Homer's Travels: January 2015

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Wow ... A Month Behind Us Already?!?

Since last summer time seems to just fly by.  January was no different.  I should take some time to look back at what I did.

It was a good month, I think.  Nothing terrible happened and a few good things happened.  Can't ask for much more than that I think.  The month only had one big event, the month being more of a month of small things.  The one big event this month was the Fleetwood Mac concert that was, sadly, cut short.

The small things included tightening up my personal organization in a successful attempt to lift my spirits.  Part of my organizing involves training for future physical efforts.  I continued to ride my bike on the training stand while watching Netflix documentaries.  This month I managed 378.2 miles (608.6 km) spread out over ten rides.  My goal have been three rides a week so I came up a smidgin short (I was supposed to ride tonight but I'm writing this post instead).  Next month I hope to increase the time, and hence the distance, of my rides.

Once a week I've been  going for long urban treks.  I walked a satisfying 87.6 miles (141 km) over five hikes.  The longest was yesterday when I managed 18.76 miles (30.2 km).  I look forward to my weekly walks, possibly because I tend to stop at convenience stores along the way to buy snacks.

Speaking of biking and walking and other physical efforts, I signed up for RAGBRAI and I also filled out my campsite registration form for Rocky Mountain National Park.  It's nice to see plans moving along.

Speaking of organization and planning, the Wife has started looking through AAA books planning our New England trip this summer.  I'll be doing the same soon so that we can pin down a schedule and tickets/reservations can be made.  Initial plans have us flying into Boston and driving around most of the New England states including a day in New York City.  I'm sure I will post more about the trip once plans get more nailed down.

Finally a lot of my time has been filled with reading.  I finished five books this month.  Goodreads says I'm three books ahead of schedule so I must be doing well.

I hope you all had a good January.  Onward into February, the shortest month, that will surely fly by even faster.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Commence Peddling!

Not The Bike I Will Ride.
Well, today I pulled the trigger and registered for RAGBRAI (Thank you Mother and Father in-law. Your Christmas money paid for the registration fee).  I could have registered last month but I've been dragging my feet.  Every time I think about riding a bike across Iowa my palms sweat and I get a weird feeling in my stomach.  It dawned on me that I was feeling exactly like I felt before I did my first Camino.  That turned out OK.  I'm sure this will turn out OK as well.

The trigger for me registering was the announcement of this year's route.  Each year it changes.  This year goes 462 miles (743.5 km) starting at the banks of the Missouri River in Sioux City and ending at the banks of the Mississippi River in Davenport.  Along the way you travel through Storm Lake, Fort Dodge, Eldora, Cedar Falls, Hiawatha, and Coralville.  The longest segment, the first, is 74.3 miles while the shortest is 56 miles (66 miles per day average).  There are two optional loops: one adds fifteen miles of gravel road to the second stage and the other extends the third stage an extra 28.2 miles making it a tough one hundred miles.

Many people believe Iowa is a flat state but the truth is Iowa is covered in rolling hills resulting in the actual route climbing 15,948 feet (4,871.9 m).  This will be one of my biggest challenges as I have done very little hill riding.  If you would like to get more information on the route, check out the RAGBRAI site here.  This link gives even more details.

The Wife thinks my biggest challenge will be riding in a pack.  My first reaction to this is to say I will probably be behind the pack most of the time.  As I've thought about it more, I have come around to agreeing with her - riding in a pack will be a challenge for me.

The next step in the RAGBRAI process, beside continued training, is to wait for the lottery.  The race provides services such as luggage transport, repair services, and medical services.  They also provide campsite spots along the route.  They also have a limited number of slots.  I will find out on May 1st if I've got a slot.

Damn it!  Now I have to go wipe the sweat off my palms and calm my stomach down again.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Microsoft Tech Support ... F**** You!!!

For the last year or two ... maybe more ... we've received phone calls from someone claiming to be Microsoft Tech Support or some variation of that.  They invariably have an Indian accent.  They are mostly men but I have also received calls from women as well.  The women's calls have all been similar in that you could hear children in the background.  All of these people claim that my computer is infected by some malware.  All of these calls are a scam.  These scams are common enough that Microsoft has a page dedicated to the phone scams.  You can read about the scams here.

The first time I got one of these calls I soon realized it was a scam, I told the gentleman that he was a fraud and hung up.  The next time I was not in a good mood so I used some choice words.  After that when they called I used language that should have made their hair curl.

The Wife wasn't very happy about this.  She thought I should be more respectful while rejecting them.  Here is how I feel.  These people are trying to steal my money.  They are not nice people.  If they are not going to be nice to me, why should I be nice to them?

This morning I received another call.  I called him a fraud, used some smoldering language, and hung up.  To my surprise the phone rang again a minute later.  This time he did not pretend to be Microsoft Tech Support.  He basically threw my language back at me.  He was cursing like a drunken sailor.  He suggested that he was doing unspeakable acts with my daughter ... and she was apparently very good at it (I do not have any children).  After a while I just started to laugh and even thanked him when he called me foul things.  I guess I must of pushed one of his buttons.  He finally gave up and hung up.

Since those calls this morning there has been a couple hangups and another call from Microsoft Windows tech support (a different Indian voice though).  I decided after the morning calls that I would just stop feeding the trolls.  This time I simply hung up after he identified himself.  I probably should have been doing this all along.

I'm hoping that I'm now not on some "call and bother this idiot" list.  We'll see.  I guess I can always change our phone number.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Book: Michael Harris' "The End Of Absence"

For the fourth book of the year I chose Michael Harris' "The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection".

Harris approaches the topic of the Internet and its constant connection as a member of the generation that still remembers what it was like to be Internet-free.  I am of the same generation though a bit older than the author.  The absence he speaks of is the lack of communication, the time away from other people and news, the solitary time we once had.

The book is a bit schizophrenic.  On one hand Harris complains that we no longer have that quiet, contemplative time anymore.  The always on communication of email, texting, and social media always beckons us out of our revelry.  On the other hand he doesn't seem to know how to turn his phone off - claiming that one day he counted himself doing fifty-two email checks.  This doesn't sound like a problem with the Internet and more like a problem of self-control.

He points out how using the Internet rewires the brain.  He talks about the limitations of multitasking and the shortening of attention spans.  All of these things are legitimate concerns but I wonder if they are generational.  Is the rewiring of the brains of the younger generation making them more adept at multitasking?  I think it is too soon to come to a conclusion.

There is a chapter about online dating sites.  He wonders about the benefit of algorithms taking teh work out of choosing a partner.  Then we found out that he met his partner on such an online dating site.  Harris can't seem to make up his mind if he likes it or not.

Most of the book felt like the typical older generation fretting about those young "whipper snappers".  The generation that straddles the big changes are often the ones that have the hardest time adapting.

I gave this book three stars on goodreads though, like the last book I read, I wish I could have given it three and a half.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Witnessing The March Of Technology

My first laser printer - the HP LaserJet IIP *
I remember in the early 1990s going to a business computer store and purchasing my first laser printer.  It was an HP LaserJet IIP.  By today's standards is wasn't anything special but in 1990 it was incredible.  It replaced an old dot matrix printer I'd had since the early 1980s.  It only printed in black and white but it was such an improvement over the dot matrix printer.  I don't remember the exact price but I think it was over $900 before taxes.

Earlier this week I was walking through Sam's Club looking at the printers.  All priced under $300.  All printing in color, as well as scanning and copying,  One was less than $100.  Things had changed a lot since that first LaserJet of mine.  Then I came to the end of the aisle ...

There, sitting on the end of the aisle, was a Makerbot 3D printer.  I've known about 3D printing for quite a while but I didn't realize you could buy one at Sam's Club.  It was price at $1,299.  Not much more than what I paid for my first LaserJet IIP '2D' printer.  Seeing it there on the shelf really drove home just how things are changing and progressing.  What a wonderful technological future awaits us.

P.S. TGAW, a blogger I follow, has played around with 3D printing including winning the White House 3D Printed Ornament Design Challenge last month.  You should pay her blog a visit and read about her 3D printing projects.

* Photo is a derivative of a photo uploaded to Photobucket (Majorbloodknock)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Book: William Gibson's "The Peripheral"

I had high expectations for my latest read.  I follow William Gibson on Twitter and I find his comments interesting.  The last few months his twitter feed has been dominated by his latest book "The Peripheral".  The reviews were so glowing that I decided to read it.

I've known about William Gibson for awhile but I have never read any of his writing.  I'm not really sure why as his books fit in the science fiction/technology/cybernetics  genre that I am often attracted to.  "The Peripheral" also fits in this genre.  That is why I am surprised to say that my reaction to this book was ... meh.

Don't get me wrong, the book is not bad.  It just feels a bit ordinary.  It did have some original ideas which did peak my interest but in the end I expected more.

The thing that bothered me the most, I suppose, are the loose ends.  Some critical concepts are introduced as mysteries in the book but the mysteries are never solved - namely the truth about "the server" and how a second group had managed to enter the stub.  In some books mysteries like these would presage the coming of a sequel.  In "The Peripheral" is just felt like incomplete storytelling.

On Goodreads I gave the book three stars.  I almost considered giving it four but the holes in the story bothered me.  I wish I could have given it three and a half.  That would have felt more appropriate.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Today Is Penguin Awareness Day!!!

Penguins chillin' on the Ballestas Islands off the coast of Peru.
If you happen to see a penguin ... be aware of it!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Music: Fleetwood Mac At The Pinnacle Bank Arena ... Cut Short

Saturday we had an awesome evening planned.  It didn't quite work out as we'd hoped but it was still pretty awesome.

The night started with us going to Lincoln to the haymarket area to have dinner.  We wanted to eat at Lazlo's but the two hour wait turned us away.  We ended up around the corner at Brewsky's instead where we only had to wait an hour for our food to arrive.

After dinner we walked the couple blocks to the Pinnacle Bank Arena to enjoy the expected two to three hour concert.  We bought some snacks and drinks and found our seats.  They were good seats with clear views of the stage.  The people around us were hardcore, pre-lubricated, Fleetwood Mac fans and were ready for the show.  While the Wife and I usually come close to winning the oldest in the room awards at the concerts we go to, for this one we would be closer to the youngest in the room.  The sold out arena was a sea of grey hair.

The show started about fifteen or twenty minutes late and I was surprised to see there was no warm up band.  Fleetwood Mac took to the stage and started what was going to be twenty-four song play list.  Despite the members pushing the upper sixties (Christine McVie is seventy-one) they all sounded great.  This was the first time in a long time that the band was complete.  In prior shows Christine McVie did not participate.  During the concert nearly every member took their turn thanking McVie - her butt was thoroughly kissed.

After playing some awesome songs most of the band went backstage leaving Lindsey Buckingham to do a few solos as well as a few duets with Stevie Nicks.  The band came back out and gathered in a huddle.  These seemed a bit strange since concerts are planned out before hand and there really isn't a need for this kind of onstage pow-wow.  Stevie turned to the crowd and we learned the bad news.  Mick Fleetwood was sick.  He was back stage throwing up.  For the first time in forty years they would not be able to complete the show.

They ended up doing two more songs.  Their drum technician (Steve!) sat in for Mick for a rendition of  "Go Your Own Way".  He was so good we all hoped they could finish the show with him subbing but it was not to be.  The show ended with Christine McVie singing "Songbird" with help of Lindsey Buckingham.

The show was cut short by about eight songs and about an hour.  It was cut short but it didn't fail to please.  Stevie Nicks promised they would be back so we could see a complete show but ... I'll believe it when I get the email saying we have tickets. We still got ninety minutes of awesome memories and music.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

I'm Getting Organized So I Must Be Getting Better

In the past when I've felt a lack of motivation, when I was suffering from writer's block, or when I was struggling my way through a period of the blahs, I've usually fought my way out by organizing a part of my life.  It may be setting up a to-do list on an app to help form a chore routine, it may be gathering and organizing ideas for posts, or it may be the simple act of folding my pajamas every morning instead of leaving them in a pile on the end of the bed - it doesn't always take much.  Over the last month or so I have felt myself climbing my way out of my latest funk.

A happy mop after a job well done
It started awhile back with loading the dishwasher sooner.  I used to let dirty dishes accumulate in the sink.  Now I try to get everything in the dishwasher as soon as possible.  As I said ... it doesn't take much.  In general I streamlined most of my chores and am turning a few into habits.

Next I organized my digital life.  I started organizing my email slightly different using Google's new Inbox app.  It has helped me maintain my non-chore to-do  list by allowing me to set up timed reminders from the Inbox when an email comes in that needs an action from me.  I also became more diligent at updating Google Calendar.  I now use six calendars, each with a different function and color.  For example I have one for medical appointments.  Another for The Wife's school functions that affect me.  Another shows vacation plans.  It may sound complicated but the pretty colors make things easy to follow for me.

The past few weeks I have cleaned the basement and organized the furnace room and the laundry/storage/workshop room (a room we call the Tornado room).

All of these things are slowly pulling me out of my funk.  I like organization.  It comforts me.  The fact that it's above freezing and sunny outside ... that helps too.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Book: Christian Rudder's "Dataclysm"

The second book of the year was Christian Rudder's "Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking)".  This book looks at what we can find out about society and ourselves from the data we share on social media.

The books generally looks at what men and women want from the opposite sex, how we see racism, and how the sexes differ in what is important.  The author is a co-founder of OKCupid, the dating site, which explains, what I saw as, an over emphasis on the Man-Woman dynamic.

The material discussed, and the author's enthusiasm for the potential benefits of studying social media data, is interesting.  I wish the author had broadened the scope, away from the dating-centric examples but, since the data is coming from social media and dating sites, I suppose this was the most common data available for him to collect and interpret.

The book does provide a good idea of what is possible.  Social media data allows social scientists to, for the first time, stop relying on biased questionnaires and polls and actually observe how we interact as a society and as individuals.  As more and more people join social media and as more and more data is collected over time, we will eventually have a much clearer and honest understanding of how we interact and respond to the world around us.

The author does mention the downside of the data being used as marketing tools to get us sheep to buy more useless stuff but, in his enthusiasm to promote the study of the data, he under-emphasizes this dark underbelly of Big Data.

On Goodreads I gave this book four stars though I wish it could have been longer with a broader scope.

A Note On Checking Books Out Of The Library:  I ended up reading this book in three days.  The reason I read it so fast was another book that I had on hold, which I expected to become available in a week or two, became available the day after I started this one.  I had seventy-two hours to check out the other book before I would loose it to the next person in line waiting for it.  I wish you were given an estimate for when it could become available.  Fortunately "Dataclysm" was a relatively short read and I finished it in plenty of time.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Book: Laline Paull's "The Bees"

A new year and a new Goodreads reading challenge.  This year I have set twenty-six books as my goal.  The first book, that I stated reading on the first, was Laline Paull's "The Bees".

The book looks at life through the eyes of a bee.  The author follows the life of an odd worker bee who is born larger and more intelligent than her fellow workers.

The story is an interesting look at hierarchical, theocratic, authoritarian, conformist societies.   A society where heredity and mind control are used to keep the the members in line.  In the end the book is an interesting commentary about how religion, government, marketing, and, in a way, technology can be used to quash dissent.

As I read the book it reminded me of "Watership Down", a book I enjoyed in High School.  In fact it reminded me too much of it.  The basic idea of the book felt like a copy.  This and the somewhat predictable ending of the story were the books only faults though.

Despite these flaws, the author has a nice writing style and the words flow smoothly off the pages.  I gave this book three stars on Goodreads.  It was not a great book but it was a good one to start the new year with.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

A Few Documentaries To Past The Time

I've been riding my bike (on the trainer stand) three times a week.  I have to say that riding bike in the basement is not the most fascinating thing to do.  If it weren't for Netflix I think I would not be able to keep at it.

Over the last couple of weeks I've watched some interesting documentaries to pass the bike riding time.  Here are a few that I've found interesting:

  • "Particle Fever" is about the discovery of the Higgs Boson - also known as the God Particle.  The movie follows physicists whose entire life's work may be vindicated or utterly destroyed by the data collected using the largest piece of science experiment ever built, the Large Hadron Collider.  The movie humanizes the physicists, one of the most esoteric of the nerd sub-species.  The end result is concrete proof that the Universe has a sense of humor.
  • "Desert Runners" follows a group of non-professional runners as they attempt one of the most difficult ultramarathon series in the world - for ultramarathons through four of the planet's harshest deserts (The Atacama, The Gobi, The Sahara, and Antarctica).  Each race is like doing six marathons over a five day period and these crazy people do four of them over the course of a year - known as a grand slam.  There are many ups and downs along the way and two moments - one in the Gobi and one in the Sahara - yank you out of the world of obsessive runners and back into the real world.
  • "Print the Legend" follows the development of 3D printing.  The movie, while concentrating on MakerBot, covers other companies in the personal 3D printer business and the political infighting between the various founders and companies.  You witness the growing pains that many idealistic startups experience.
  • "Time Zero: The Last Year of Polaroid Film" describes the development of instant photography and it's slow death and rebirth in the late 2010s.  The movie follows several photographers whose art has revolved around the Polaroid Instant camera.  In 2008, when Polaroid stopped making the film, several fanatics start a campaign to bring it back.  
All four of these documentaries are interesting.  If you have to limit it to two, I would go with the first two but you can't really go wrong with any of these.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

A Nice End To An Old Year

I mentioned back in November that I wanted to go see the Christmas lights in downtown Omaha.  I decided to combine the Christmas lights with the New Year's fireworks.

Omaha's downtown all lit up for the holidays.
Naturally I picked one of the coldest nights we've had in a while to do this.  The Wife, having just returned from being with her parents for the last week, decided she wanted a quiet and warm evening so I was on my own.

Omaha shoots off fireworks at 7:00 PM on New Year's Eve which makes it convenient for everyone.  In the last six years I've only seen them twice.  It is usually too cold or snowy for us.  This year I was determined to see them so I drove down at 5:30 PM so I could get good parking, had some dinner at Subway before walking around looking at the lights while I waited for the fireworks.  I took quite a few pictures of the lights strung up in the trees and the colorfully lit buildings.  The lights are beautiful.  I added the best pictures I took last night in my 2014 Christmas Google Photos album.

I did have an equipment casualty.  As I was crouching to take a low angle photograph I had my tripod balanced on my thigh.  I shifted and the tripod fell a foot onto the sidewalk and where the camera attachment attaches to the tripod legs shattered.  I suspect the temperature which was in the teens made the plastic brittle.

This was my favorite tripod.  It had lots of features like level indicators, a hook for weights, and a handle to carry it with when it was folded up.  Fortunately I'd received it free when I purchased a camera bag. and  I have another tripod that I received a few years before for Christmas.  Sadly, this free one, was the better of the two.

A walkway along the mall pond under the lights.
At 7:00 PM the fireworks started going off.  They were impressive the last few times I saw them (2008 and 2011) and they were quite impressive this time too.  I took a few pictures but only a few came out.  I also found the perfect place to park to watch them - you can sit in your warm car and have a perfect view of the show.

Fireworks at 7:00 PM
Today, New year's Day, after sleeping in, was a take down the decorations day.  The tree was put away, the lights and wreaths where taken down, and the big balls were picked out of the oak tree and put back into storage.  And with that, another holiday season is behind us.  Onward to 2015.