Monday, May 30, 2011

Heading for the Appalachian Trail

Tomorrow we head out of Boston to where we're going to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail.

The trail is 3,510 km long - we're only hiking about about 120 km of it over six days. (From Manchester, Vermont to Pittsfield, MA)

For summer trips we've stopped carrying a stove and our formula for food is simple - granola and milk powder for breakfast, trail mix for lunch, and bars and crackers for supper. (In this case we've also added peanut butter, dried fruit, and tofu jerky.) It might not be everyone's favorite diet, but it's simple and easy to obtain almost anywhere. We tracked down a local Whole Foods in Boston to do our shopping, but almost any grocery store would have been sufficient.

Since our trips have mostly been under a week, and us older types have slower metabolisms, about half a kilo (roughly a pound) per day per person works for us. Your mileage may vary.

In colder weather it's nice to have hot drinks and we might carry our Jetboil. But it's a hassle traveling with stoves and pretty much impossible to carry fuel on planes so it's definitely simpler to do without.

Franklin Park Zoo

This morning we went to the Franklin Park Zoo and then walked back on the Emerald Necklace walking tour through Frederick Law Olmsted parks. We didn't quite make it through all the parks because we got too hot and hungry. Nice parks though.

(click to view photos)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

New England Aquarium in Boston

Here are a few photos from the aquarium. We enjoyed our visit - it's a nice aquarium, despite the holiday weekend crowds.

(click to view photos)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Montreal to Schenectady

It was raining so I took a taxi to the train station. My taxi driver was an angry young man who cursed at everyone and everything that got in the way of his taxi while he alternately stepped on the accelerator and/or stomped on the brakes. I'm glad it was a short trip!

An announcement that it was a holiday weekend in the USA and the train could be crowded had me worried. But despite the holiday the train was mostly empty.

We had an hour and a half delay at the border. Crossing from Vancouver was better since they only stopped long enough for the border guards to get on and did their inspection while the train was moving. At least we didn't have to get off and queue like you do crossing by bus.

It's a scenic train ride with lots of lush greenery. Much of the way is alongside Lake Champlain. I saw bald eagles, great blue herons, the ubiquitous red-winged blackbirds, and lots of turtles. There were stretches where every log in the water had at least one turtle on it and sometimes six or ten lined up in a row. They were all sizes from two to ten inches. One had climbed out to the very end of a branch about three feet above the water. I could see a bellyflop in his future! It was nice to see such an seeming abundance of them.

As in many places this spring, the water level was really high and many cabins by the water were flooded out. It wouldn't take much more before the water would be over the train tracks.

I got off in Schenectady and found my way the few blocks to the Stockdale Inn where I was staying. It's a historic building and there are only 11 rooms.  My room is very nice with a big four poster bed. The sun was pouring in the windows.

I went for a walk through the park by the river where there were a couple of canoes out. The town was first settled (by Europeans) in 1661 and there are lots of historic buildings and attractive old houses. Thomas Edison had his Machine Works here.

The hotel has a well rated restaurant but it looked full and the atmosphere seemed a little "stuffy". So I decided to try out the Moon and River Cafe. How can you resist a place with a hand written sign in the window saying "stop the freaking fracking". Predictably, it was a funky little place with only half a dozen tables. (Even their web site is funky!) But they had good vegetarian options and a band was just setting up for some great live music while I ate.

Tomorrow, the final leg to Boston to meet Shelley.

Parlez vous Francais?

For years the foreign language I've been dealing with the most is Spanish. I haven't used French much since high school (classes and a summer in Europe).

So here in Montreal I keep finding myself saying "si" instead of "oui" and "gracias" instead of "merci". At least "no" is close enough, but even then I have a tendency to say "no, gracias".

My brain obviously knows to not speak English, it just hasn't managed to remember it should be French.

Although I don't think of them in time to use them, I'm surprised that bits and pieces of French are coming back to me from so long ago.

Luckily no one seems to be bothered by my faux pas and they just talk to me in English :-)

iPhone Antics

In the bar at my hotel a couple are disagreeing about some question. She's in the classic little black dress with perfect hair and makeup. (People seem to dress up more in Montreal.)

Finally she says "fine, I'll settle this" and pulls out her iPhone and brings up Wikipedia :-)

Unfortunately, I think she must have been wrong because she then pulled out her wallet and handed over a twenty dollar bill.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

What's the big deal?

For a change I'm not being sarcastic - I mean this in the literal sense. The world has a lot of problems - what is the "biggest"? If you wanted to choose one thing to focus your efforts on, what would it be?

Population / Consumption

These two go hand in hand. Our 7 billion people very likely exceed the carrying capacity of our planet. But it's not just the number of people, it's how much each of them consumes. 100 primitive jungle tribesman consume a tiny fraction of what 100 affluent Americans consume - in terms of food, oil, energy, land, etc. Americans consume a lot more than Europeans for much the same standard of living. Although our population growth has slowed down*, consumption is set to go through the roof as countries like China and India try to match American standards of living. Unfortunately, we did too good a job of marketing our consumptive lifestyle. China is following up its one child law with a one dog law. Makes sense to me. We need to both reduce our consumption and reduce our population. Of course, neither is a popular suggestion, or very likely.

Side story: An older gentleman was asking if I had kids. I said no and of course, he asked why. I gave my standard answer - Shelley and I are too busy with work and travel. Usually people are satisfied with that, but he pushed for more of an explanation so I admitted the other big reason is that there are already too many people. He was quite taken aback. All he could say was "Too many people?!" Yeah, too many people - 7 billion of us on this bus and we're running out of gas.

* Making a big deal out of the fact that population growth has slowed is like making a big deal out of the fact that your debt isn't growing as fast as it used to. The bottom line is that it's still growing.

Climate Change

I think it's horrendous that we (humans) have managed to pollute the earth so badly that it is changing the whole climate. But I suspect this is more of a human problem. In geological time, the earth has seen hot spells and cold spells (ice ages). Even if we managed to flip the earth into one of it's hot spells, Gaia* will likely be fine. It'll just cause a whole lot of havoc for human beings. Of course, in the short term, a lot of plants and animals will go extinct and the ecosystem will shift drastically, but that's old hat for Gaia. Out climate has been altered in the past by giant meteorite impacts or huge volcanic eruptions. Although I'm not sure I find it reassuring that human effects are "no worse" than global disasters like meteors.

* When I say "Gaia" I'm not talking about anything magical or mystical, I'm just using it as a convenient way to refer to the gestalt of the earth's systems - biological, chemical, and geological.

Loss of Biodiversity / Habitat

In many ways this bothers me the most. If we just left a good chunk of the planet alone, the ecosystem and biodiversity would be ok, despite almost anything else we did. But as human population and consumption (e.g. land for McMansion acreages) rises, our human infestation spreads to every corner of the planet. We plowed up all the prairie grasslands. We're doing our best to cut down all the forests. We are trashing the oceans. Once these habitats are destroyed, and the species that live in them die out, it will take a long time to come back. The damage of the last hundred years will take thousands or even millions of years to repair itself.

Peak Oil

Peak Oil is not a sudden disaster, it's more like crossing the halfway point in a holiday. Likely we've already passed it and our oil production will slowly decrease from now on. Of course, we all still act as if consumption will continue to increase indefinitely. It doesn't take a Ph.D. to see that decreasing production and increasing consumption don't fit together very well. Something's got to give. We live on a finite planet folks.

The problem is, our whole civilization is based on oil. We humans hit the jackpot when we found oil, and like most lottery winners, we've been on a spending spree ever since, with no thought to what will happen when it runs out. Without oil we can't produce the food we need. Without oil we can't meet our ever increasing energy needs. Without oil we can't have all the consumer goods we've become attached to.

I used to think that science and technology would save us. There's a small chance we'll get fusion and nanotechnology etc. before the oil runs out. But I no longer hope for that. It would simply prolong our delusion of infinite resources, without changing the fact that we live on a finite planet. We'd simply expand to fill the earth entirely, wiping out even more of the ecosystem.

My current fantasy of technology saving us is if we can make a smart enough artificial intelligence that it sees how bad a job we're doing and takes over for our own good. It wouldn't be ruled by greed and corruption and delusional short term thinking like we are. Alternately, the AI might see how much damage people are doing and simply get rid of us. Another possibility is the singularity, which by definition we can't see beyond. But I don't think these scenarios are too likely.

In the long run, running out of oil will probably be a good thing for the planet. Unless we hit another jackpot like fusion, we will be forced to reduce our population and consumption. The bad part is that the transition won't be pretty. The death throes of our oil empire are liable to be ugly. And it's likely to be a long slow painful death.

Time Frame

Many of our problems our caused (or at least exacerbated) by our short term thinking. Corporations focus on the next quarter, politicians on the next election. Most of us, both personally, and as a culture, seem more than happy to borrow from the future to have what we want today. Who cares if oil is going to run out in the future, I want a big gas guzzling vehicle today. Who cares if I can't afford the mortgage, I want a big McMansion today. Our whole civilization is on a "buy now, no payments till …" binge.

But most of the big problems are on the timescale of tens or hundreds of years and are impossible to solve with short term thinking.

On the other hand, if you take a long enough view, any problem disappears. Don't like our civilization? Wait a few thousand years and it'll change. Worried about species going extinct? In a few million years, almost all the current species will be extinct regardless. The sun will burn out some day, the universe itself will probably end. So maybe none of these current problems are worth worrying about.

Or to be totally selfish, most of these problems won't really cause big trouble till after I'm dead, so why should I care? The standard answer is that we should care what we're leaving for our children. But I don't have any children, and from what I see of people with children, they don't seem to care any more about the future than anyone else.

If your house starts falling down, do you say "no problem, I'm moving next week" (short term thinking) or "no problem, eventually it would be replaced anyway" (overly long term thinking). Or do you say "this is a good house, we might as well maintain it"?

And so the question becomes, what is the right timeframe to think in terms of?


Honestly, I don't have one, I wish I did. I can imagine an earth with a much smaller population, consuming much less, powered by sustainable energy, with an undamaged ecosystem. But I can't see how to get from here to there.

So my question remains, if you had to pick one big problem to focus your efforts on, what would it be?

PS. Wondering about the conspicuous absence of "human" problems in this list? It's not that I don't care about starving kids in Africa, income inequality, human justice issues, worker conditions, cruel dictators, etc.. I do, I'm human, I empathize. It's just that, to me, the destruction of the earth's ecosystem is a bigger issue. Of course, I'm all for people working on solving human problems as well.

PPS. Yes, being on the train gives me too much time to think! (Especially if I'm also reading books like The Long Descent)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Riding the Rails

I left this morning from Saskatoon on the train, headed for Montreal and then Boston.

I like traveling on the train - lots of time to gaze out the window at the scenery and think about life, the universe, and everything.

Saw some wildlife - ducks, muskrats, a coyote, red winged blackbirds, and coots (both birds and humans).

There is a lot of water around and the Qu'appelle valley near the Manitoba border was really flooded. And the water is high in Winnipeg.

I'm traveling "sleeper" class in an "upper berth" this time. Meals are included so I'm eating in the dining car for the first time. So far the food has been good. My fellow passengers seem to mostly older retired people.

On the bus back from Banff the other day I was sitting beside a couple of young guys who spent the time talking about strippers, beer, unemployment insurance, and cars. In the dining car at lunch it was all about politics. I didn't participate much in either conversation but one was more entertaining than the other!

At supper I had a fascinating conversation with an older retired gentleman who was finishing a seven month trip around the world solo, by train and ship (no airplanes) - something I'd love to do.

The train stops for three hours in Winnipeg and the the train station is close to the Forks area. (A little nicer than the area around the Saskatoon train station!) Shelley and I were here in the winter. Then, the lower path by the river was closed due to ice, now it's under water. After stretching my legs wandering around I ended up at the lounge at The Inn at the Forks for a glass of wine. It's a hard life :-)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Walkabout in Kelowna

The two days Shelley was at her conference in Kelowna, I mostly walked - probably 40 km in total.

The first day I walked north from the hotel and then east up Knox mountain, through the park, and back through town. The next day I walked south along the lake to Mission Creek and then up the Mission Creek Greenway to near the Orchard Place mall where I caught a bus back.

I had just finished reading The Idiot and the Odyssey, and started reading Three Hundred Zeroes and The Long Road Turns to Joy: A Guide to Walking Meditation so I was in the mood for walking!

(click to see photos)

Friday, May 13, 2011

Mind Games

by Shelley

At work I’m always dealing with crime issues. I also deal a lot with peoples’ perceptions of crime, safety and fear. I walk down the same streets as everyone else and the panhandler, the drunk, the mentally challenged, the young kid with the baggy pants and his boisterous friends . . . they don’t concern me; I know I’m safe even if they ask for money, stagger in front of me, yell obscenities, or try to look tough. I know the facts and figures and it’s a rare occasion that anything more than that happens; and if it does, I’m confident I can handle myself.

But sometimes a person’s imagination can get in the way and make things larger than they are. For me, climbing is a case in point. And climbing is almost always about pushing out of one’s comfort zone. Especially at a place like Skaha with an abundance of routes well within my capabilities and above.

We’ve just spent the past three days climbing here and I’ve been trying to up my grade level and get more comfortable on the old classics.

Dryathlon is a one-pitch trad (natural gear, not bolted) route. It starts off fairly easy, with the crux about half way up where you start by standing on what I remembered as a thin pointy rock shaped like a dagger. I had it in my head that if I fell from a few moves above this I would land with the sharp end of the rock sticking out my back or my chest, depending on how I landed. Sort of like movies where the good guy’s sword runs through the bad guy and there’s an end sticking out the other side. I was surprised when I got there. I’ve been on this route many times before. In reality, it’s not a pointy rock at all! It’s long and narrow. It still made me nervous though as I hung leaning backward, stemmed across an awkward corner a few feet above it trying to place a piece of gear. But it was a solid placement! As Andrew so eloquently put it afterwards, “That nut (protection) you put in while you were hyperventilating was hard to get out!”

Double Exposure is another trad route that always makes my palms sweat. It’s a beautiful route with two steep corner ramps (hence the “double”).  The trick is getting from one ramp to the other. It’s next to impossible if you don’t get your hands onto a certain under-cling; and to do that, you need to get your feet up high enough on the rock. The gear placements below you aren’t the greatest; and as many times as I’ve tried, I’ve never been able to get a good gear placement to protect the move up and over. So if you fall from here it’s a long slide down the first ramp. Not nice! But I know exactly what needs to be done, I’ve done it before, so the fear is somewhat irrational!

The classic route at Skaha is Plumline. A 35m long sustained sport route on a steep cliff face; one of the first you see as you arrive at the bluffs. It’s always spectacular to see someone moving gracefully up the route. I’ve climbed it many times over the years and now can do it with relative ease. The holds are (mostly) really positive. The neat thing is that you so often look up and wonder where the heck the next hold is – or you can see it but can’t reach it. The trick is to look down at your feet. You’ll find more holds, move your feet up and suddenly the handholds are within reach and visible. The scary part is at the very top. Suddenly the positive holds disappear and you have to deal with slopers to get over the edge at the top. It always makes me a bit nervous. I’m well aware I can make the move so, again, irrational fears.

It’s all mind games. The rock plays with my head a lot! But when I take control of the game and do the moves and climb the route anyway . . . wow, what a great feeling!

(click to view photos)

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Road Trip Interrupted

We left town with Starbucks in the coffee holder and Tim Hortons breakfast bagels in our laps.

Lots of water in the fields and ducks and geese in the water.

Had a good lunch at Olive R Twist Bistro in Cochrane.

As we left Cochrane I noticed a big new Toyota dealer amongst all the other development - Cochrane is growing fast.

As we merged onto the #1 highway the car suddenly turned sluggish and then the dashboard lit up with warning lights. I pulled off onto the service road and turned off the car. When I turned it back on we still had an engine warning.

So we turned around and drove back to the Toyota dealer in Cochrane. Luckily they were able to look at it fairly quickly.

The staff here were great, very friendly and helpful. When they finished looking at it the mechanic came out and went over what he'd found. There had been three errors - lean upstream, lean downstream, and loss of power. The lean parts could be faulty sensors but the loss of power was a little more troubling. Maybe the fuel pump? And it probably doesn't help that it's a complex hybrid Prius.

Unfortunately, there wasn't much more they could do right then. If we wanted to wait around till Tues. they could get parts in and replace the (expensive) sensors, but they weren't even sure that was the problem.

We decided to cross our fingers and continue. We had planned to get to Revelstoke today but after losing two hours and with doubts about the car we decided to camp in Banff. No problems with the car that far.

On our way to supper we ran into Greg from the Bike Doctor at their new Soul Ski and Bike shop. Supper was a cheese plate and pizza with Okanagan Pinot Noir at Bison Lounge.

Light snow falling steadily greeted us when we woke up. It's still coming down as we have breakfast at Wild Flour Bakery. Hopefully the roads aren't too bad over the mountains. And hopefully the car won't die on us in the snow in the middle of nowhere!