifiers) saying nice things about our president right now. Had our president not amply demonstrated that his only interest in the vaccine was to be a feather in his cap to get him reelected, we might be a little more inclined to give credit where due.

But despite the fact that Donnie has once again demonstrated that he doesn’t care whether people live or die, he did do this one thing right, if perhaps for the wrong reason.

Goodbye, Donnie. I hope your prison tweets fracture the Republican Party beyond repair to give room for a new ethical conservative voice to rise. But thank you for Operation Warp Speed. Perhaps it will come in time to save a few of the people you would otherwise have killed.

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It Sells Itself

Centrum vitamins and Red Bull should combine to make an energy drink aimed at seniors. The name: Fossil Fuel.

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