Friday, August 18, 2017

Review: Parable of the Sower

Parable of the Sower is Octavia Butler's novel of post apocalyptic America. This particular novel is of special interest because not only Butler died before completing her trilogy, but because the novel covers a future eerily like the one we're living through now, only worse. We've got climate change, a cultural "screw you, I've got mine" general attitude, and a breakdown in society. The major freeways have become roads for refugees to flee a no-longer-suitable-for-human-habitation Los Angeles.

Amidst all this, a young girl tries to survive, and even better, consciously tries to start a new religion and community out of the rag-tag group of survivors she encounters after her community burns down and she starts walking North.

It's fun to read about all the parts of California that she references and discusses. I've cycled many of the places myself. The religion she creates is also interesting. Far better than the usual recycled-Judea-Christian garbage you find in typical fiction.

How, you may ask, was Butler so far ahead of her time? Well, for one thing, she (and her characters) was Black. The things she take for granted (ineffective police who're more likely to threaten you as to help you, and are strangely only interested in rich people's problems) were probably reality for her in ways that it might not have been for her white colleagues in science fiction.

A prophetic novel, and a dire warning of what is to come if we don't heed its warnings and pull ourselves together. Recommended.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Long Term Review: Moto G Plus (Amazon Edition)

I bought the Moto G5 Plus for several reasons:

  1. The ability to use RidewithGPS on Firefox for route planning. 
  2. Long battery life: in order to do LiveTracking, navigation, and potential Google Maps voice directions while cycling in a foreign country. 
  3. A replacement camera, since I didn’t expect to have the time to frame and properly compose photos while cycling on a tandem, so didn’t feel like spending the $600 a large sensor travel camera would cost. Needless to say, under the constraints of the above, bringing the M3 wasn’t in consideration either. 
To my surprise, #1 was a bust. Despite my extensive testing on the phone before leaving the USA, once on the ground I discovered that Firefox running RidewithGPS was balky and slow. The one time I needed to use it, it was easier to ask my AirBnB host to borrow her large screen computer instead. I resorted to either manual routing (i.e., just ignoring the GPS and reading road signs instead), or using short term Google Maps routing instead.

#2 was a complete success. The Moto G5+ doesn’t have the insane battery life my wife’s Moto Z Play has, but it cost quite a bit less, and as long as I started the day with a full charge, I never ended the cycling day with less than 50% battery life, despite using LiveTrack. My worst days of battery life were the zero day when we rented a car and I was using Google Maps full time for driving navigation, and the day in London, when we would spend lots of time underground in subways or indoors without cell coverage, and the strain on the battery of the phone trying to find a signal would quickly drain the battery. The driving day was surprisingly bad, because without a QC charger in the car, the USB port in the Fiesta 500’s driver compartment simply couldn’t keep up with the battery drain. Nevertheless, on both days I ended with about 10% battery life, and not stranded. This is a phone that will last your typical day and then some.

#3 was a surprise for me. When I first tested the phone on the first few days of the trip, I was shocked and surprised by how badly the phone’s camera app behaved. I would “twist to start the camera” and then be disappointed by the message “your camera app has crashed. Please restart it.” Fortunately, a reboot midway through the trip fixed the crashing problem and it was solid for the entirety of the cycling trip, which was when I was using the phone as my only camera.

The photos aren’t great, but I’d argue they’re no worse than a typical phone’s pictures --- all phones have tiny camera sensors, and you just can’t overcome the physics involved. What is great is that the Moto G5+ has support for a micro-SD card. I actually filled the card with photos during the trip, but the software automatically switched to the on-board storage. Since I was carrying around a 64GB SD card, there’s no doubt in my mind that just the 64GB of onboard storage on the phone would have been insufficient for my use case. I have no idea how people who have 32GB Pixel or iPhones survive, though my guess is those people don’t do multi-day bicycle tours.

All through the trip, the phone’s been fast enough, and good enough that I never wanted another phone. I still dislike that the phone’s not waterproof, but it did survive that one rainy evening at Stonehenge, so even that’s less of a concern than it was. And you can’t beat the Amazon subsidized price.

Highly recommended. Yes, there are better phones, but they cost way more. This is the one to get in the mean time.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review: Wizo Ultra-Thin Folding Keyboard

After my surface pro died, I contemplated buying a replacement laptop like the Dell XPS 13. But rumors keep popping up that a large device travel ban was imminent any day soon, and if that were to happen I’d lose 90% of the use case for a laptop, which was to process photos and write while traveling.  (In any case, the laptop ban has now been lifted, so you're now free to buy a laptop if you need one)

A much cheaper subsitute is a Wizo Ultra-Thin Folding Keyboard. The idea is that the keyboard would connect wirelessly to your phone, and then you could run say, the Microsoft Word mobile app (or Google Docs) for writing, and use whatever crappy smartphone app you liked for photo processing. (They all suck, except for Photo Mate R3, which sucks slightly less) I simply gave up on photo processing during the trip (except for the times when I shot pictures on the phone and processed them there).

The keyboard is surprisingly pleasant to use. While not nearly as nice as a full size keyboard, I found that in certain cases, I could out-type the phone’s ability to keep up with my input! The big compromises are the lack of number keys, which means you have to hold down the “fn” button when entering numbers, and the fact that  if you forget to turn off the keyboard after the job is done, your phone would stay paired and you might find yourself unable to type using an on-screen keyboard!
The keyboard’s extremely aggressive about re-pairing over bluetooth, even if you disconnected temporarily, your phone would repair the next second, so your only recourse is to turn off the keyboard physically via the power switch.

It’s small enough that the tiny tray in economy seats is roomy enough to stand the phone (using a phone stand) and still have plenty of room to type. I wrote several book reviews, and a travel entry, and of course this review of the keyboard itself on the keypad.

The keyboard does have an internal battery that requires charging, but one charge seems to last forever, so I have no complaints about the battery life so far.

All in all, this solves 50% of my travel use case that a laptop is for, so for the time being I’ve decided not to buy a laptop. Consider me a very satisfied customer, and I’d highly recommend this travel keyboard for your phone. Even after the trip, I would carry the keyboard with me whenever there’s a chance I might have time to write, so I don’t lose writing opportunities. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Long Term Review: Wahoo Elemnt Bolt

On the cycling trip I used the Wahoo Elemnt Bolt exclusively for navigation. For Live Tracks (which was actually useful for AirBnB hosts who wanted to know how long it would take us to cycle to their place), I would continue to use the Garmin Vivoactive HR.

I used the Wahoo with RidewithGPS, Komoot, and the built-in Google navigation. None were perfect, and none would substitute for using your brain and ignoring the navigation cues on the display in front of you when appropriate. Unfortunately, it took me a few days to figure it out.

Ride with GPS was surprisingly good --- on a big screen. By default, it uses Google's bike route data's layer to help “snap” to a bike route while you're plotting the route. The problem is that the information is not sufficiently detailed: for instance, you can't tell whether the bike route you're on is a legitimate paved bike path, or whether it's a singletrack mountain bike trail requiring dismounts if you have panniers. The bigger issue is that the Android RideWithGPS app doesn't work at all for plotting routes, and if you plan to use it on a regular basis you need a bigger tablet in addition to just your phone.

Nevertheless, when plotting a route from Hindhead to Staines-Upon-Thames, it found the Basingstoke Canal trail, which none of the other options discovered. So the extra weight and charging hassle of a larger tablet might be worth it.

Komoots was what I used much of the time to do trip planning. The problem is that like Google Maps, it lacks common sense. A day after a rain, it routed us through muddy singletrack, including a flooded tunnel, and then later on in the day a sandy hiking trail through an area marked with “possible unexploded live ordnance, do not touch anything you see on the ground!” signs. We had to ask an equestrian how to extract ourselves from that nasty situation. Despite my being able to download all of the UK onto my phone, the app still refused to navigate or plot new routes without an internet connection.

The ELEMNT's app integration with Google Maps is suitable for short, city routing. It’s convenient and relatively good for within-city routing because of Google's somewhat comprehensive knowledge of local bike routes. But when given long distances, Google Maps would give you multiple routing options while the ELEMNT app's Google integration would only give you one option. Usually, Google's multiple-options usually mean that the slower choice is more scenic, less direct, and less traffic’d, so by not providing the multiple options the ELEMNT really limits the usefulness.

Once a route's on the Bolt, it's somewhat reasonable. In fact, it even displays the impending elevation change on the climbing screen, which is awesome for anticipating how long you have to pace yourself for on the next segment. The navigation is kinda crazy: sometimes it'll tell you to turn only after you've made the turn, so I kept it on the map screen whenever I needed the navigation.

The biggest issue with the ELEMNT Bolt is that it won't reroute if you go off course. When I first got the unit, I thought it was no big deal, but having lived with it, I think it's a major missing feature. There are many circumstances in which it'll be dangerous or difficult to stop and do a reroute, and of course, if your network connection is spotty, you're pretty much screwed. I think I'd be hard-pressed to recommend the ELEMNT for anyone who has to be off-network during part of the tour. I'd rather put up with a little worse navigation on the Garmin Edge type units.

It also has a weird bug in that when you fly between time zones, it doesn't auto-correct the time, unlike the Garmin units. You're forced to repair the device with the phone to fix the time. I didn't notice this when I flew to England, because the unit somehow failed to pair with my phone and I was forced to re-pair, but when I came back that didn't happen, and I lived with incorrect time on my Bolt until I sent a support e-mail and got back the answer. The reason this is bat-shit insane is that the GPS knows the correct time zone: it has to, since it knows where you are. That's why Garmin never needs you to set the time on your Edge units!

By the way, the Bolt randomly pairs or doesn't pair with your phone depending on the phase of the moon. There's no rhyme or reason to it. This would have been OK if like the Garmin it was capable of routing independent of the phone, but since it isn't, it causes an unacceptable startup time issue whenever we were raring to go on tour and I had to "oops, let me re pair the phone to the GPS unit." Again, no big deal for people who're just doing day-rides with bike clubs or century rides with well-marked roads, but a major pain for those of us who tour, and have impatient 5-year-olds in the back seat.

One thing that I found unacceptable was that the Wahoo Element Bolt  would occasionally refuse to upload to Strava or any of the other connected services. You can still upload manually by copying the files from the unit to Strava on the PC, but by Vivoactive HR has never refused to sync correctly. This appears to happen randomly as a result of say, not being pair'd with the phone whenever the device is turned off, but in reality even when I make a point of pairing the phone correctly each time, it will still occasionally happen. As a backup device for the Garmin Vivoactive HR this is somewhat acceptable (I usually turn off sync'ing to Strava anyway). As a primary device, I'd probably be selling it on eBay the first time it happened!

All in all, I'm somewhat satisfied with the ELEMNT Bolt. My biggest complaint is that the map screen is devoid of road names, which would be very useful when I'm actively ignoring the GPS directions. There's also no way to pan the map while riding. If Garmin does better integration with RidewithGPS or Komoots I'd give up the ELEMNT in a heartbeat, but until Garmin does that I think Wahoo has the edge for cycle touring in countries with dense road networks.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Tips for touring in England

Much like the Alps, England is a country of unpredictable weather. The weather forecasts were remarkably unreliable, with constant predictions of rain that never panned out, and on "dry forecast" days, you could still get occasional sprinkles. This makes England ideal for my "no-reservations" style of cycle touring, where each day's routes and roads are planned on a moment-to-moment's notice as weather dictates.

What makes England different from the Alps is that it's much more populated, with very many enthusiastic AirBnB hosts. I've learned that AirBnB is usually a much better situation than most hotels:

  • Laundry machines are usually available. Each commercial laundry load in England runs from 6 to 10 pounds, so AirBnB hosts that provide laundry access is worth that much more than an equivalent hotel, but the AirBnB is usually much cheaper.
  • Hosts usually have local knowledge that can be very valuable. While Hotel staff might also be reasonably knowledgeable, nothing beats someone who knows the neighborhood.
  • In many areas, the hotels may not show up on, but AirBnB does.
  • Finally, if you're traveling with a young child, you might welcome the opportunity to talk to other adults after interacting with a 5 year old all day and answering questions like: "What's 11 divided by 2?"
When using AirBnB, last minute requests are problematic. I've been turned down a few times for being too "last minute", but here's what you can do:
  • The night before, issue 2-3 queries to varying locations, depending on where you intend to go the next day. The likely prospects will "preapprove" you for a listing.
  • The morning of the trip, let the prospective hosts know your intention. If you need to, provide a tracking link from your GPS.
  • Also look for hotels on in case the hotels are cheaper or in a better location.
  • On Friday and Saturday nights, you must book the night before. There's no alternative. Weekends suck when you're cycle touring, and that's that.
For routing, I've discovered that the National Bike Routes provided by Sustrans are of questionable value. While many of them do provide quiet alternatives on paved roads, it's unpredictable which ones suddenly devolve into dirt roads which may be muddy or not navigable in the rain! What's worse, you can't find Sustrans maps or books in book stores, or cycle shops, so there's no way to evaluate those books/maps to see if they're worth your money. In practice, the books or maps that only cover one particular route are almost useless, as any kind of touring requires that you deviate from the path at some point. The shire-level maps are more interesting, but since I haven't been able to see the maps in person I can't tell whether or not they carefully mark the sections where you have to walk or hoist your bike. In any case, hand-routing is the best for avoiding unpleasant surprised.

Compared with cycling in the USA, most cycle routes in England are great: there are small villages separated by 5-7 miles, and many small roads that don't see very much traffic. Nearly every small town has a bakery with great pastries for lunch, and a picnic area that's gorgeous. However, the roads approaching big towns or cities are horrendous, and even those with a cycle path on the side are unpleasant. I'm not sure I'd return to England for cycling with a tandem. With a single, you can hop on the train to skip the horrible approaches to most big cities. With a tandem, that's simply not an option most of the time.

Traveling with Bowen's a delight. I don't know how much of it is that he's had more adventures so far in his life than most adults had in a decade, and how much of it is that he's just got a great personality. If you've read this trip report, you'll notice that many times he's been the one driving decisions, such as taking a zero day, or going to Oxford to have duck. The same went for lunch and dinner. Whenever possible, I let him pick what he wanted to eat. At every point, he's usually been good about making decisions and sticking to them once he understands the consequences. He also never complained when things got hard or challenging, which is more than I can say of many adults. I think I can recommend that every father do at least one adventure trip with his 5-year old son at least once. It's definitely a bonding experience you'll remember for the rest of your life.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Bowen's First Tour: Epilogue - Cycling is the Easy Part

After checking into the hotel, I got out my tools and the hotel staff helped me get out the cardboard box. Packing the bike into the box took about a half hour or so, using up all the duct tape I had brought with me from San Francisco Airport. Then Bowen and I walked back to the civic center just a bit too late to get our last savoury pies from the bakery, but managed a good dinner at the Mr Baker's Fish and Chips place for a surprisingly good price.

On the way back, we stopped by once again at Painswick Park for Bowen to play, and he found a friend there happy to play with him for his last English playground experience. In the evening, I discovered that I'd left the USB charger that Jaine had given me behind in London. This was the last thing that we would leave behind on tour, but it definitely put an exclamation mark on my forgetfulness on this trip, which may or may not be because the additional load of parenting a 5-year old just made me more forgetful than usual.
Booking a mini bus to bring the tandem back to the airport was an ordeal. It was no problem booking the bus, and the hotel helped me specify one big enough to take the tandem. But the driver showed up with a van you couldn't remove the seats from, which made it very painful to load the tandem --- we had to lift it up over the rear seat and leave it cantilevered there, a poor situation. Once at the airport, the driver refused to help me unload the tandem and bring it to the ticket counter, demanding to be paid cash so he could leave to take the next job. I eventually collar'd an airport security guy and he helped me, and gave me a big trolley.

Once in line at the Virgin Airline counter, I experienced the longest checkin time in the world. Then after that, I had to bring the bike and bags to oversized baggage and waited in line once more. We had about 2.5 hours but the entire process burned up an hour and a half. Then we were told to rush through the security line only to arrive at the gate 20 minutes too early to board.

The flight back was easy (thanks to the PS Vita). On the other side, there was a long immigration line and by the time we got through it our luggage was already out, which is the fastest luggage delivery I'd ever seen. Driving the tandem in its box through the customs area was a pain, and there was one fearful point where we had to unload the tandem and bring it through the doors manually and the doors closed behind us cutting us off from the rest of the luggage. But we resolved that and were soon outside in the waiting area.

By the time Xiaoqin arrived with the car, I'd gotten the tandem out of its box, and uncoupled it, so when she arrived with the Honda Fit it was a trivial matter of laying down the plastic bag, dropping a rear seat down, and putting the big bike into the car, installing Bowen's car seat, and putting the rest of the baggage into the aptly named Honda Fit, whose rear hatchback and fold down seats handled everything with grace. Our trip was over.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

July 15th: London to Manchester Airport (with Train Transfer)

When I first bought my train tickets back to Manchester, I picked the 12:00pm departure for 2 reasons: first, I thought we could spend a little bit more time exploring London, and secondly, the checkin time for the hotel wasn't until after 3:00pm anyway. It couldn't be much later, since I still had to pack the bike into the box at the hotel after arrival. What I hadn't reckoned on was that London, like most tourist cities, starts quite late: nothing opens till 10:00am, and with a checkout at 11:00am, that didn't leave very much time for anything at all.
Bowen woke up quite early, so we had an early breakfast and I proposed we walk through Hyde Park and then visit the British Library when it opened at 9:30am. "Can we take the subway there?" Bowen had developed an obsession with subways, and would have spent all day riding the subways if he could have. Well, I wasn't going to spend all morning underground, so we took the subway to Hyde Park, walked across it, and then rode 2 subway lines back to the British Library, which was near where our hotel was.
The museum's worth a visit, though I paid the entry fee thinking it was for the library but was actually for the exhibit. The star of the library, which is the display of their notable collection is free! Nevertheless, we spent a good hour at the museum admiring artifacts like the Magna Carta, some of Da Vinci's original drawings, and original sheet music from famous composers. The old maps were also well worth the time.

Then it was time to check out and pack for the train. Our checkout was no hassle, and neither was the short half mile ride to the train station. Once there, I had enough time to get a refund for my Oyster card, and buy some snacks for the train. While waiting for the displays to update and tell us which platform to go to, a Virgin Trains representative found us and asked us which train we were waiting for. When we told them it was the 12:00pm to Manchester, they immediately told us the right platform so we could go to the platform and load our bike in advance of every one else! The entire experience was magical: we simply walked through the gates while the staff was cleaning the train. No tickets were checked, we found the bike car, unloaded the panniers, put the bike in, and then found our reserved seats. For 33 pounds, it was faster than a car would have been, cheaper, and more comfortable. It felt kind of funny doing in 2 hours by train what had taken us 9 days of cycling to do.
Once out of the train station on the other end, we turned on the navigation system and got a surprisingly pretty ride back to the Etrop Grange Hotel. Once there, we got our picture taken by a Hotel staff member. Bowen's first bike tour was completed!