Thursday, January 28, 2010

Book: Iain M. Banks' "Excession"


The fourth Culture book that I've read, Iain M. Banks' "Excession", was probably the best I've read so far. The excession, an Outside Context Problem, is an artifact that doesn't fit in the Culture's knowledge of the Universe. When the Culture encounters an excession everything stops so that it can be studied, understood, and incorporated into the Culture's knowledge base.

The book intertwines multiple story tracks following the Culture's Minds (Sentient computers of unimaginable power), human diplomats, alien races, conspiracies, competitions for supremacy, innocents, and warriors. This leads to the one downfall of this book - too many characters to keep track off. I was confused for a lot of the book but, in a way, this allows the reader to feel what the Minds feel. They too are confused as to the meaning of the excession. Even with their superior intellect they have difficulty following who is on whose side and who is good, who is bad.

The book ends with all the threads coming together, some in unexpected ways just as an outside context problem would, to a satisfying conclusion. The one thing I would change is the epilogue. The last page provides the reader with some explanation of what the excession really was. I think the excession should have remained a mystery, a mystery leaving you wanting for more just like the characters in the book.

Recommended.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

For My Next Trick: Self-Flagellation

As part of my plans, the ones I mentioned last post, I have been getting ready by either hiking or city walking. Most of the trails in the area are rather short so I have resorted to the less exciting task of walking through the city. This weekend I popped up Google Maps and decided that I would leave from my house and walk to Omaha's downtown area. The walking direction Google gave me estimated the distance to be 18.8 miles (30.25 km) which was perfect being just over one mile longer than my previous distance record.

I headed out with a printout of the walking directions and promptly shoved them in my pocket. It was a bit cold, 18°F (-8°C), and in parts where there wasn't any windbreak it felt downright frigid but I was bundled up like the Michelin Man and I wasn't too uncomfortable. I walked along a part of the Keystone Trail, walked east past the excellent
Satellite Motel that looks like something that should be on Route 66 and looked, unsuccessfully, for a geocache near an old closed elevator (I'd love to explore it but I've never seen so many no trespassing signs. There's a rumor it's being converted into a climbing/repelling facility - cool if true). The cache location turned out to be in a snow plow dumping location and was under a 10 foot by 30 foot pile of snow.


Near the elevator is the trailhead of the Field Club Trail that runs to the north-west. I followed this trail, missed where I was supposed to get off the trail and ended up getting off the trail on Woolworth. Heading east on Woolworth took me to President Ford's birthplace, now marked with a rose garden. I stopped here and sat on a bench to rest my legs and to drink some water (partially frozen after being in my coat pocket).

My turn around point was a sandwich shop in the old market area of downtown Omaha. When I got there I looked at the GPS expecting to see around 9.4 miles on the trip odometer. It said 11.1 miles (17.8 km). Not what I expected. I went in, ordered lunch, and read a local, free, what-to-do-in-Omaha newspapers while I ate and hoped that the odometer was wrong. It was nice to get off my legs and feet for a while.

The way home was pretty much hell. My legs were screaming. I stopped several times to sit down and rest including in front of this
delightful establishment. I passed the cows going to the nearby slaughter house. I passed under railroad tracks and wondered about the chair covered in silly string I found under the bridge. At least I hope that was silly string.

I discover something worse than going up a hill after 17 miles of walking - walking up a snow covered hill after having walking 17 miles. People are supposed to clear the snow from their sidewalks within 48 hours or so of a storm. Well I can attest to the fact that this city ordnance is thoroughly ignored.

I made it back home and collapsed on the couch. In the end the walk was 20.65 miles (33.23 km). A little more than I intended. A new personal best. I walked like a grandpa for the rest of the evening and today ... I'm still grandpa but I'm getting better. Omaha is not a flat city. My total ascent on this hike was around 2,224 feet done in several hills as you can see in this plot.

(This plot is not perfect - I'm still figuring out the GPS and utilities)


The Steamboat Trace is two 21 mile hikes back-to-back. Right now, if you asked me if I could do this walk again, today, I would say no, but I have time. I have until May 22 to build up my endurance ... and I will.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Plans ... Plans ... More Plans

This month is turning out to be rather dull here at Homer's Travels. This post is my tenth post of the month, the lowest for any month since I started the blog. The weather, the mind numbing, mood dampening fog that we've been having for the last week or so, has really slowed me down. I didn't walk, hike, bike, or snowshoe at all last week, something I haven't done in quite a while and, no sir, I didn't like it.

What I did do this week, probably motivated by the deficit of activities, was make plans for future activities and vacations. So far the Wife and I have managed to plan our vacations for the next couple of years starting, this year, with our Jordan trip.

Some of you, the few who really pay attention to my ramblings, may have noticed that I have made no mention of the
Camino of Saint James, the Spanish pilgrimage that I was going to do in 2010. I realized that I really wasn't up to the task quite yet. I need more time to convince myself that I can do such an ambitious undertaking. Along with the perceived weakness of the body, there is another reason to postpone the walk. In 2010 the holy day for Saint James falls on a Sunday. When this happens, in the past, the volume of pilgrims increases dramatically. While this may make the pilgrimage more interesting and I'm sure there would be interesting events, festivals, etc. planned for this year, the added crowds would make it hard to get spots in the albergues. The albergues, pilgrim hostels, are first come first serve and do not take reservations. Therefore I have postponed the pilgrimage to June/July 2011.

To get me past my perceived weakness, I am pushing my hiking/walking distance out farther and farther. This week I intend to walk to the downtown area of Omaha and back, an 18.8 mile jaunt. I will keep pushing it out past 20 miles. In May I will be walking the
Steamboat Trace from Nebraska City to Brownville, 21 miles, and then, the next day, walk back. I've already made a non-refundable deposit for the River Inn room (riverside room of course) in Brownville so I have some financial motivation to complete the hike as well.

After we get back from Jordan, depending on when and if the Wife does her summer seminars/workshops/classes this year, I hope to walk the
Cowboy Trail from Norfolk to Ainsworth and back, a total of 295 miles round trip. This hike will take twenty days total and will average some 14 - 15 miles per day. For reference, the Camino of Saint James averages some 13 - 14 miles per day. If I'm not convinced that I can do it by then I don't know what will convince me.

In 2011 I will do the Camino of Saint James, probably in June. After 35+ days of hiking the Spanish countryside I will come home and we will start a Route 66 roadtrip. The roadtrip was suggested by the Wife and it's something I've been wanting to do for awhile. We would drive to California (3 Days), spend a few days visiting with friends, before setting out on the
Mother Road. Five or six days on the road to Chicago, sightseeing and taking pictures along the way, and a day to get back home. The summer of 2011 will be a full one baring any unforeseen circumstance.

So there is a sampling of the long term plans that have been running through my head over the past week or so. Shorter term we have a visit with the Matron of Honor and Best Man, with T
E and JA along for the ride, to attend the last weekend of Saint Paul's 2010 Winter Carnival. After that I will be competing (I use that word loosely) in the Trek Up The Tower on February 20th. I'll let you know how it goes ... if I survive.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

With A Little Help From My Friends ...

First I want to thank everyone who voted for my Nebraska Geopicting Contest picture (See sidebar). Thanks to all of you for helping me win!

This is an especially sweet win as I don't recall ever winning a contest based on something I produced. The best I've ever done has been on random drawings and lotteries and I don't think I've ever won more that $20 or $30 on those. This one picture, a picture of a sunset pointed out to me by the Wife, has won me $1,250 ($250 Cabelas gift card and a laptop worth $1,000).

It's an awesome feeling. One I've waited almost 46 years to experience. Makes me want to find some local photography contests to enter or something. But first I'll have to chip all the ice we are expecting over the next 24 hours.

Thanks again to everyone who voted.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Book: Benjamin Orbach's "Live From Jordan"


I can't remember ever reading a book that I've received as a gift so it's appropriate that my first gift book was also my first book of 2010. The GodSon was the gift giver and the most appropriate gift to the Wife and I was Benjamin Orbach's "Live From Jordan: Letters Home From My Journey Through the Middle East".

Benjamin Orbach spent thirteen months, from July 2002 to August 2003, living in Jordan and Egypt studying Arabic. The book compiles letters he wrote back home to his family in the USA, one letter per chapter. His account is less about Jordan than of the people he encounters - the true Jordan. He hoped to educate the Jordanian people he met about the United States but ends up being the one educated. His immersion into the culture gave him a perspective that the diplomats, cocooned in their 'green zones' and posh hotels, rarely are exposed to.

The most interesting part was when the Iraq war started. Nothing like being a Jew in an Muslim country when your country is bombing their neighbor. This was the real test to the conclusion Orbach had arrived at - that people in the region liked Americans but hated the American Government. His conclusion, at least for his relationships, turned out to be correct.

I've never read a compilation of letters before -another first for me. It felt cumbersome to me as there wasn't a smooth flow from idea to idea and from chapter to chapter. As I read more this became less distracting. That's good as I ended up liking this book.

When I started this book, I was hoping to learn about the country the Wife and I are going to visit in June. Instead I discovered a whole new perspective. A true gift from ... a gift. Thank you GodSon.

Recommended.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Iowa Riverfront Trail And The Western Historic Trail Center

I tested my new GPS on the Iowa Riverfront Trail which, surprise, follows the Missouri River. As I mentioned in my earlier post, my turnaround point was the Western Historic Trail Center. I'd heard of the center soon after moving back to Nebraska but had not made it there until now.

The Western Historic Trail Center is a small but interesting museum filled with dioramas illustrating the many trails that pass through the Council Bluffs - Omaha area. When I arrive the lights were off in the main exhibit hall. One of the attendants turned the lights on for me saying that they were trying to lower the electric bill. There is also a theater that was closed when I arrived.

Walking through the display area you see videos, photographs,and postcards illustrating the Lewis & Clark, Mormon, Oregon, and California trails. Other displays talk about Native Americans relations, pioneer life, and early roadways that crisscrossed the country. All the dioramas are works of art. Painted metal silhouettes of people, building, wagons, and animals are arranged in various historical scenes. The sculptures, made by
Timothy Woodman, are, for me, the main attraction of this museum. They are fascinating and very well done. Being frank, I was more interested in the dioramas than the history.

I understand they also hold folk song concerts in the museum rotunda. As I was leaving they were setting up chairs in preparation for another.

The center also has a large gift shop full of trail and pioneer related literature. I will have to go back sometime with the Wife.

I decided to extend the walk a little further. The trail continues down to the Lake Manawa area some 3 1/2 miles further on before connecting up with the Wabash Trace. Unfortunately I ran into issues when parts of the trail had not been cleared of snow. The idea of slogging through snow, and me without my new snowshoes, wasn't very attractive to me. After wading into the snow, and at one point sinking my leg into the snow up to my knee, I decided that enough was enough.

My final walk ended up being 11.38 miles. While there was very little elevation change, my GPS still said that my total ascent was 918 feet. I guess all those little ups and downs add up.

My First Look At The Garmin Oregon 400t

I went out for a long walk today to play with my new toy - the Garmin Oregon 400t. I chose a walk instead of snowshoeing because the higher temperatures we're having is melting the snow surprisingly fast.

I started my walk on the Nebraska side of the pedestrian bridge. I crossed the bridge and headed south on the Iowa Riverfront Trail. My primary walking goal was the
Western Historic Trails Center in Council Bluffs, IA. Along the three to four miles I took pictures so that I could play around with geotagging. I also searched for geocaches that I had loaded into the GPS.

The 400t worked pretty good. It locks on to satellites very quickly - much faster than my old Magellan. I had to calibrate the internal electronic compass but it was easy to do and took less than a minute.

Those who know me know I have a data fetish and this bad boy overflows with data. The trip computer display includes such data as time moving, time standing still, average speed while moving, total ascent, and many other data sets that were not available on my old GPS.

Loading geocaches into the unit was simple. Plug it in with the provided USB cable and it acts just like an attached drive. Copy the GPX file containing the geocache information into the GPX folder and your done. Not only are the geocache coordinates are loaded but the complete geocache description, hint, and five logs are included as well. I used to print out descriptions when I went geocaching. Not any more. Paperless caching here I come. Unfortunately geocaching and snow don't work well together - no finds.

After I got home I easily copied the track GPX file and, using a program called
GeoSetter, geotagged my pictures. Looking at the map generated the track was right on. There were a few glitches in the track but I think they occurred when I accidentally turned of the GPS (See below). If you geotag pictures to upload to Flickr, don't forget to authorize Flickr to import the EXIF Location Data (My Account - Privacy & Permissions) before you upload. (I could have been doing this with my old GPS but I was too lazy - the 400t is much easier to get data off of.)

That is the good. Now for the not so good. The display is hard to see in bright sunlight. I knew about this when I bought it. There are a few things you can to to improve the visibility. The main thing is to turn off the topological shading. The shading is cool but it makes things less clear at times. I found if I dipped the display just right so that the sun reflected off it, you could read the display better.

The touch screen is pretty sensitive. A couple of times, when I pulled it out of my carrying case (actually it's my Magellan case but it's fine for the Garmin) the screen had switched. After this happened a few times I used the screen lock function to stop it from happening. I could use the screen even with my glove on but the pointing accuracy was hurt. Even without my gloves, pointing on the screen can take a little trial and error. A stylus might help but that's something else to carry.

The 400t has one last annoyance. It only has one button. It's the power button ... and the brightness/screen lock button ... and the screen capture button. That one button gets overworked and using it can be confusing. I turned the unit off accidentally a couple times. This is probably less a design problem and more a "user has to get used to it" issue. I'm sure I'll get the hang of it - this was my first real outing with the 400t.

Overall I'm happy with my purchase. Once I get the interface idiosyncrasies figured out, it will be awesome.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Long Wait Is Over???

When I went to Scheels on Monday, they said new snowshoes wouldn't be in for a while. Well, it turns out a while is 24 hours. Not complaining. I picked them up this afternoon. My new shoes are a tad bigger than my last ones, cost nearly twice as much (I paid nothing of course), and seem not to be built as sturdy as my last pair. I will be keeping the receipt just in case.

Of course, it may be a while before I go snowshoeing again as the highs for the next week or so are in the upper 30s to mid 40s and the snow is melting fast. Not only that but the forecast for next week includes ... rain. Rain in January. Very strange weather we're having here.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

I Must Be Rough On My Toys

My snowshoes survived three outings. When I was taking them off after my last trip to Boyer Chute I noticed that part of the right shoe, the front decking of the shoe, had broken. On closer examination I saw that the decking on my left shoe, in the exact same place, was cracked half way through.

Fortunately an e-mail to the manufacturer confirmed they were still in warranty so I went to
Scheels today to get them exchanged. Of course, after the tons of snow we've had this year, Scheels is completely out of snowshoes. So I'm now on the "call me when you get them in" list which sounds like a long wait. Fortunately the damage isn't crippling and I can still use them.





Speaking of toys, I received a package in the mail today. It was a replacement for a loyal companion of mine. Here is a picture of the old and the new:

The new GPS is a Garmin Oregon 400t (the 't' indicates the unit has topological maps loaded). Touch screen, tiny compared to my old one, color display, USB instead of the ancient serial port, and much, much more. I haven't had a chance to get outside with it yet but I suspect it will be a bit better than my old Magellan Meridian Platinum. For one thing, when I scanned this picture (I put the units face down on the scanner) the old one was still looking for satellites, as indicated by the hour glass, something it has never been able to do inside away from the window. The new one had a lock in no time.

My only concern is the new one seems less rugged than my old. The ol' Magellan, with it's rubberized body, survived a few drops in its day. I'll have to be a little more careful with the new one.

I hope to have a chance to play around with it later this week. I can't wait!

P.S. Props to GeekHiker for
foreshadowing.

Friday, January 08, 2010

A Nebraska Poem That Needs Sharing


A poem sent to the Wife from her boss. Quite appropriate when you look out the window.

"It's winter in Nebraska
And the gentle breezes blow
fifty miles an hour
At twenty-five below.

Oh, how I love Nebraska
When the snow's up to your butt
You take a breath of winter
And your nose is frozen shut.

The Platte River is all frozen
and the ice is getting thick
avoiding ice jam flooding
will be this spring's really big trick

My truck is stuck in my driveway
but where would I really go
cause the roads are all buried
in four foot of wind driven snow

Yes, the weather here is wonderful
So I guess I'll stick around
I could never leave Nebraska
cause I'm still frozen to the ground!"

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Snowshoeing Nebraska: Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge

Despite posting this Boo Hoo Whaa Whaa post about not being able to snowshoe due to the cold, I wondered if I was crazy when I left the house this morning to go snowshoeing when the temperature was -8°F (-22°C). The thought lingered as I drove into Fort Calhoun, the nearest town to Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge, and was greeted by a sign flashing -5°F (-20.5°C).


I picked Boyer Chute as my next snowshoe expedition as it had wide, flat trails that would be easy to navigate on snowshoes. Boyer Chute was also the site of my first Nebraska hike in 2008 so I was somewhat familiar with what I would be getting myself into. The day was supposed to be clear and cold and I was mildly surprised when I saw the haze hanging over the area. I would go on to discover that the haze was coming off the Missouri River that borders Boyer Chute and that the ice and snow that results from the haze freezing to the tree branches would not hurt the hike but would in fact make it even more enjoyable.

I strapped on my snowshoes and followed the trail into the refuge. After crossing the bridge over the chute that gives the place its name, I was mildly disappointed to find that the main trail had been scrapped almost clean of snow. Fortunately there was plenty of snow on either side of the trail, wide as a typical Nebraska dirt road, for my snowshoes. The trails on the refuge form two, four mile loops. The center trail I was on made up a shared part of the two loops. The hike I took in 2008 followed the northern loop. This time I would take the southern loop.

As I approached the point where the two loops separate, I saw why this part of the trail had been scraped clean of snow. There was earth moving equipment and what appeared to be dredges working to clean out a smaller channel of the Missouri.. This small channel separated the main land from two long, thin islands. It appears they are increasing the fish habitat at the refuge. There wasn't very much activity on this cold day, only a lonely guy on a bulldozer shoring up the bank of one of the islands.



I turned south. As I got away from the machinery and equipment the trail became more snowy. About a mile or so from the intersection, the bulldozer tracks, and most signs of construction came to an end and the snow on the trail became deep. I paused along the river to watch the steam rise over the swift moving Missouri river. The mist of earlier in the day, having crystallized on the branches of the trees, heated by the sun and shook loose by the lightest breeze, fell like light fluffy snow. The glistening white trees, the misty river, and the falling snow coalesced and, looking around, I had one of those moments. You know, one of those rare moments when everything is right with the world. I stood there marveling. It was truly beautiful and serene. It is for these moments that I hike and snowshoe.

Shaking myself out of my reverie, I ate a rock hard snack bar, frozen solid, and drank some water from a bottle that was about one third ice, before continuing my way along the trail.
The last third of the trail was through thick, powdery snow. It was tough going until I came upon a set of snowshoe prints. I tried to walk in the prints, where the snow was compacted, but the other snowshoer had a different stride than mine and it felt awkward. Then I noted the tracks merged with some deer tracks that were everywhere on the trail (I saw a deer earlier on the hike). The deer's belly must brush off a lot of the powder as it was a lot easier going on their trail. The only hazard was the holes make by their hooves which made it a little rough in places.

The snowshoe tracks changed from what I consider modern, oval shape, to the more classic teardrop or tennis racket shape. Somewhere I had switched trail guides. The new tracks led me in the wrong direction into the grass and along the edge of the chute. I left the tracks and made my way back to the main trail that, once again, had been cleared of some snow but there was plenty for my snowshoes. The trail connected up to the Oriole trail and back to the parking lot.

I managed another personal best of 4.9 miles with 110 feet of elevation gain. I've been able to maintain a 1.9 mph pace on the last two snowshoe outings. I was sure the last one third of this trail was going to slow my pace, especially when my shoes were sinking three to six inches into the snow each step, but I guess I made up for it on other parts of the trail.

The cold didn't bother me either. I was so layered up I could hardly move. My hands were the only issue. My fingers hurt early on, and I mean painful, but they thawed out and warmed up about a mile and a third into the hike. I might have to invest in some mittens as they keep your fingers warmer. The only problem is how do you use a camera with mittens? I've seen combo - mittens/gloves before that I'll have to check out.

I added some pretty cool pictures to my
2008-2013 Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge Google Photos album.

Tomorrow, more snow to shovel ... oh joy.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

A Slow Start To 2010

The new year has pretty much started out like last year. The one difference is we decided not to go downtown to watch the fireworks this year. The snow that we had Christmas has been followed by a real cold snap with temps staying in the single digits and teens during the day and negative numbers at night.

The first three days of the new year have been filled with slow moving and rather mundane activities. The Wife has gone shopping twice so far this year though the outings have been motivated more by cabin fever than the desire to buy anything. Other than that, football and HGTV has filled her days.

Me, I've been trying to recuperate from the killer back ache I've been suffering from since the day after Christmas. It is getting better but very slowly. The snow blowing/shoveling I did this morning (2-3 more inches fell over night) seems to have helped it a bit. I think my back needed a good stretch. The rest of my time has been filled with reading, budgeting, and tax preparation. Well, that last thing was actually me buying TurboTax and downloading it from Amazon. You might think I'm sick but I enjoy the whole budgeting and tax preparation process. We came out ahead last year - always a good thing. Quicken is one of my most used programs. Who knows, in another life I could have been an accountant.

So, what will 2010 bring? Based on some of the Facebook posts recently, there is a lot of optimism for the new year. It does have a nice ring to it doesn't it - 2010 - Twenty-Ten. I can't believe that people on the news are arguing if it's twenty-ten or two thousand ten. What a waste of air time. 2010 has a very Sci-Fi ring to it and it almost makes you feel that we've finally made it to "the future".

I don't make resolutions. I do make plans that I often stray from though.
  • I plan to read more.
  • I plan to try to watch less day-time television.
  • I plan to push my hiking/walking out past the twenty mile point.
  • I plan on walking the Steamboat Trace.
  • I plan to walk the Cowboy Trace if other things work out.
  • I plan to finally convince myself that I can do the Pilgrimage in Spain.
  • I plan to enjoy our Jordan vacation.
So, let's get this year started ... even if I'm three days late.

Oh Yeah and Congratulations to Just A Girl and her Boy who are getting married today. I wish them all the happiness in the world.