Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Rocky Mountain National Park - Day 1

[Composed 7/23/2023]

This photo, right here, is one of my favorite pics from our Rocky Mountain National Park adventure:

I know what you're thinking: really? A cheesy jet bridge pic? That's your highlight? Yes, 100%.

To appreciate this moment, you need to realize that it was 364 days in the making. Nearly 1 year ago to the day, we *tried* to all go to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), but a last minute case of Covid derailed the trip. So, to walk down the jetbridge, the five us, was victory! Sure, at this moment our plans could have easily gone awry; but at least we would have been on an adventure together!

The flight to Denver and car pickup was uneventful. We were then lucky enough to grab lunch with my cousin Lindsay (sorry Doug!) and her kids. After a delicious meal and time catching up, it was time to make our way to Estes Park, stock up on food and supplies and finally land at our Airbnb.

Last year, when we drove from Denver to Estes Park I remember the scene being just perfect, with big puffy clouds in a blue sky and tempting mountains in the distance. I figured there was no way this scene was going to repeat itself, but it did. B, P, and M were all treated to a perfect Colorado afternoon. I can see why people want to live out here, it's just gorgeous.

Our Airbnb appeared to be a winner, with plenty of space for everyone. The decour, especially in the kitchen, feels like 1970's chic. But, everything is in great condition and the kitchen is fully stocked with supplies and food.

While the kids did what sane people do, and relaxed, I did what I like to do and dragged Shira out for a hike. Yes, we'd been traveling since 5am, and yes the elevation here is challenging on your first day. But who can resist the call of the mountains? A short distance from our Airbnb was a random trail that looked like the perfect place to stretch our legs. We'd found Thumb Open Space, which had opened in July 2022, and included a trail with stunning views of the area. It's a testament to how flush this area is with amazing trails that you can have such a high quality trail that's on nobody's radar. The only tricky part about the trail at Thumb Open Space is that it's all uphill. Shira was not amused.

After the hike, we made our way back to our Aibnb for dinner. Everyone was wiped from a fully day of travel, but we were all excited to finally be on our adventure. It had taken an extra year, but it was totally worth it. Our plan is to hit up Trail Ridge Road tomorrow and see if RMNP lived up to the hype!

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Review: A Psalm for the Wild Built

I accidentally discovered A Psalm for the Wild Built, by Becky Chambers, while searching Arlington Library for my next read. I was thinking maybe I'd read something about Tehillim, The Book of Psalms, but when my search brought up a hit with a robot on the cover I was intrigued. Within a few minutes of listening to it, I was sold.

The book immediately gave me Murderbot Diaries vibes. Mind you, the universes and plots of these books are totally different, but the likable characters and accessible writing are common to both sci-fi series. And like the Murderbot Diaries, as soon as I finished the first book I reserved the second one in the sequence.

For a relatively short book, I found A Psalm to be thought provoking. I'll share some of those thoughts below, but do yourself a favor: consider the rest of this post a big 'ol spoiler. Stop now, and read A Psalm for the Wild Built. Then come back and let's compare notes.

***Spoilers Below***

With that out of the way, my first thought about A Psalm for the Wild Built was how narrow the plot of the book is. The storyline boils down to one character, Sibling Dex, struggling with having everything yet not being happy. That's it. There's no wars or famine here, just a character who should be happy, but isn't. I think Chambers makes this work based on her well written dialog, interesting characters and the construction of a fascinating universe. Still, it's a bold choice, yet one that I'm glad she made.

And speaking of universes, Chambers has created quite the world. On the surface, it seems to be a sort of Woke Utopia. Humans have finally learned to live in balance with the environment, trading obviously wasteful and ecologically harmful behaviors for those that let us live in sync with the planet. It took 109 years and a civil war costing 620,000 lives for the United States to come to grips with the fact that slaves, which were obviously people, should have the rights of, well, people. In Chamber's world, robots became conscious, and rather than argue that it was impossible for objects to become sentient, humans freed their robots and swear off robot technology. Even throw-away comments from the characters give a sense of how evolved the citizens of Chambers' worlds are: for example, when Sibling Dex explains that they've had the same computer since birth, because, why would ever need to replace a computer? I love that I was listening to that part of the story on my Galaxy S22, which if I'm lucky, has another year in it before I'll upgrade to a new device.

Even what's missing indicates a sort of utopia. There's no talk of war or corruption. You have a monk roaming the forests, and yet there's no sign of bandits or anyone looking to do Dex harm. It's like Chambers had re-read the Hunger Games and was on a mission to create the opposite world.

To complete the wokeness factor, the main character has no gender. This is the first book I've read where any character, much less the main character, is a they.

For those who bristle at the thought of a gender-free main character operating in a ecologically sensitive universe, I'd say: give the text a chance. The individuals who get credit for keeping the world going are the farmers and tradespeople. Without robots, the currency of the day is hard work and clever solutions. Add to that the fact that the religion and religious ceremonies play a central role, and I'd say that Becky Chambers essentially built a planet ruled by rednecks. Well played Chambers, well played.

While having a genderless main character took getting used to, I'm ultimately thankful for this decision. For one, it helps my brain adapt to using they and them as pronouns; something I don't do frequently IRL, but does happen. I also appreciate how Chambers accomplished this.

Consider an imaginary author writing a story about a female astronaut back in the 1960's. In one version of the story, the entire plot hinges on the fact a normally male role has been usurped by a female. The story writes itself: she must prove herself at every turn that she is as capable as man. Alternatively, the same author could have included a female astronaut simply because the story called for a human to be in that role, and women happen to be humans. In the latter case, the choice of a female astronaut doesn't alter the storyline; it just is. A Psalm for the Wild Built falls into this second category: the story called for a main character who struggles to find happiness and the fact that we're talking about Sibling Dex versus Brother or Sister Dex makes no real difference.

With that said, Chambers is normalizing a character having no gender, just like our imaginary author may opt to normalize female astronauts, so I suppose that itself a powerful statement. Time will tell if like the idea of a female astronaut, having characters without a gender ages well.

As a tea drinker, lover of the outdoors and problem solver, I do love that Sibling Dex's job is to putter around the country looking to craft and share different cups of tea with the aim of bringing relief to the community. Tea is delightfully versatile and can be used from everything from jolting yourself awake to calming yourself for bed, so even in our universe Sibling Dex's vocation makes sense. Who knows maybe one day I'll find myself with the desperate need to cosplay a character, in which case, I'm totally dressing up as a tea monk.

And finally, there's the title of the book: what the heck is that all about? I'm probably connecting dots I shouldn't be, but many of the psalms in The Book of Psalms include cryptic titles. Take Psalm 92, its title: A Psalm for the sabbath day would suggest that you're going to read a poem about Shabbat. Surprisingly, the text of this psalm never mentions Shabbat. So Chambers offering a perplexing title to a psalm is elegantly in line with this tradition.

Mulling this over for a few days, I can see the title hinting at two different themes. First, we learn in the book that 'wild built' refers to robots who have been built from reclaimed parts. The title suggests to me that perhaps this story isn't just for us the reader, but also for (wild built) robots. Mosscap, Sibling Dex's robot companion, is able to form a bond with a human that may be considered beyond what a robot would expect. In this context, 'A Psalm for the Wild Built' is sort of an inspirational text for robots: look at what Mosscap, and robots in general, can accomplish--isn't it amazing?

Another take on this title brings my attention back to Sibling Dex. Dex begins to find happiness when they step out of the manicured world that's been fashioned for them. In other words, it's Sibling Dex who becomes wild built and is the better for it.

Regarldless of what the title means, the book was an excellent one and I highly recommend it. On to book two!

Monday, August 21, 2023

Let There Be Light: More Experiments in Upcycled Light

I've dabbled with oil lamps in the past, but when we ran out Shabbat candles a few weeks ago, I decided I'd give this ancient lighting strategy another go.

For millennia, oil lamps were a common choice for lighting, and using them on Shabbat sparks a deep connection that goes back to our earliest records. When the Torah talks about collecting up oil for lighting, I'm like, I got you.

Oil lamps are little more than a container, a wick and fuel. Because of this simple design, it's possible to create unique and meaningful lamps with ease. For example, the clam shell I collected a few weeks back while fishing with my Dad is both a practical receptacle for oil and a fun reminder of that experience. There's also a sense of empowerment that comes from knowing that if you have cooking oil and matches, you're only a few improvisations away from having light and heat.

For the last few weeks, my oil supply has come from a couple of long forgotten bottles of cooking oil. It's nice putting these to work instead of chucking them. For wicks, I've experimented with both the floating variety as well as traditional lamp wick.

Floating wicks are the easier option and turn any pool of oil into a lamp:

One lesson learned, however, is that floating wicks tend to drift to the sides of the oil. This baby food jar seems like a good fit for a floating wick, but because the sides slope in, it's not.

What ends up happening is that the wick floats to the side and burns the edges of the glass. Floating wicks work best with a container that's wider at its opening than its base. This clam shell is an extreme example of this shape and works perfectly:

The other style of wick I've used, known as 'lamp wick,' is nothing more than cotton cordage sold with a fancy name. Any length of cotton should do the job, so I'm sure I could have improvised this from an old t-shirt or other materials around the home. However, buying this on Amazon gave me the best chance for success. You need to secure the wick from sliding into the resevoir, and I've found that wrapping the end of the cordage in foil and piercing it with a safety pin does this job nicely.

My first attempt at using lamp wick was a fail. The wick would light and in a minute or two, burn out. The problem was that I had too much distance between the pool of olive oil and the flame. The flame needs to burn the vapors of the oil, not the cotton wick. To make the lamp above work properly, I needed to fill it to the top with oil. However, I don't need that much burn time, so an unexpected solution is to fill the glass jar mainly with water, and then add some oil. The oil naturally seperates from the water, forming a layer of fuel above it. Now the oil is now close to the flame and can be slurped up by the wick with ease.

This version of the lamp burned 1oz of oil for a little over an hour.

There's no doubt that candles are a more straightforward lighting solution than an improvised cooking oil lamp. It's less messy and Just Works. But the benefits of oil lamps are just too numerous to pass up. So I say go the messier and trickier route, it's worth it!

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Review: Manual of Field Sketching and Reconnaissance

How do you make a map of an arbitrarily large area without the benefit of GPS or other modern instruments? And how do you do this while under fire from the enemy? The Manual of Field Sketching and Reconnaissance, published in 1903, covers precisely this topic.

The recommended answer, by the way, involves setting an appropriate scale (say, 1 inch = 1 mile), methodically measuring and plotting out a number of points in that scale (say, walking 1.5 miles and then drawing the corresponding a 1.5 inch line on your paper), and then using these established points to triangulate other notable locations on your map. Finally, add symbols, text and perhaps contour lines and bam! you've got a map!

Admittedly, this process isn't quite as easy as I'm suggesting above. But, it is certainly a learn-able skill, and requires only the minimum of technology to accomplish.

Because the manual is written for the creation of maps and reports during war time, there's an emphasis on being creative and improvising. For example, rather than measure distances using precise instruments like chains, a number of other option are given:

The straight lines, called traverse lines, are measured with a chain or tape, or by pacing, or by cyclometer, pedometer, perambulator, or by time, or by estimation.

If if you're performing recon of an area by horseback, then this advice would be especially handy:

As regards the measurement of distances when sketching on horseback, it used to be the custom to count the horse's paces. But this system has great disadvantages; it is vexatious and laborious, and the resulting preoccupation of mind prevents the sketcher from looking about him and studying the country through which he rides. By far the best way is to measure distance by time.
  Allow 12 miles an hour for a canter,
        8  „                 „ trot, 
        4  „                 „ walk,
under normal conditions.*

Then draw a scale of minutes at the trot on the ruler.
Thus: Scale of sketch 2 inches to 1 mile,—
In one minute at a trot 8/60 mile, or 235 yards, will have been covered, 235 yards at 2 inches to 1 mile = .27 inch.

One aspect of the text which I found unexpectedly eye-opening was the chapter on scale. As a map reader, scale isn't something I'd given a whole lot of thought to; it just is what it is. But, as a map creator, the choice of scale has far reaching implications. Say you have a 10 by 10 mile area you'd like to map. If you're working with an 8½x11 inch sheet of paper, then a 1 inch per mile scale simply won't fit on the page. The scale you choose directly reflects how much detail you can capture on a map. I'm so used to digital maps where you can zoom in and out, effectively morphing the scale at will, that the idea of picking one scale to work in is truly an exercise in balancing competing needs.

I found the section on night time sketching to be enlightening. In the early 1900's the flashlight would be considered futuristic tech; invented but hardly practical. Yet, I was surprised to learn that luminous paint was available. The idea of marking compass points with this type of paint seems modern, and yet, this is precisely what the manual recommends. This theme of finding seemingly modern map and navigational concepts in the text was common. For example, the role of countour lines or how your location on the globe impacts your magnetic North, are just two small examples of this phenomena. While the language of this text seems dated at times, so many of the concepts are as true today as they were back then.

Overall, I found the field manual to be a fascinating read. There's practical advice here that's useful in situations when you don't have access to a GPS or Google. But more than that, the book is a window into the mind of the map maker. This volume contains an impressive number of reproduced maps. These show, even under trying circumstances, the kind of high quality creations that can be authored when soldiers in the field combine skill, improvisation and artistry that's called for in this text.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

The US Navy Band I Didn't Expect To Hear

Back on July 20th my Mom suggested we all meet at the Fairfax County Government Center for one of their Thursday evening summer concerts. Fairfax County offers a heap of free entertainment throughout the summer, including Thursday evening concerts. Mom told me that the US Navy Band would be performing. I figured we were in for a night of patriotic classical music; I was in.

When we arrived at the Ellipse, I noticed that the stage was set up and there was country music softly playing from the speakers. I found the choice of music odd, but enjoyed it none the less. If whoever set up the equipment was a fan of country, then heck, why not play some tunes before the event started.

As the concert began I realized I'd read the situation all wrong: we were here to listen to the US Navy's Country Music Band, Country Current. The warm up music wasn't out of place, it was carefully selected. So this was going to be a night of country and blue grass; yeehaw, that's my jam!

The band's performance was outstanding. I didn't capture any video, but if you check out this past performance, you'll get a feel for how high quality these musicians are. The band played mainly classic country hits, which I thoroughly enjoyed. My parents and brother got into the toe tapping fun, but it was G who was really loving tunes. He danced and goofed around while the band played. The whole experience far exceeded my expectations.

Another highlight: I grabbed some random snacks from our pantry to eat during the show, including a packet of peanut butter and a bag of chocolate chips. Noshing on spoonfuls of peanut butter covered in chocolate chips with G may not have been the most nutritious thing to eat, but it sure was fun. And as an uncle, my prime directive is fun.

After the concert we stayed an kicked a soccer ball around. G plays kiddie soccer, so he was able to demonstrate some impressive skills.

What a fun evening; well done Fairfax County and the US Navy!