Thursday, March 29, 2012

Exercise: Phase II - Weekly Walking

After returning from our Route 66 vacation I started a project.  It might be more appropriate to call it a resolution but making resolutions in August seems out of place.  I told myself I would try to exercise more.  I've made this promise many times before, failing miserably, but this time it seems to be sticking, probably because it was reinforced by a bad set of blood tests and the need to do physical therapy for my leg issues.

You may be wondering why this post is titled Phase II.  I started Phase I in August but I haven't reached its goal yet.  I started Phase II in late November of last year and I have reached my first goal ... hence the name of this post.  Phase I will be discussed when I reach its goal in a few weeks.  Phase II of my exercise project, by the way, consisted of walking.

The thing about walking is that I really enjoy it.  It gives me time to let my mind wander.  It lets me explore parts of the city I've never been before at my own speed.  It is also easy to set concrete goals.  I have tried to keep each walk relatively new and fresh going to places I've never been before ... at least on foot.  As the walks have gotten longer I've had to look harder for places to walk that allowed for long loops (I almost always do loops and stay away from there-and-back paths) affording me opportunities to travel in my head.    This has not always been easy.

My initial plan, like many plans I have had in the past, was very aggressive.  I planned to walk every week day (M-T-W-TH-F).  The first week would be a mile a day.  The second week would be two miles a day, the third week would be three miles a day.  Etcetera.  I was doing this to give my body time to adjust to the walking and to thicken up my feet before I got to the longer distances that I knew I was capable of.  I started the walks in late November, after Thanksgiving.  I'd irritated my right knee in late October during a bike ride and I took most of November off from all long distance walking/biking to give it time to heal.  By the time it was feeling better I was feeling really antsy and raring to go.

The project went well for the first four weeks.  My knee started bothering me again but I discovered wearing a neoprene sleeve helped stabilize the knee and reduced the irritation substantially.  What got me was my recovery time.  When I got home from my walk I just wanted to lay around.  It reminded me of what it was like in the albergues in the afternoon.  You'd get there and, after doing your chores, would crash for a few hours.  I like a good nap as much as the next guy but I couldn't do it everyday.  There are things to be done, chores to be completed, errands to be run.  I had to rethink my strategy.

I have to admit this bothered me a bit.  On the Camino I averaged 14.27 miles a day for 36 days.  I walked with a twenty pound pack.  Sure I was tired at the end of the day but I still had energy to do stuff in the towns I stopped in.  Here I was walking a measly four miles with no pack, good food and the comforts of home and I was having issues recuperating?!?  After agonizing about it a bit I decided I had to listen to my body so I reduced the walks to three days a week (M-W-F).  I would maintain roughly the same distance for two weeks.  This slowed things down, gave my body time to recover and get used to the new distance.  It felt like I was learning to walk all over again.

Around the eight mile point I ran into more time issues (though I think the time issues may have been/are all in my head). It was hard to fit in three hours of walking with the three hours of grocery shopping and errands I usually did on Monday.  I stopped walking on Mondays.  I also took a week off from walking in mid-February after having a short bout with the common cold.

This week I reached my first walking goal - 10 miles.  Not a huge distance.  In fact, of the 210 walks I've made since I started keeping track in 2007, 79 have been greater than or equal to 10 miles long (37.6%).  But it still feels like a success for some reason.  I don't have another goal except to continue to increase the distance of my walks.  I was going to add bicycling to my exercise once my walking reached 10 miles but I have decided that I need to give my knee more time to fully recuperate.  These types of knee injuries, strain/damage to the cartilage, heals slowly, if at all.

Being a numbers guy, here is a plot of the Phase II walking distances.  Note as the distances got longer it was harder to meet a specific distance goal and the walking distances became a little erratic:


I wish I'd started this walking routine before my Camino.  I didn't prepare well for it and, while I finished the whole 513 miles, I think a little more preparation would have made a difference early on.  In a way I'm preparing for the Camino after I walked it.  A little back assward.  It will make a difference on my next Camino in 2013 though.

I think a lot about the Camino while I walk.  This really hit home when I reached the longer eight and nine mile walks.  Walking longer distances along streets I'd never been on before triggered the feelings I had on my Camino.   I regained some of the sense of wonder I'd experienced and with the sense of wonder came a flash of the calm, comfortable feeling I had along parts of the Way.  It's a wonderful feeling that has helped me move a small step closer to the optimism, and the healthier body, I am searching for.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

She Keeps Blooming And Blooming ...

This post is for the Moms.  The Mother-in-Law gave us a Christmas cactus back in 2009.  Pictures of it blooming has graced Homer's Travels a few times since.  The cactus usually blooms around Christmas  and lasts a month or two.  Last year was an exception in that it bloomed twice - once around Christmas and once around Easter.  This year ... Well check out this picture:

Blooms and New Buds
It started blooming in December and hasn't stopped.  It's still getting new buds on it though it has started to slow down in the last week or so.  I gave my Mom a clipping last year.  I believe it has already bloomed.

I have to say, this 100 year old lady comes from sturdy stock and, as a commentor said back in 2009, "Your cactus is not only happy, it's on cloud nine!"  So ... what's happier than cloud 9?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Changing Pictures Experiment

Over our couch in our living/family room we have six picture frames displaying pictures I have taken over the years.  They've been hanging a couple years.  The Wife suggested a few ... months ago that I should change the pictures.  This gave me an idea.  I would change one picture every other day but I wouldn't tell the Wife.  How long would it take for her to notice?

My plan was to change one small picture every other day until I'd changed six small pictures then I would change one of the big pictures.  I figured she would catch it when I changed the big picture as that would be the most obvious.  I based this assumption on the fact that I probably wouldn't have noticed the changes until then.

Original Pictures.
Monday of last week I changed the upper right picture of the upper right frame.  On Wednesday I changed the lower left picture of the bottom center frame.  On Friday I changed the upper left  picture of the upper left frame.  I was careful to replace each picture with pictures of similar colors so the change wouldn't be so obvious.  All of the new pictures were ones I took in Spain.

Last Friday, after the third picture had been changed the Wife excitedly asked me "When did you change the pictures?"  The experiment was over and I had assumed wrong.  The Wife was better at seeing these things than I was.

I guess I proved the obvious ... I've never been able to surprise the Wife.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Another Sort Of Pilgrimage: The Way Of Saint Cranes

Every March - early April, the Sandhill Cranes migrate through Nebraska on their way to their summer homes in Canada and Alaska.  The Cranes stop for a spell along a stretch of the Platte River, often described as being "a  mile wide ... and six inches deep."  While there they gorge on waste corn in the adjacent farm fields and rest up for their long journey north.

Like the sandhill cranes, every March - early April, people converge on central Nebraska to see the estimated 500,000 - 600,000 cranes.  They gather on bridges, roadsides, and bird watching blinds at sunset and sunrise to watch the cranes return to/leave the river for the night/day.  We joined this bird nerdy gathering three years ago when we froze out patootees off watching our first crane migration.  We'd been thinking about doing it again when I saw a contest on Facebook put on by Cars, Travel, Food.  Leave a comment on their Facebook page and you could win two free tickets to get into a bird watching blind.  I commented ... I won!  We went.

Cranes zooming in for a landing.
We left Saturday afternoon.  The bird blind tours are held by the Nebraska Nature & Visitor's Center about seven miles from Grand Island, NE.  This is an easy two hour drive for us.  We arrived shortly after 3:00 PM, early for the tour, so we sent into town looking for food.  We've had rather bad luck finding specific places to eat in Grand Island.  In 2009 we had a list of two quirky places that turned out to be closed.  This time the place I'd picked - it had flat screen TVs at each booth ... perfect for March Madness - was not where it was supposed to be.  We never found it.  Like in 2009 we ended up at some chain restaurant which was good enough.  At least we liked the hot chocolate chip cookie covered in ice cream, whipped cream, and Oreo bits.

We went to the nature center and picked up out tour passes, perused the gift shop (T-shirt and a magnet), and watched a movie about the crane migration.  At 6:00 PM a guide shared some knowledge of the cranes and informed us of the proper bird blind etiquette.  We were then split into two groups and we caravaned out to the blinds.

Whole bunch of Sandhill Cranes
The blinds are nothing fancy.  Big wooden boxes with windows facing the river.  We each had a chair and our own viewing window.  It would have been cold in the winter time.  At least it would have been cold if this were a normal winter.  It was in the upper 70s with a warm south wind when we reached the blind.

As sunset approached so did the cranes.  The nearest crane was probably 80-90 yards from the blind.  Cranes are notoriously skittish as they are hunted everywhere but Nebraska.  While we watched the mass of cranes accumulate on the river's sandbars, we were treated to a rarity.  Among the grey/brown sandhill cranes was a bright speck of white - a Whooping Crane.  How special is this?  There are less than 300 of these birds in the wild.  At one point around 1941 there were only 15 in existence.  Truly a once in a lifetime occurrence.

Whooping Crane among the Sandhill cranes (Click on picture to see a larger version)
The next day we got up early and went to the same place we went in 2009.  While we froze last time, this year it was in the 50s and rather comfortable.  It was windy and there were some low clouds that dampened the brilliant sunrise colors we'd witnessed in 2009 but, despite this, we enjoyed watching the cranes wake up and take flight.

We headed back to the hotel, decided to skip the hot tub (full of little kids at 8:00 AM!), had breakfast at Grandma Max's Diner (with a name like that how could it be bad - it wasn't!), and headed home.  We got back home before Noon so were were gone less than twenty-four hours.

Out of 490 pictures the Wife and I took, I only found 25 worth posting.  Those 25 can be found in my 2009-2012 Sandhill Crane Migration Google Photos album.  As I was looking at the pictures I noticed something.  When on the ground, all the cranes seem to be facing the same direction.  Wonder why that is?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Book: Patrick Rothfuss' "The Wise Man's Fear"

I've been waiting for this book for a while.  "The Wise Man's Fear: The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day Two" is the sequel to Patrick Rothfuss' first book "The Name of the Wind" which I read back in 2009.  I really liked the first book.  I liked it a lot.  The second book was delayed several times to my consternation and to that of the other fans of Rothfuss' writing.  The book finally came out in 2011, a year later than had been advertised, and I finally got my hands on a copy at my local library.

First of all, the second book is huge - 994 pages - but like the first is reads smoothly and comfortably and I had no problem powering through it.  Rothfuss has an easy to read style.

The book picks up where the first ended and continues the development of the main character, young Kvothe, as he learns the magic of Rothfuss' world and moves from one adventure to another.  You see him develop from a naive young boy to a more worldly young man.  As in the first book, Kvothe is a little too perfect. I like the story enough that was able to forgive this issue.

The book doesn't flow as well as the first.  It felt like Rothfuss had a stack of a dozen or so adventures and he tried to stitch them all into a coherent story.  He succeeds ... somewhat ... though some of the transitions from one story to another are rather jarring.

My understanding is that this is a trilogy.  If this is true, I think the story should have been advanced farther than it was. Either the third book is going to be packed with a huge amount of development or a lot is going to be skipped.  I'm looking forward to the third book.  I am curious how it will be wrapped up. I just hope it doesn't take another four years til I get to read it.

Highly recommended if you like fantasy.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Poetic Shout Out To The Wife

Saturday was the Nebraska state Poetry Out Loud competition.  The student from the Wife's school, where the Wife runs the Poetry Out Loud program, competed for the state title and a chance to compete in Washington D.C. at the national competition.

Before the start of the competition, held in an art museum at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, I wandered around the foyer where small knots of student competitors, teachers, family, and friends gathered to practice their recitation before the main event.  The place was full of poetic murmurings and nervous banter.

Poetry Out Loud is a poetry recitation competition.  High School competitors stand on a bare stage in front of a microphone and, during three rounds, read three poems from memory.  The poems are selected by the student from a list of 600 eligible poems of different length and difficulty.  Judges mark them based on several criteria including accuracy.

The competitors walk a fine line between recitation and theatricality.  Being too theatrical is frowned upon but being monotone isn't good either.

This was the third year that I've attended at least one of the regional or state competitions with the Wife.  I do find it interesting even though the Wife thinks the only reason I go is because they have cookies during intermission.  The cookies are good but so are the poets.  I have to admit that I am starting to recognized the poems being read.

The Wife's student did a great job coming in third.  She's a sophomore so she has a couple more years to improve and compete.

Congratulations to the Wife and her amazing student!

Thursday, March 08, 2012

New Toy: Nikon Coolpix AW100 Camera

After returning from the Camino last year I decided that I needed to rethink my camera situation.  On my Camino I took my old Canon Powershot S5.  I took it because it was smaller than my DSLR (a Canon Rebel T1i) and much lighter.  It also took regular AA batteries.  The S5 served me well but it had a couple drawbacks.

The main drawbacks were it's relative bulk compared to the modern compact cameras and the fact it wasn't rugged or waterproof.  The lack of waterproofing necessitated the carrying of a camera bag to protect the camera from damage and unpredictable weather.  The bag added weight and the potential of getting the camera wet during rain precluded me from using the camera on a couple rainy days during the Camino including me missing taking a picture of the friendly dog on the way to Fisterra.

Another drawback ... and this is more of a personal one ... is that I like to geotag my photos.  To do this with my S5 I had to take a handheld GPS (a Garmin Oregon 400t) and some twenty AA Lithium batteries to power said GPS which added  19.5 ounces (553 g)  to my pack.  One beneficial byproduct of carrying the GPS was I could keep track of the distance traveled, average speed, elevation climb, and generate nice tracks of my daily stages for Homer's Travels.  After I returned home I used a piece of software called GeoSetter to combine the GPS tracks with the photos.  While this was easy to do, it was an extra step that had to be done to process the photos.

So, when I got back I wanted to come up with a solution that would fill these deficiencies.  I put together a spread sheet with the characteristics I wanted in a camera.  I ended up with 12 criteria:
      1. ≥ 10 Megapixels*
      2. ≥ 12X Optical Zoom
      3. Image Stabilization*
      4. GPS Tagging*
      5. GPS Tracking*
      6. Macro Function*
      7. Slide Panorama/Panorama Assist*
      8. Water Proof*
      9. RAW format
      10. Swivel Display
      11. Viewfinder
      12. Standard AA Batteries
It turns out many of these criteria are incompatible either with each other or with the compact size of the modern day point and shoot camera.  I found that items 10, 11 & 12 are not found in compact cameras.  Displays are fixed, there is no viewfinder (Something I have always had and used), and rechargeable batteries are now the norm.

The biggest pair of incompatible criteria, the one that caused me most grief when trying to decide which camera to buy, was the Zoom vs Water Proof.  If a camera has a good zoom, it isn't water proof.  If it's water proof, the zoom will max out around 5X.  I probably agonized over this trade off for a couple months.

I finally decided that water proof/rugged was more important than zoom (something I'm still not sure about). All this deliberation led me to by a Nikon Coolpix AW100.  (The * in the list above are the criteria the AW100 meets.)

I've been playing with it for a week now and I am happy.  I miss the zoom.  I miss the viewfinder - I keep putting the camera up to my face and realizing there isn't one.  I like the picture quality.  I like the compact size.  I like the panorama mode - I am a big fan of panoramas.  I like the macro function - I am also a fan of macro (i.e. close up) photography.  It's resolution is actually better than my DSLR.  It also takes HD video.  I also like the GPS function.

I have used the GPS function three times during the last week.  The first test ... well I messed it up.  I accidentally stopped the GPS logging function shortly after I enabled it.  I was a little disappointed that the GPS had trouble locking on to satellites when walking among buildings and trees.  The second test was in Galena.  I managed to activate the GPS logging function successfully this time but the tracking was, again, a bit spotty.  Before the third test I loaded an A-GPS file (assist GPS).  This file, downloaded from Nikon, is supposed to help the GPS lock on to satellites quicker.  The third tracking test went much better.  I'm not sure if it was the A-GPS file or if it was the fact that there weren't any tall building where I walked.  I compared the camera's log file with the Garmin Oregon GPS track.  The tracks matched pretty well, deviating between 53 and 158 ft from each other (16 m to 48 m).  Since the typical GPS is accurate within 33 ft (10 m) the errors I saw were not unusual.  Here are a couple of pictures comparing the two tracks (Red is the AW100, Blue is the Garmin Oregon):

Tracking on a curve.
Tracking on a straight.
As you can see the Garmin Oregon saves more points (The little blue arrow heads/squares) than the AW100 does.  The most obvious issue this causes is the cutting of corners by the AW100.

The AW100 tracking is not perfect but it was pretty close.  The distance measured were similar for both devices varying by less than 2%.  The average speed matched.  The elevation (more a function of Google Earth, actually) were withing 11 feet of each other.  A better antenna in the camera would probably improve the GPS function a lot.  One thing I haven't fully tested is how much the GPS shortens battery life.

One last thing.  Travel weight.  For my Camino I carried a camera, camera bag, GPS, and batteries which totaled approximately 48.4 oz (1,371 g) - a substantial amount (this weight declined as I walked as I tossed spent batteries).  The AW100 (assuming no camera bag - it is rugged and will easily fit in a pocket of my cargo pants), charger, and extra battery totals approximately 13.6 oz (384 g) - substantially less.

All in all I think the AW100 will work well as a travel camera and a travel GPS substitute.  The first true test of my new toy will be our China trip this summer.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Weekend In Galena

We spent the weekend in Galena, IL with the Matron of Honor (MoH) and Best Man (BM).  This was the third time in a year that we've visited this small town on the Galena river, the last being during our Route 66 vacation.  There was fresh snow on the ground when we arrived which seemed strange after all the 'brown' we've had this winter.  We reached the town at 8:30PM and spent the rest of Friday night talking about news - both family and world news.

Saturday was a slow start.  I needed it.  On Friday I'd walked eight miles before driving for nearly six hours.  I'd been a tad tired and a late morning hit the spot.  We met the MoH and BM in the lobby and had some hotel breakfast.  I continued the minor trend I'd started on our Route 66 vacation and had a waffle.  I'm not a huge waffle fan but it was actually pretty good.

Grant House, Galena, Illinois.
We drove into town and visited the Grant House.  The house had been given to General U.S. Grant after the civil war.  We toured the house with it's original decorations.  It reminded me a little of my Grandparents house when I was a kid.  The house was set on top of the bluffs and offered a great view of the town.

View from Grant House in Galena, Illinois.
After a little bit of history we headed to Main street and walked the shops.  We all found something to drop money on ... well the Wife and MoH did.  I didn't buy anything.  The Star Trek diorama was tempting but it was in pretty rough condition so I walked away.

We ate lunch at the Galena Brewing Company where I had a pulled pork sandwich as big as my head.  The bar/restaurant was once a mortuary.  We expected it to be decorated in mortuary chic but it wasn't.  It just felt like a bar.  I think they're missing an opportunity there.  We took our time eating, drinking, and talking.

Downtown Galena, Illinois.
We finished our downtown walk and went in search of ice cream or gelato, both advertised in windows along the downtown.  Unfortunately it is winter and both places either had none or were out of the best flavors.  We decided to move along.

We visited a nice visitor's center/museum where we asked about places for dinner.  We headed back to our hotel for an afternoon nap - a sign that we are officially old.  I needed the nap and after sleeping a couple hours I read my book while the Wife slept.

That evening we went to the Timmerman's Supper Club.  The place was right out of the 60s and served great food and drink.  It smelled like the 60s and brought back memories of when I was a kid ... again.  I made up for not having ice cream by having a triple chocolate layer cake (chocolate cookie crust, chocolate tort, chocolate mousse, chocolate cake, chocolate frosting, chocolate chips, and a drizzle of chocolate sauce).

On Sunday we drove home, part of the way through blowing snow.  And to think the forecast for tomorrow is 70°F (21°C).

Overall we had a relaxing and fun weekend in Galena with the MoH and BM.  Even though I'd never been to Galena when I was a kid, the town kept bringing back memories of my childhood.  They were all good memories.

P.S.   During our stay in Galena I tried out my new camera I bought last week.  It has GPS, is waterproof and rugged, and will make a perfect travel camera.  I will post more about it later this week.