Sunday, 9 September 2012

On making lemonade out of life's lemons

John and Caitlin's cake had lemons made out of icing on it in reference to a geek variation on the saying "When life gives you lemons, made lemonade." I am not sure what the geek variation in question is.

Anyway, I had the opening to put the saying into effect in yesterday, in this year's edition of the Eastern Townships Challenge bike tour put on by Vélo-Québec. This year the event started and, alas, ended at the Sutton Ski Hill which is up a 4 km long hill which is quite a challenge to face at the end of the day. For a complicated set of reasons, I drove out from Montreal to Sutton in a rented car with Leonardo in the back in time to meet the Parents for breakfast shortly after 7 AM. This entailed waking up a little after 5 AM, which is outside my comfort zone.
After breakfast and the obligatory "cheese de groupe", we set off on our respective bikes, speeds and routes. I left a few minutes after the parents, but, as might be expected, I passed them not too much later.
This Challenge (or Défi)'s route was comparatively challenging compared to those of the two previous years. This, combined with the cold I'd had a week earlier, meant I never intended to do the maximum distance. In addition, there was a strong, unsettled wind that gusted from various directions, most of them contrary. It was also quite humid which, combined with the warm weather, meant I was drenched in sweat. I put a bandanna under my helmet to keep the sweat out of my eyes. When I took it off at lunch time, it was completely soaked.
I did do one of the optional extra segments. It was the hillier, but shorter segment starting in Mansonville and going beside Lake Memphremagog, as I knew it was a very pretty area. The problem with the extra bits these Défis is that I rarely pass people on them as they tend to be the domain of the serious spandex types who have faster bikes than my Leonardo, not that he isn't reasonably fast. However, in the hilly Townships, his extra weight compared to carbon fiber bikes is a distinct handicap. Conversely, his granny gear is a distinct asset on the steepest hills. Near the end of the optional section, a faster cyclist called out (in French) to: "Courage!" My translated reply was: "The important thing is to finish," as while I wasn't as fast as he was, I was still going a respectable clip and I knew I would get there. It wasn't a race.
 After rejoining the main route, I zipped through Bolton Pass which was rather dramatic but unfamiliar bit of the Townships. As luck would have it, the Parents had arrived a bit before me at the lunch stop in Knowlton.
We ate lunch on a bench dedicated to a friend of some friends of the family.

The wind seemed to pick up after lunch, and became, if anything, stronger, more chaotic and unpredictable. This sapped my strength. I stopped at the bottom of the hill leading up to the finish to muster my energy. While doing so, I commented to someone: "Maintement, le calvaire commence." In fact, I was being hyperbolic as it wasn't that bad, though Mummy went to spare Pappy the task by going to meet him at the bottom with the car. Nonetheless, the fact remains that the humidity was draining and I drained the equivalent of more than 2 litres of Gatorade yesterday. Stats: 5 hours, 39 minutes and 11 seconds of biking; 121.10 kms covered; an average speed of 21.4 km/h and a maximum of speed 64.3 km/h.

Driving back to Montreal, the storm the weather had been hinting at struck with a vengeance. The rain was so intense that visibility dropped to next to nothing. The car shook from the wind and the driving rain. The average speed on highway dropped from over 100 km/h to the 60-70 range. I really didn't like the situation so I took the first exit and stopped the car in the parking lot of a defunct restaurant.

I briefly pondered what I should do while waiting out the storm. I quickly noticed that I was really quite tired between my early start and the physical exertion. Consequently, I took out my contact lenses, reclined my seat and closed my eyes for 15-20 minutes. I didn't sleep, but I would have been surprised if I did. Still, it was a relief, hence the title of this entry.

Incidentally, the storm spawned at least one tornado and cut power to 90,000 customers in Quebec.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

On my decision matrix for dealing with Australian snakes

Somehow this doesn't seem to have made it into my blog prior to now, but as it is such a good story, I think it is better late than never.

Prior to, during and after my trip to Australia, people asked me what my plan for dealing with Australia's snakes (known for sometimes being very venomous) was. My answer was the following:

If the snake is one that I know is poisonous, I will leave it the hell alone (for obvious reasons).

If the snake is one that I don't know if it is poisonous or not, I will leave it the hell alone as it might be poisonous.

If the snake is one that I know isn't poisonous, I will leave it the hell alone as I don't want to bother the wildlife.

When I described this decision matrix to Rob in Adelaide, his laconic, Aussie reaction was "Spoken like a man who isn't going to be bitten by a snake."

In truth, even after visiting the Adelaide Zoo, all Australian snakes fall into category two for me. Given how venomous some Australia snakes are, my "prejudice" is well-founded.

Nonetheless, it is conceivable that in particular circumstances, one might need to alter it. One example of such a circumstance was told to me in Seattle by Jeannie (mother-in-law of Margo's John). A friend or sister of hers near Brisbane was horrified to realize that her three-year old daughter was dragging a live, four-foot snake (toxicity undetermined) through the house by its tail. In short order, said snake was outside the house, beaten to death.

However, barring such circumstances, this decision matrix also works for the snakes in other countries, except for Ireland and Iceland.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

On Seattle area attractions, day two

John's in-laws, Tom and Jeannie live a large and somewhat excentric house in Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle. The house was built by a Conservative Jew (as in he followed the conservative variety of Judaism, not he was a political conservative and a Jew). Most notably, this meant that it had a "double kitchen" to keep milk and meat separate. This means two fridges, two stoves, two dishwashers, etc. Around the time the man was to move in, he became more religious (that is to say devout) to the point that he would no longer drive on the Sabbeth to his "temple" or synagogue, which was on Mercer Island, which is a good hike away. Consequently, he sold the house before he moved in.

(Author's note: Jeannie had used the word "temple" to refer to the synagogue. I was wondering about this word usage. When I looked up "synagogue" in Wikipedia, I was interested to see that this usage is not uncommon among Conservative Jews. Hence it being used in this context.)

The man who bought it made further changes to the structure before moving to California, prior to moving in. He in turn sold it to Tom and Jeannie who then moved in with their offspring, thus becoming the first actual occupants of the house.

Among the features of the dwelling is what amounts to a guest wing, complete with bathroom, video gaming den and kitchen facilities in the form of a microwave and fridge. This area alone is at least as large as my flat. Jeannie has a large number of sisters and her house serves the gathering place for family celebrations. The figure of 23 people being able sleep there was mentionned.

Anyway, I slept in after my first night and got my bearings a little better.

Caitlin's sisters, Molly and Miranda were there, though they were about to return to their respective university towns and one from there was going to "The Gambia". This involved her trying on a number of outfits from India lent by a friend of Jeannie's in order to meet Gambia's Moslem dress code. Some of the outfits were quite beautiful.

We were watched over by Loki, a border collie/Australian shepherd mix which either Molly or Miranda had chosen from a dog shelter. He had been abused by his former owners and was, in Jeannie's terminology, a "pancake dog" when he was adopted. This meant that he was so scared of humans that he would flatten himself completely against the floor. Through love and affection, he was now a very nice if somewhat reserved dog who kept us free from attacks by coyotes or dingos. ;-)

Jeannie drove me over to Tom's workplace at Microsoft's building 99. He works in the hardware R&D department of Microsoft and has been told that if his department's projects succeed more than 60% of the time, then they haven't been pushing far enough. As I understand it, his department is supposed to develop hardware-type technologies for Microsoft. These technologies will then be put into actual products by another department. This means that he gets to "play" in an electronics workshop with all kinds of neat stuff, including 3-D printers. I know that if I were working there, I would run-off a few widgets for my bike in my "spare" time.

I was also struck by how much his job was match for my cousin John as he is something of an electronics tinkerer. I don't know Caitlin that well, but Tom was certainly a fit for John. I voiced this comment to Jeannie and was told that Caitlin does indeed ressemble Tom in the techie respect.

Tom showed me some doohickies that the department had invented. They had demonstrated them to the "brass". The brass had been sufficiently impressed that they wanted to try them out. The demand was such that the department had to build more prototypes! This made me think of an anecdote relating to the Etch-a-sketch. Apparently, the inventors knew they had a hit on their hands when during a flight from A to B, the executives of the company were bickering as to who would get to play with the toy next.

At one point during the visit, I apologized to Tom for the way I was dressed. He said my outfit of khaki cargo pants and a workshirt was pretty much the Microsoft uniform. I agreed but pointed out that I was carrying an iPhone!

After lunch, I was picked up by Reiner, Tom's neighbour. He is a professor emeritus in aeronautics. After helping him and his wife move a couple of metal firepits, he took me to the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field. This was a slightly surreal experience. I am an aviation geek, even though I don't enjoy flying. I can identify a huge variety of aircraft at glance. On other hand, at one point, Reiner pointed at a Sikorsky S-62 helicopter in the museum and said: "I worked on the tail boom of that helicopter when I was an intern at Sikorsky. I got to meet the old man Sikorsky while I was there."

Yet, he couldn't identify a Republic P-47 Thunderbolt in the WWII section. It felt very strange. He commented that the plane he liked the most was the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. I observed that the WWII ace Johnnie Johnson had described it as a superb aircraft, "but not to go to war in!" I also mentionned how Canadian pilots referred to it as the "lawndart" on account of it tendency to crash! I hope he wasn't offended.

Towards the end of the visit, he ran out of steam. He left me to go across the road to see some outside exhibits whilst he investigated a B-17. I got to go inside an old Air Force One and a Concorde. I was struck by what seemed to be ten-foot long section immediately aft of the cockpit that looked like it was filled with avionics. I wondered if this was the case, then surely the application of Moore's law would mean than the reduced weight and space of more modern computers could have meant that British Airways and Air France should have increased the size of the passenger cabin by installing newer computers during the Concorde's hiatus following the crash in the year 2000. I also got to look at the first 737 and 747's up close as well as get a close look at tail of a 727 and see it's Cooper vane.

I walked back to the B-17 Reiner was inspecting. He made the observation that when he was young, such aircraft were trying to kill him. By this he meant that as a child, he had been at the wrong end of Allied bombing raids. He was born in Germany and had come to the United States when his father was offered a job working for the Lycoming aircraft engine company. Reiner's father was involved in the design of the T53 turboshaft engine, which powered the early Bell Huey helicopters. Reiner arrived in the United States on January 29, 1954 on the S.S. United States. I mention this as he asked me to look up a bit of trivia relating the S.S. United States. Unfortunately, partly owing to the relatively generic name of the ship, I haven't had any success so far.

It was a fun day.

On travelling in Executive class

On account of my restlessness and long legs, I generally angle for an aisle seat. However, the seat in Executive was a window seat and I really wasn't going to argue. Also, the increased legroom makes one of arguments moot.

As well, it was a clear day and therefore, lots to see. This is an understatement as it was very clear from take-off to nightfall. Our flight path took us along the Border. Had I been on the port side of the plane I could have seen much of the route I took across the Rockies three years ago. As it was, the only bit I recognized was the mountains near Creston.

I took pictures but as usual with photos from airliners, they never do landscape justice. Someone should work on making windows on planes photo-transparent. Or maybe have a passenger-controlled camera turret on the underside of the plane. You would be able to download pictures onto your electronic devices.

Somewhere over the darkening Prairies, I saw a flash of light below. Looking more closely at the land below, I saw it repeated further on. I began to see it was light reflected on small water bodies. However, I couldn't determine the source of the light. I theorized that it might be a low flying search-and-rescue helicopter with a search light but it didn't look quite right for that. Then I figured out that it was the reflection of the moon I was seeing. A very neat effect, if slightly spooky.

Dessert was ice cream and freshly baked cookies. Freshly baked as in they baked them on the plane. Delicious, but somewhat over the top. I should have asked what they did with the leftover cookies.

The older woman beside me had been on standby for the previous flight. Like me she was given a upgrade, but not for obvious altruism as in my case. It turns out Elaine, my seat mate, was from the City I work in and is in the neighborhood watch, the HQ of which is in part of the basement I work in.

The section had been largely disused, except for storing various files until the watch program took it over. The City renovated that section. At some point in the process, I chanced upon the plans and noted that it included a shower. As that section of the basement adjoins the Library's, I have been trying to figure out how to work out a system that the Library employees would be allowed to use the shower. Particularly cycle-commuters, i.e. me. I was a little annoyed to hear from Elaine that the shower is unused except to store files!

We were in the last row of the Executive class section. I doubt this was an accident. I have read that Air Canada deliberately serves that section front to back. If you are in the last row, you may not get your meal choice. For that reason, I suspect they put any "unwashed refugees" from Economy class in the back of the section.