Homer's Travels: February 2015

Friday, February 27, 2015

Live Long And Prosper

Sad to hear of the death of Leonard Nimoy who played Mr. Spock on Star Trek.  I saw my favorite twitter tribute on my friend Autumn's Twitter feed:

One to beam up... #LLAP

There is one more star in the sky.

Update: Added link to Autumn's blog.  Sorry for the omission.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Book: Andy Weir's "The Martian"

For some reason I'd avoided putting Andy Weir's "The Martian" on my reading list.  I think it may have been because Mars is such a science fiction cliche.  (I know, cliche usually doesn't get in my way ...)  After it appeared in several end of 2014 top ten science fiction/nerd book lists I decide to give it a chance.  I'm really glad I did.  I loved this book.

The novel follows an astronaut stranded on the surface of Mars after a sandstorm forces the rest of the crew, thinking their companion to be dead, to evacuate.  The book starts as a transcript of the stranded astronaut's logs.  They are written was an informal, often humorous, often technical manner that I really liked.  The situation he is in seems plausible and well thought out.

I liked the log entry style so much that when the book shifted away from the logs to a narrative of what was happening back on Earth with NASA and JPL, I felt a little bummed.  The rest of the book alternates between narrative and log entries.  The log entries are by far the best writing of the book.

The book has a definite action movie feel to it and I have no doubt a movie is in the works.  If it isn't, it should be.  This action movie feel is also my one minor criticism of the book.  It feels like the author went to great efforts to make it a plausible, scientifically, accurate story but the travails this poor stranded guy goes through, in reality, would not have been survivable.

I gave "The Martian" my first 2015 five star rating on Goodreads.  Well worth the read.

UPDATE:  Turns out there is a movie coming out on November 25, 2015.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Step By Step ... Eight Minutes And Thirty-Nine Seconds

First National Bank Building
Every few years I have done the Trek Up The Tower.  This is my third time "running" this race.  If you want, you can read about my 2010 and 2013 climbs.

I arrived, checked my coat, got my race packet which has a number to pin to your shirt and wristband with a chip that you scan at the start and finish.  I pinned on the number, put on the wristband and got in line.  This was different from the last two times.  Those times I was maybe third or fourth in line to go.  This time I was closer to thirtieth in line.  I'd drunk a large bottle of Mountain Dew (24 oz - 710 ml) on the way there in the car and the caffeine kicked in while I was in line.  The combination of caffeine, adrenaline, and anticipation was gave me the shakes.

My turn came and away I went.  This climb started out pretty good.  I always take two steps at a time for the first few floors.  I usually hit a limit around the fourth floor and I slow down to one step at a time.  This time, I went a lot farther two-at-a-time.  Not exactly sure when I slowed to one step at a time but I do know I was passing a lot of people.  There were a lot more people and a lot more sounds of people huffing and puffing than I remembered.  Some of this may have been because there were more people bunched together.

When I got to the tenth floor my lungs and legs let me know that they weren't very happy but they were good troopers as I continued up at what felt like a good pace.  The floors flew by with little notice.  I remember the twentieth and I remember the thirtieth.  When I hit the thirtieth I was surprised - how could I be that high already?   I even passed a few people between the thirtieth and fortieth floors - don't think I could have done that last time.  It felt like I was going much faster than last time.  In fact, I was going faster but I think the big difference was I felt much better.

When I reached the finish line on the fortieth floor I felt like I'd felt last time at the twentieth.  Can't complain about that.  One of the volunteers said I looked like I hadn't climbed any stairs ... I think she was just being nice since, while I felt pretty good, I still felt every one of the eight hundred and seventy steps.  I collected my medal, commemorative towel, and bottle of water.

My medal and the chip that measured my time.
At the top there is a small lobby area where everyone wanders around as they cool down and catch their breath.  The EMTs were helping a lady lying on the floor (she looked like she was getting better) .  I heard someone say that someone had thrown up on the steps.  Makes me glad I passed so many people.

They were smart his year.  They had a guy with a laptop printing out each climber's stats.  The last few times I did it they posted them down in the lobby but were always late.  In 2013 I didn't even wait and went home.  They email the results later in the day.  It was nice to see that I'd beaten my time by twenty-nine seconds and I'd achieved my eight and change goal.  I looked out at the view of the city before heading for the elevators.

Now for what you've been waiting for: My results.
Time:   8:39    -    29 seconds faster than last time!

Overall Place:   447 of 1835    -    Better than last time.

Place in Gender:   353 of 879    -    Also better than last time!

Place in Age Division (50-54):   25 of 77    -    Better than last time - Age Helps!
I improved in every category against a larger group than the last two times.  I moved up to an older and smaller age division - it helps to be at the younger end of your age division.  In general ... I did great!

When I was waiting in line to go, I realised I'd lost my coat check tag.  I think I threw it away with my empty race packet envelope - the caffeine and anticipation made me careless.  It took them a while to find my coat but it was found.  I collected my free snack and my free shirt before heading home.

I have to say, I really felt good with my results.  I guess my biking has helped increase my endurance and recovery time.  The caffeine worked well too.  I'm already thinking about doing it again in 2016.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Book: John Cleese's "So Anyway ..."

I saw John Cleese on the Daily Show where he was plugging his autobiography.  I checked for its availability at the library and added it to my reading list.  This was a bit out of character for me as I don't gravitate towards biographies, auto or otherwise.  But I decided to give it a chance so my next book was John Cleese's "So, Anyway...".

The autobiography covers his grade school days through the formation of Monty Python's Flying Circus and one addition chapter covering the recent reunion shows (2013).

It's a perfectly good read.  Cleese injects just the right amount of funny to make his life interesting and readable.  Turns out that, while he is a very hard worker, a lot of his breaks in show business kind of fell into his lap.  Fortunately for him, and us, he was smart enough to take advantage of those breaks and because of that, we all have been able to enjoy Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Now that I've read my first autobiography I have to say that I will ... probably not ever read biography again.  It just isn't my cup of tea.  Or maybe it is my cup of tea since I do not like tea.

I gave this book four stars on Goodreads mostly because of John Cleese and less because it was an autobiography.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

I Guess I'll Have To Keep Going

In my last post I mentioned in passing that I'd had my blood test on Friday.  Yesterday I got my results.

As usual I was all nervous.  I figured that I was going to have bad numbers because I hadn't been careful enough the last few months.  While I was exercising more I was eating more ice cream and banana nut muffins (Guess which one has more calories ... the muffin!).  Turns out a didn't have anything to worry about.

All my numbers, except LDL ("bad" cholesterol), were in the normal range.  My LDL was only one point  above desired but was still thirty points below the "warning-heart-disease-eminent" level.  I was a bit disappointed with this number as my LDL had been in the good range last year.  My disappointment was balanced by the surprise that was my HDL ("good" cholesterol) level.  For the first time since I started to keep track (April 2004) my HDL was in the normal range.

So what caused this increase in my HDL?  The doctor thought it was probably all the exercise (i.e. bike riding) I have been doing in preparation for RAGBRAI.  He's probably right since my diet hasn't changed much (except for the increased frequency of ice cream and muffins).  I also think the fact I've lost a few pounds since last year may also be keeping my numbers in the good range

So what does this mean?  It means I need to keep riding my bike.  This kind of sucks.  You see, I really don't care for bike riding.  I want to do RAGBRAI so that I can say that I did it, but I'd been planning to stop riding as soon as I finished the ride across Iowa.  I guess I'll have to rethink that plan and just keep going.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

One So Close ... Another Better From Afar

What a wonderful weekend.  The past two days have been chock full of good things.

Friday I went to the clinic and got blood drawn for my annual exam (no results yet).  This was followed by a rather short walk (12.4 miles) that ended with some chocolate truffles.

In the afternoon, the Matron of Honor (MoH) and the Best Man (BM) showed up, the first of the gathering trivia masters.  Friday night The Wife and I, along with the MoH and BM, joined the Brother-in-Law, an assortment of nieces, a fiance, and one of The Wife's co-workers to become the return reigning champions of Skutt Catholic High School Trivia.

The trivia contest went swimmingly ... assuming swimmingly meant swimming upstream being chased by a bunch of hungry alligators.  Several of the teams were obviously gunning for us, trying their best to put us in jail while we doggedly bought our way back out.  The eight rounds of eight questions were a lot tougher this year as well.  We especially fell short of the subjects of Cars, Oscar Best Movie Winners, and identifying album names from their covers (we got only one out of eight - I mean really, who buys albums anymore?!?).  The last set should have been an easy win - name the bars using only a picture of the fronts of the buildings.  With team members either in or recently out of college, we all thought it would be a shoe in.  Turns out the young bar hoppers on our team had more discerning tastes in drinking establishments when they all pronounced that the bars pictured were all dives not worthy of their patronage.

Despite the aggressive nature of the competition and the difficulty of the questions, we ended up ... in second place.  We missed winning first place by a single point.

During the trivia contest I stuffed my face with bread sticks with marinara sauce, chocolate chip cookies, and twizzlers.  This came to bite me in the behind Friday night as i felt myself bloat up like a dead hippo rotting on the riverbank.  I knew I was in trouble when my burps started tasting like twizzlers dipped in marinara sauce.  I felt terrible in bed most of Friday night as I slowly deflated.  I was a bit worried when I woke up on Saturday morning and I still felt a bit bloaty but fortunately I felt better for the afternoon festivities.

Saturday, after meeting the Wife and MoH for lunch (they had just finished having facials), we headed to Village Canvas and Cabernet.  This is one of those places where you drink and learn how to paint.  Some are held in rented bars.  This one is in a studio.  The artists walks everyone through the process of creating a masterpiece.  To make things easy, everyone paints the same thing.  In this case, purely by coincidence, the subject was poppies, a flower that I saw along the Camino back in 2011 and which I have unsuccessfully tried to grow in my old hiking shoes.

When I started I really thought my painting would be a disaster.  I can be a little heavy handed at times and sure enough, my very first brush stroke was loaded with too much paint.  Faced with a large, ugly, orange splotch near one corner of the canvas, my chances of surviving this were looking dim but, by the end, everything turned out fine.  The ten of us (the same group as our trivia team with one substitution) all ended up with satisfying results and we all kind of agreed that our paintings were great ... when seen from a distance.  My painting, for no real reason, turned out to be the only one that showed motion.  Here it is:

"Windswept Poppies"
By Bruce H.
If you are seeing this post on a computer, step away from the screen and if you are seeing it on a tablet or phone, hold them at arms length - the painting will look better.  If you are on Facebook you can see the other nine awesome paintings from the rest of our group.

After painting we went to the Benson area of town and ended up at the Benson Brewery - because a night of drinking on Friday and drinking while painting simply isn't enough.  We picked this place because it wasn't as crowded as other places along the street (it was Valentine's Day and the beginning of Omaha Beer Week) and it wasn't as noisy (because old people like us don't like noise!).  It was kind of a random choice but it turned out to be a great one.  The place served good enough beers for the beer nuts in our group and the food ... the food ... it was really delicious.

We all left the place with smiles on our faces and ready to regain our Trivia Masters position next year.  The Wife and I spent the rest of the evening at home exploring deep subjects with the MoH and BM.  Not sure I could have picked a better ending for a great couple of days.

Well ... winning would have been nice ... just sayin'

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Shorts ... How Depressing Can You Be In Less Than Thirty Minutes

Going to see the Oscar nominated short films has become an annual ritual.  I've gone to see them five out of the last six years (I think).  The short formats, both animated and live action allow for a good mix of serious, funny, and surreal storytelling.  Unlike a few of my other Oscar short outings, the Wife joined me.  This year we added a third set of shorts to our Oscar watching: Short Documentaries.  Since watching all three sets of shorts was a little too much to fit in one night, we watched the animated and live action shorts last week.  Last night we went to the documentaries.

This years short animated and live action nominees were a bit disappointing.  Every year that I've gone there has been at least one short that grabbed my interest and was memorable.  This years group were easily forgotten.

The documentaries ... wow ... where do I start?  There were five shorts.  The first was about a Veteran's Suicide Crisis Hotline (more deaths by suicide than on the battlefield).  Not the most joyful subject.  It went downhill from there.  A mother dying from Cancer, children growing up in the shadows of oil wells in North Dakota, a 'killer' working at a mexican slaughterhouse (five hundred bulls per day, six days a week, for twenty-five years - killed by this man), and a young family coping with a newborn baby with a defect (he stops breathing when he sleeps).  By the end of the last short I think I needed the suicide hotline number!  What a bunch of well made but depressing films.  Are you telling me that no one filmed a short, funny film worth Oscar nomination?  We were so bummed the only thing we could do as we walked to the car and drove home was laugh and say "Wow!"

I may have to reconsider adding the Short Documentaries to my annual ritual.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Book: John and Anna Karras' "RAGBRAI: Everyone Pronounces It Wrong"

This summer, hopefully, I will be riding my bike across the state of Iowa.  This ride, in its forty-third year, is known as RAGBRAI (the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa).  My Brother-In-Law, who has ridden either all or part of it several times, will be going with me.  He loaned me his autographed copy of John and Anna Harras' "RAGBRAI: Everyone Pronounces It Wrong" to bring me up to speed with the history of the ride and give me an idea of just what I was getting myself into.

John Karras is one of the co-founders of RAGBRAI which he started in 1973 with his friend Don Kaul.  Over the years the number of people joining the ride has climbed.  The ride is now limited to 8,500 registered riders.  There is, of course, no reason you can't ride without being registered so the number is often many more.  During one of the legs of the ride in 1988 over 23,000 people participated.  I think they have officially stopped counting.

The book covers the first twenty-five years and explores how it grew and how it changed over time as the number of riders grew.  You hear how the host towns along the way go all out to welcome the flood of cyclists.  It sounds like a lot of physical exertion during the heat of a July day followed by party time every warm July night.  Oh yeah - and lots of food and drink along the way.  In other words ... it sounds awesome!

The book is an easy read.  John Karras wrote and edited for the Des Moines Register newspaper.  The book reads like a bunch of short newspaper articles stitched together.  This resulted in a bit of repetition and a few things seemed out of order but, while a bit distracting, did not take away from the RAGBRAI story.  Anna Karras' photographs are a plus.  I like me a book with pictures.

A gave this book four stars on Goodreads.  Can't wait to go riding this summer!

Saturday, February 07, 2015

A Taxing Time For TurboTax

I have been using Intuit's TurboTax to prepare my taxes since the early 90s. My experience last year was a bit frustrating with the technical problems I had early on but I managed to get it working without Intuit's help (I talked about that experience here). After last year's problems I expected things to go smoother this year. Well ... this year TurboTax has been hit with two problems. One is not their fault. The other is 100% self-induced.

I saw the first problem in the news. Some a-holes are using TurboTax to file fraudulent tax returns and stealing refunds from slow filers. Read more about it here. This isn't really TurboTax's problem. They were just unlucky to be the most popular software so the a-holes picked on it.

The second problem was totally self-induced. I have used TurboTax Deluxe to prepare my taxes and have never had problems. This year TurboTax removed the ability to electronically file certain forms including forms need to report investment income. When you reached that point in the Deluxe version it would force you to upgrade ($25-$35 dollars more!) to their Premier version so you could report your investments. They claimed they were trying to simplify things. They said you could still file electronically but you would have to snail mail the investment forms.  WTF?!?  People buy this software so they can avoid snail mailing forms.  This, naturally, pissed off a lot of people.  Just check out the comments on Amazon.

TurboTax, belatedly I think, finally corrected the hole they shot in their own foot. They sent out an email.  Here is what it says:
Dear Bruce,

We recently tried to explain the changes made to our TurboTax desktop software and apologized for the impact it had on you. Many responded and let us know our apology and rationale were not acceptable.

You want the TurboTax desktop product (CD or download) you've used in the past to do what it has always done—handle your tax situation. We heard you. It's time we make it right.

Beginning February 7, 2015, you can buy the same product you'd normally buy, and if you need to upgrade for your tax situation, we'll help you do that at no additional cost. This means you'll get all the forms you need, including Schedules C, D E, and F, without paying anything extra. Learn more.

If you're a returning TurboTax Deluxe CD or download customer and you've already filed using TurboTaxPremier or TurboTax Home & Business, we're offering you $25 cash back. Simply visit TurboTax.com/25back to claim your money.

Next, we are committed to bringing back the product you know and love. By the time you are ready to prepare and file your taxes next year, the TurboTax desktop product you trusted in the past will include the forms you've counted on for years.

I understand our actions have caused anger and frustration, and our response has been far too slow. TurboTax is committed to regaining your trust and providing you with the level of excellence you have come to expect.

Thank you for your feedback and continued loyalty, Sasan Goodarzi and the TurboTax Team
General Manager, Intuit TurboTax
I got this email before the fraud news came out.   I was seriously considering buying TurboTax.  They were doing the right thing.  I tend to be a loyal to a fault.  I mean almost thirty years of loyalty here folks.  But ... when the fraud news came out I went online and downloaded H&R Blocks Tax Software.  It was even $20 cheaper than TurboTax Deluxe!

I had a quick, pain free install.  It loaded last year's TurboTax file and, in less than an hour, I'd completed the first draft of my Federal return.  It asks fewer questions than TurboTax (not sure if this good or bad) but seems just as easy and complete as TurboTax.  My plan is to finish my taxes this week, the earliest I've done them in years.

I feel a little guilty.  As I said, I'm loyal to a fault.  But this year, enough was enough.  Goodbye TurboTax.  Have a nice life.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Book: John Scalzi's "Redshirts"

When I saw the title of my latest read, John Scalzi's "Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas" my mind went straight to Star Trek.  Turns out that was Scalzi's intention.

In Star Trek, Redshirts are extras, usually security personnel, who inevitably die during the episode.  Scalzi took this Star Trek trope and took it to the next level.

The book takes place in the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union.  The protagonist, after being transferred onto the Intrepid, notices how things on the ship are a bit ... off.  Personnel avoid the bridge officers.  Those who don't often end up dead.  After experiencing things first hand he tries to find out what really is going on.

The twist in the book is not an original story.  I've seen it done in a couple different Star Trek shows, novellas, and short stories.  Scalzi himself points out a few real world examples himself and Star Trek is actually mentioned by the book's characters.  He does take the idea a bit farther than others and end the end it was an interesting read.

I almost didn't read the Codas at the end of the book.  At first they didn't seem to belong to the narrative but I did read them and they did add quite a bit to the ending of the novel.

I gave this book four out of five stars on Goodreads.  The familiarity of the storey twist brought it down for me but I really enjoyed the book never the less especially the parts that drifted slightly towards Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy type weirdness.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Well ... I Asked For It

We've had a dry couple of months here in Omaha.  I have often looked out our back window and said "I wish there was snow on the ground." and "It is so brown and blah."  That's why I was happy when late last week the forecast called for between "a trace and three inches" of snow.  They said it would rain most of Saturday before turning into light snow overnight.  Everyone downplayed the amount of snow.

A full birdbath.
This morning I woke to, not a "trace to three inches", but to six to eight inches ... with twenty-five to thirty-five miles per hour winds ... gusting to forty-five ... i.e. Blizzard conditions.

I can't say I didn't ask for it.  I can say it is really pretty outside.  I can also say I'm happy to have access to a snow blower.