Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Let's Drink | Slow Energy Fast. (And portable, and cheap)

Mixing a a couple of scoops of maltodexterin and water gives you an excellent source of on-the-go energy. The combination is cheap, highly portable and has neutral taste. Nutritionally, it's dead simple as it's nothing more than quick absorbing carbs and hydration.

I got to wondering: could I replicate this profile but with slow absorbing carbs? This would make for a drink that was useful for less intense activities, like a day of hiking or traipsing through the outlet mall.

I'm not entirely sure where I got the idea, but I eventually found myself on Amazon searching for Oat Powder. The idea being that oatmeal has the slow-carb nutrition profile I'm after. Sure enough, Oat Powder is a thing and the reviews were encouraging. Here's a sample:

I rode the D2R2 180km route using whole oat powder + Nuun in my water bottles. Here are the positives and negatives

Positives:

It did the job and I felt great consuming about 40gm of carbs per hour via oat powder. Carbs were diluted to 5-6%. I was able to keep my stops short because I would just refill my bottles, eat part of a banana, and go.

It's super cheap. It costs about $0.50 vs perhaps $5 for 40gm of carbs from energy bars.

It's complex carbs. I didn't have any highs or lows. I could just have a gulp of water every 5 minutes and I was getting the right amount of water and carbs.

Negatives:

It's messy. I used condiment containers to hold the oats, which was great for portioning, but a bit messy to get into the bottle. I need to find a better way to transfer the right amount into a bottle.

I had to shake my bottle before every drink. It doesn't mix evenly for very long.

If you don't like oats, well, don't even try this. I didn't find it to be as gross as it sounds, really, but you do taste oats in liquid form.

Inspired by the reviews, I grabbed some generic rolled oats from our pantry and scooped them into our blender. I pressed the blend button for 30 seconds, and just like that, I had oat powder. I scooped it into a water bottle and gave it a good shake. Appearance wise, it looked nasty. Taste wise, is was essentially neutral, with a hint of oats (no surprise there). I found that shaking the bottle between swigs helped distribute the bits of oats. Cleanup wise, refilling the bottle and drinking the remaining oats left my water bottle debris free.

By the time I finished drinking my first batch of powdered oats I was hooked. This stuff is awesome.

Since my early experiments, I've refined the process. I grind a bunch of oats ahead of time and store them in a big 'ol Ziploc bag. I find the larger cap size of a Bodyarmor sports drink to be more convenient for mixingthan a standard disposable water bottle. The spout end of a soda bottle makes for a perfect funnel, and at home I'll use this to make preparing a bottle of oat energy drink mess free. When on the go, I cut off a corner of the Ziploc bag that stores the oats and use that as an improvised funnel.

So how closely did I come to my original goal?

Cost - powdered oats, if you can take a few minutes and grind them at home, are beyond inexpensive.

Portable - 40 grams of powdered oatmeal stores nicely in a snack size Ziploc and takes up minimal space. The powder doesn't melt or get impacted by the heat. You can mix up a batch in a few seconds, either at home or in the field. I've mixed, shaked and consumed immediately and I've waited hours before drinking; either way works.

Taste - Oats and water makes for a crude version of oatmilk. What little taste it has is quite palatable.

Nutrition - 40 grams of oat powder has 27 grams of slow-release carbs, no sugar and even a bit of protein and fat to round it out. Oatmeal is a proven source of slow energy, so you're getting the benefit of a high quality food without sketchy add-ons. Finally, you get the bonus of hydration due to this being a drink-based mixture.

For a slow source of carbs, powdered oats is hard to beat. I'm surprised it's not more of a thing. My new favorite on-the-go meals is to combine the oats with a protein bar and a fruit strip:

I get slow-carbs and hydration from the oats, protein from the bar and quick energy from the fruit snack. The bar also contains sugar and fat, which makes the whole meal more tasty. The meal fits in a sandwich sized Ziploc and can be easily consumed on on the go.

DC at Dawn

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Review: Underground Airlines

I randomly selected Underground Airlines by Ben Winters after finishing a book on the history of the Civil War. It turns out, I couldn't have made a better book transition if I tried.

Underground Airlines is a mystery set in current day, USA. The catch: it imagines we didn't fight the Civil War. Instead, we agreed to the Crittendon Compromise. This proposal was made in 1860, and sought to save the Union by altering the Constitution to guarantee the permanent legality of slavery. In real life the Crittendon Compromise was shelved; not so in Underground Airlines.

As you can imagine, this relatively simple device has profound implications. Winters paints a picture of an America that's both recognizable and dystopian. Through sanitized terms ('Person Bound to Labor' instead of slave), farcical legal protections and the all mighty pursuit of compromise, Winters shows us how something as horrendous as slavery can be justified by a modern society. In short, the juxtaposition of everyday America with the cruelty of slavery is stark and terrifying.

The mystery at the book's core, as well as the characters are well done. Sure, some of twists and turns were a bit of a stretch. But overall, the book was so good that as soon as I finished it, I Googled to see if there was a sequel. (Alas, there isn't.)

Perhaps the most import aspect of the book is how it forced me to face how I personally deal with injustice. For nearl the entire book my mind wrestled with the thought experiment that Winters created. What would have happened if I'd been born into an America that practiced slavery. What would I do? What would I demand society do? Why, I'd charge in guns blazing and demand that they free our oppressed brothers!

Then it hit me: surely there are countries in the world that practice slavery today. Heck, there are no doubt those in the United States who are being crushed by similar injustice. Why aren't my guns blazing for them? Where's my outrage?

I don't know how to square the clear anger and call for action that I felt for those in the Underground Airlines' universe, with the the blissful ignorance I embrace in real life. But I do appreciate how Winters' novel has forced me to confront this disparity.

If you want a clever and thought provoking book, then Underground Airlines is for you.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Shiver Me Timbers | Pirates on the Potomac

Years ago we took our nieces and nephew on a Pirate Adventure in Annapolis. It left us with such a positive feeling, that five years later, when we were considering what to get S for his birthday we decided to do another pirate cruise. This time, however, we opted to leave out of Georgetown.

When we made the reservations, I cringed at the late September sailing date. I imagined a cold and dreary day at sea. In fact, yesterday was perfect sailing weather and if anything I was wishing for overcast skies to provide some relief.

The pirate adventure followed more or less the same script as the one from five years ago. There was a simple story of a run-away pirate who stole the keys to the treasure. The kids had to man the water canons on the side of the ship to convince the wayward pirate to give up the keys. S enjoyed the water guns and exploring the boat. He brought along a foam pirate sword, and did a bit of swashbuckling with other kids who had brought their own pirate weaponry. At one point, all the water guns were occupied and S couldn't get in on the action. One of the staff members took S's hand and helped him find a spot; it was really sweet.

While the experiences were both positive, we recall the cruise from Annapolis was done better. I suppose it was about some of the small touches: they gave each kid a pirate name, and did a little dress-up and face painting before boarding the boat. Once on the boat, they managed to maintain the kids rapt attention. The whole thing made for a more immersive experience. I've got no idea if the Annapolis experience is still this good. And it sure is hard to beat the convenience of driving to Georgetown over Annapolis.

Most importantly, S had a ball. And when it came time to pick the treasure that he'd take home he was decisive: he selected two packages of Smarties. He wasn't interested in any of the plastic schlock. He's smart enough to know that good old fashion candy is where it's at. Smart man.

If you're looking for a fun activity for your 4 or 5 year old, a Pirate Cruise is hard to beat.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Review: Jeff Shaara's Civil War Battlefields: Discovering America's Hallowed Ground

Learning about the US Civil War is tricky business. Zoom too far out, and you end up with collection of names, dates and themes that lack meaning. Zoom too far in, and you become overwhelmed by minutia. Finding a balance between brevity and detail is one of the primary reasons Jeff Shaar's Civil War Battlefields is such a remarkable book.

Shaar's text is written for those who plan to visit one or more of the major Civil War Battlefields. While I don't have these plans, his book still caught my eye while searching through my library's audio book collection. Because it was a library book, I figured there was no harm in giving it a listen. Man, did I discover a gem!

Shaar answers three questions for each battlefield: what happened, why this matters and what you should see. I skipped the last section of each chapter, as I wasn't at the battlefield. The what happened and why does it matter sections, however, are delightfully written and bring both the battle and war itself to life. During the what happened section I found myself alternately cringing and cheering as both military genius and ineptitude were on display. The why this matters section put the various battles in context.

One of the best features of the book is how Shaar's narrative ties the battles together. From the shocking carnage of Shilo, to the defeat at Petersburg that seals the fate of the confederacy, he uses 10 battles to traverse the 4 year arc that is the Civil War.

Shaar steers clear of glorifying either the Union or Confederacy. He highlights stories of bravery and ingenuity on both sides, and doesn't shy away from noting atrocities and missteps that each army carries out. His writing brings the events to life, and made for an audio book I couldn't put down.

I especially enjoyed using my new found knowledge to better understand Civil War events I was familiar with. Take Pickett's Charge. I've been to Gettysburg a number of times and I've walked the sacred ground that was the site of this infamous attack. On the surface, a 3/4 mile frontal assault of high ground seems absurd. Of course it's going to result in a bloody defeat, how could the Confederate attackers expect any other outcome?

Once I understood the battles that preceded Gettysburg, however, Picket's Charge seemed less insane. The Rebel soldiers through skill, Union General incompetence and good old fashion luck had managed to pull off a number of unlikely victories. In that context, to depend on these same forces again seems somewhat reasonable. However, this time the crazy military maneuver was just that, crazy.

If you're looking for a fun and approachable way to understanding the events of the Civil War, I can't recommend this book highly enough.

Monday, September 09, 2019

2019 Backpacking Mini Reviews

At the end of last July Shira and I did a delightful backpacking trip in West Virginia. Here's some thoughts on new gear we experimented with; hopefully this can serve as useful intel.

Kelty Trailogic TN4 Tent

Verdict: Returned to REI

Shira enjoys backpacking and generally puts up with my crazy trail experiments. But one area where she puts her foot down is shelter. While I may ogle the ultralight 2 man tents at REI, or try selling her on the joy of tarps, she's adamant: a 4 man tent (or larger) is a requirement. Given how little space a 2 man, or even 3 man shelter gives, her request isn't that unreasonable. More importantly, year after year we enjoy having the extra space. Our gold standard for tents is the Euerka Timberline 4 Man Tent. It's the same tent I've been using since Scouts and it has more than proven itself. While I love the Timberline, every year I go on a quest to find a lighter, more backpacking friendly relacement. This year I discovered the Kelty Traillogic TN4 and convinced Shira to use it for our weekend adventure.

On paper the Trailogic is just about perfect. It's a few pounds lighter than our Timberline, stows more compactly and has a novel fly configuration that easily switches from full rain protection to full ventilation. Oh, and it was on clearance at REI.

Alas, a weekend using the Trailogic revealed it just wasn't going to make the cut. The main problem was getting into and out of the tent. The zippers kept snagging, and the lowered height combined with the rain fly placement meant that every entry and exit was a mini ordeal.

I so wanted to love this tent, but it didn't pass the weekend test. So back it went to REI and my search for the elusive lightweight 4 person tent continues.

Sawyer Mini Water Filter

Verdict: Feh. Probably not switching to a filter any time soon.

Since my days as a Scout I've relied on chemical treatment for water purification (back in the day it was iodine, these days it's Aquatabs). Thanks to an Amazon deal, I finally gave a water filter a try.

In the three days that we were on trail I went through the entire range of emotions with the Sawyer Squeeze Mini.

An hour into the hike I tried using the Squeeze for the first time. I scooped water into the bag, attached the filter and squeezed. Moments later pristine water was produced and our group rejoiced! This was magic! Tasty water, nearly instantly--what more could you possibly ask for?! I immediately started making plans: next year, each person would get their own filter.

As the trip proceeded, however, my love affair with the filter started to dim. By the next day, the filtration rate noticeably slowed. Did I need to backflush? That sort of, kind of, but not quite helped. Did I need to squeeze harder? When I applied even more force water started leaking from the sides of the filter. Then I noticed a gasket had come loose. I put it back, but wondered if'd broken something.

While this was going on, I purified a bunch of water with Aquatabs. The nasty chemical taste I expected never appeared.

By the end of the trip, I was so over the Sawyer Mini. I wasn't entirely sure it was working, and it took significant effort to use.

I know from various online discussions that the Sawyer Mini is plagued with issues and is not recommended. With that in mind, it may be worth trying another filter. But mostly I continue to love the elegance of chemical treatment. Who wants to fuss with potentially delicate hardware when a pill can solve the problem?

Sea to Summit X-Pot & X-Kettle

Verdict: These pots are awesome!

Between the larger group we were trekking with, my frustration with our new non-stick backpacking pot and a $20 credit we had at SeaToSummitUSA.com, Shira convinced me to buy the extravagant X-Set 33. These are two pots that thanks to clever use of silicone walls, neatly nest within each other.

In short, the pots are awesome. They were stable, gripped well to our stove and were convenient to use. I'm sure they aren't the lightest option for backcountry cookware, but they are almost certainly the most compact. Shira loved the flexibility of being able to heat up water in two different pots. So much of what we do involves boiling water and pouring it into containers, so having a kettle designed for this task was ideal.

The pots aren't cheap, but as luxury items go, they deliver on all they promise.

Opinel #6

Verdict: Love it.

I've tried a variety of knives for use with younger / newbie campers. The Opinel #6 is currently the winner. The ring locking mechanism is far safer than types that require you put your finger in the path of the blade or don't have a lock at all. And after having tried the Opinel #7 and #8, I know that the #6 is the ideal size. Throw in the tremendous quality to cost ratio and you have a knife that's hard to beat.

Various Freeze Dried Meals

Verdict: Some hit, some miss.

To spice things up this year, we tried a number of REI bought meals for our second night's dinner. (First night is and will always be hot dogs roasted over a campfire). Backpacker's Pantry Fettuccini Alfredo and Mountain House Spaghetti with Meat Sauce were both winners. Mountain House Chili Mac was rated as good, but apparently was too cheesy (who knew this was possible?!). GOOD TO-GO Indian Vegetable Korma had a fine flavor, but didn't properly rehydrate. The result was a soupy mess. The same thing happened for the Backpacker's Pantry Mango Sticky Rice. We had such high hopes for this desert, yet it was a dud.

Store-bought meals are definitely pricey, but they were tons of fun. It was eye opening to see that some of the meals could be such flops. Still, we'll learn from the ones that didn't work and will try again in the future.

Hoosier Hill Farm Big Daddy Mac Mix

While the rest of the group ate store bought meals, I decided to experiment with cold soaking my dinner. I combined Minute Rice and TVP with equal amounts of water. After 45 minutes, the mixture was full rehydrated. I then mixed in my secret ingredient: 2 tablespoons of cheddar cheese powder. I didn't bother adding more liquid or olive oil. Once mixed together I had a premium tasting meal. It was a cold soaked success! This stuff is a keeper.

RovyVon A5 Keychain Light

The RovyVon A5 is a sort of Swiss Army knife of flashlights: it's ridiculously compact, contains a primary light, two side LEDs, a multitude of lighting modes, and a glow in the dark handle. One has to wonder if it's a pinnacle of engineering, or a gimmicky mess. After using it on the trip and having it on my keychain in general, I've decided it falls more towards the pinnacle of engineering side of the spectrum.

The main light has a solid selection of brightness choices. The sidelight is useful as a red-light-blinker when I find myself walking on dark roads or trails. Even the glow in the dark handle is useful, as the faint glow was helpful for finding the flashlight in a dark tent. The light comes with a clip that let's me attach the flashlight to the brim of my hat. I've even had success using the light and clip as a pocket dangler.

The main issue with the light: run time. I was surprised that after a 45 minute run the light was struggling to stay alive. Given the small size of the light, I suppose this isn't a surprise. Something's going to give. Still, it's a truly useful light and for keychain duty it's ideal.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

Review: To Kill a Mockingbird (the play)

Last week, before we entered full Tennis Fan Mode, we spent the day playing New York City Tourist. We took a delightful stroll hike through NY's Central Park, marveling at the shear diversity of the place. We ate astoundingly good cake pops from William Greenberg Deserts and of course, took in a Broadway Show.

The show was To Kill a Mockingbird and it was quite good.

I read To Kill a Mockingbird in High School and have vague memories of enjoying it. In fact, one its quotes has stuck with me all these years:

“Never, never, never, on cross-examination ask a witness a question you don't already know the answer to, was a tenet I absorbed with my baby-food.”

Most of the plot, however, has long since been lost to me. This meant that I went into the play expectation free.

[Warning: Spoilers Ahead]

Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame was responsible for adapting the book to a play, and you could see his fingerprints all over the production. For one thing, the quick and witty dialog felt right out of a West Wing episode. Between the actors' accents, the quick pace of the play and the inability to pause and rewind the scene, I found myself literally on the edge of my seat trying to follow along. Every time the audience erupted in laughter I'd mentally scold them for making it harder to follow the dialog.

Sorkin also deployed another device that I enjoyed from the West Wing: he had the characters openly discuss some key bit of information in a way that makes you, the viewer, think you're supposed to understand it. And yet, you don't--at least not completely. Ultimately, the explanation is delivered to you as the story closes out. For a period of time the viewer is left in mental limbo. While it seems strange to praise a writer for creating confusion, I think it demonstrates a degree of trust in the audience. It also makes for an ending that gratifyingly snaps together.

As for the content of the play, when the first act closed out, all I could think is: Wow, this is so a commentary on the era of Trump. Though I wasn't exactly sure why that was. As the play finished and I attempted to process what I'd just experienced I found this same thought coming back to me again and again.

I'm sure Harper Lee wanted me to wrestle with questions about the need to "crawl around in someone's skin" before we can understand him or her; or how our past conflicts can continue to haunt us; or how can we make a just and equitable society from one so unjust. Yet, I kept coming back to the current occupant of the Oval Office.

I think the connection boils down to this statement uttered by Atticus in the play. I'm paraphrasing, but it went something like this:

Surely the people of this town wouldn't sentence a black man to die for a crime he obviously couldn't commit... Would they?

And of course, they do. Given perjured testimony and a healthy does of bigotry, the jury is all too willing to ignore facts and send an obviously innocent man to his death. It's exactly this lying and favoring what feels right over facts that's a hallmark of the Trump administration.

We saw this when Trump claimed a caravan of migrants was a dangerous invasion. We saw this when Trump claimed an investigation into Russian election interference was a hoax. We saw this when Trump claimed millions of people voted illegally. And we've seen it countless other times as the president continues to repeat lie after lie.

In this context, To Kill a Mockingbird is a less about wrestling with a racist past, and more a cautionary tale of what happens when lies and wishful thinking replace facts and reason. Like the book 1984, its plot has become all too prescient.

Politics aside, the play really was well done. If you have the chance to catch it, you should.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

US Open 2019: French Fries, Pastries and Also Great Tennis

This past weekend we made our annual trip to the US Open Tennis Tournament. While Friday's matches were good, Saturday's were great.

On Friday, we saw Federer, Djokovic and Serena all dominate their opponents. We watched Kei Nishikori take on Alex de Minaur. And while we had high hopes for a Kei comeback, Alex never really let him get control of the match. In short, it was solid tennis but nothing extravagant.

This changed on Saturday when we watched Taylor Townsend take on Sorana Cirstea. Townsend has a reputation for playing serve and volley tennis, a style of tennis that commentators will frequently remind you is distinctly old school. Townsend won her first set in the most difficult way possible: she kept losing games and then breaking back to recover. While her rushing the net strategy wasn't working for most of the first set, she stuck with it. By the second set she had tuned her strategy, and was crushing it. It was a thing of beauty to watch.

It's not just Townsend's on-court strategy that I loved; she has great between sets schtick as well. For one, she busts out a journal to review, a move that implies everything is going to plan. But that's nothing compared to her other move: jumping rope. While her opponent was seated between sets, she grabbed a jump rope and went to town. Her message: Who's tired? You're tired? I'm not tired. Nope, I've got energy to burn.

After that match, we made our way to Ashe to watch Andreescu beat Wozniacki, another unlikely victory.

We closed out the day by watching Monfils take on Shapovalov. This was exactly the kind of 5 set battlefest one hopes for. While it looked like Monfils would take it in 4, Shapovalov pushed it to 5 sets and kept fighting all the way. Monfils, for his part, never lost hope and took the longer match in stride. After Monfils prevailed we heard him speak at the post match interview. Monfils has a reputation for being a showman, which at times has made commentators suggest he doesn't take the game as seriously as others. So I was a bit surprised when this veteran gave such a humble, authentic and entitlement-free interview. I've always been a fan of Monfils, but now I'm even more so.

Overall, it was two great days at the Open. Other highlights include: walking past the massive crowds at the East Gate to enter without waiting in line at the South Gate. Stopping by Iris Tea & Bakery to pick up delicious baked goods to nosh on throughout the day. Savoring waffle, Korean and Vietnamese style french fries. Scoring a free cooling towel that was perfect for keeping the sun from baking my legs. And taking Amtrak instead of driving to NY for a less-stress and more-leg-room travel option. Good times!

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