Thursday, September 21, 2017

Review: The Miracle of Dunkirk

The Miracle of Dunkirk is about Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Dunkirk by the British Expeditionary Force at the start of World War 2 after the rout of the French Marginot line.

The book attempts to do what I think is pretty much an impossible job, a coherent narrative of an event from multiple simultaneous perspectives while providing personal interesting stories and anecdotes. As a result, I came away from the book feeling rather disjointed, as not everything came together.

Compared to the Christopher Nolan film, the book lacks a central cohesive story. But of course, the book provides way more context and ties together actions from the command side as well as the actions of the rank and file. As a matter of fact, I think the film provides a misleading view of the events at Dunkirk.

If you've read the book, the movie makes a lot more sense. If you've watched the movie, I think the book's much better. Recommended.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Long Term Review: CamelBak Kid's 2016 Mini MULE Hydration Pack

Since acquiring the Kid's Camelbak in April, Bowen's traveled to England with the pack, did a walking vacation, then a 10 day bike tour, and finally a backcountry camping trip, all wearing the backpack. He's still not completely grown into the pack --- the shoulder straps still occasionally slip off despite tightening the sternum strap to as short as it can go.

The upper pockets are very convenient, especially the small zippered pockets, which are great for sticking the leggings of his convertible hiking pants so they don't get lost or mixed in with adult stuff. The big pocket always holds a Clif bar or some other snack. The additional weight has actually taught him that he does not need to bring his bunny on the backpacking trip!

We've had one failure, which is that the bite valve died in England after he bit on it extra hard. On short notice, we had to pay absurd English tourist prices for it (we had to find a bike shop that would sell it to us, which was actually not that easy). Since they're $4 a piece in the US via Amazon, you might as well stock up on those before leaving on a trip to an expensive destination.

I still recommend the backpack. It's survived without a lot of damage.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Bowen's first Sierra backcountry camping trip

I don't know where the tradition of "summer camp" for kids come from. As far as I can tell, none of the summer camps I see from Facebook posts actually involve real camping. So when Arturo suggested a real backcountry trip in the Sierra with real camping with Bowen, I of course agreed. We asked Bowen: "2 days or 3 days?" He said, "3 days!"

The location Arturo picked was Hieser and Bull Run Lakes, a trip he had done with other kids before. We left on Sunday morning, stopped in Stockton to picked up a camping bowl, fire starting equipment, and a trowel, and then stopped in Angel Camp for lunch. We arrived at the Mosquito Lakes trailhead at 2:00pm and repacked our backpacks, consolidating all the food into bear canisters, and then started walking.

The weather was warm despite recent rainfall, but Arturo told us we would still see snow. Bowen was happy to find it in the middle of summer, and could not help poking away at it with Arturo's hiking stick.
The hike from the trail head to Heiser Lake was short, not even 3 miles. But the last stretch was an uphill and Bowen hadn't been walking a lot for a while, so we took it at a low pace.
Thunderhead clouds slowly grew ahead of us, however, so towards the end, we had to cajole Bowen into moving a little faster so that we wouldn't be setting up tents in the rain. In the end, we arrived a good half hour before the thunderstorm started, so we had plenty of time to set up our tents and get in before it showed up. "Camping is so fun," said Bowen. "It's so quiet!"
After the storm was over (and we did get to hear thunder and see lighting flashes from inside the tent), Bowen was hungry. He had to wait a bit, however, as Arturo had discovered a leak in his sleeping pad. It took a long time for him to find the leak, but fortunately he multi-tasked, firing up his stove and then starting a campfire in between sessions of patching and debugging.
The purpose of the campfire, of course, was to roast marshmallows, which Bowen happily did, after which we did some star gazing before retiring to bed. Arturo discovered that despite his fixes his mattress was still leaking, and while I thought I had packed more patches, I couldn't find them in the dark.

In the light of the morning I found my patch kit for the mattress and gave them to Arturo. It was a very comfortable morning, and by the time breakfast was over I was removing all the layers. We descended back to the intersection with Bull Run Lake, and walked towards it.
This was a true wilderness experience --- all through the day we would only see 2 other people. We'd had Heiser Lake to ourselves the night before and Arturo had told us that Bull Run Lake was heavily used, so we tempered our expectations.

At lunch, Bowen saw a bear, but neither Arturo nor I were fast enough to see it! Despite the forecast of no rain, we saw thunderheads building against once more, but were quite confident that we would get to Bull Run Lake before it actually rained.
To our surprised, we arrived at Bull Run Lake in sunshine, but Bowen was so tired that he plopped down next to our backpacks while we scouted the area for a good campsite. Having found a very nice one, we talked Bowen into coming along while we put together the tents. It was sunny and warm, and so I suggested we swim before it rained and we changed our minds.
Arturo tried wading in on the shallows, but I knew that it was a mistake. With mountain lakes, you should just jump right in so you don't get a chance for the cold water to change your mind. That's what I did, and after Bowen saw me do it, he followed suit. Well, once the 5-year-old performed the feat, there was no way for Arturo to back out, so he went for a swim too.

In fact, Bowen wanted to do it twice, so I ended up jumping into the lake three times, and Arturo had to do it twice too. As we were finished with our shivering I noticed ripples on the lake surface. The rain was coming! We hurriedly dressed, hung up our swim suit, and got into our tents. The rain was short, only about 15 minutes, after which we went for a walk around the lake to verify that yes, we had the place to ourselves.
When we were done with our walk, it was still early, so Bowen and Arturo played cards while I read a little bit. Then a thunderstorm blew through. This one went on for about an hour, after which Bowen declared he was hungry, and we made dinner. The wood that we had piled up for the campfire had gotten wet, so it took Arturo two tries to start it, but he eventually got a nice fire going and Bowen roasted more marshmallows.

Our last day of hiking was the toughest one. We'd discovered that Arturo's map was wrong about distance and elevation (it must have been made by the Italian members of National Geographic), and it'd be significantly longer than what Arturo had expected.
We said goodbye to Bull Run lake and started the descent. Past the intersection with the highway 4 trail, the trail started descending rapidly and steeply. At the bottom near the river crossings we encountered 2 separate parties heading up to Bull Run Lake. Each was composed of 6 girls and several adult supervisors (some of which were men) but there wasn't a single boy amongst them.
We had lunch after the last river crossing, and finished the gentle climb which turned out to be better than the descent. After that, we hit the parking lot and then headed along the trail to mosquito lake, which would have added 2 miles to the hike if we all were headed straight for the car. But Arturo had a better idea, which was to beat off the trail to the road, whereupon he would run to the car and pick us up. The weather was very warm, so we were glad not to have to do a full 2 more miles: Bowen was already quite tired and was walking slower than his usual skip-and-hop pace. The hike up to the road was actually quite steep, but we made it and soon Arturo picked us up and we headed off to JoMa's Artisan Ice Cream shop for much needed ice cream.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Review: Merrell Men's All Out Blaze Mid Waterproof Hiking Boot

I couldn't find my custom hiking boots for the England trip, so was forced to buy a new pair of hiking boots. The Merrell Men's Blaze Mid was my pick, mostly because it was the lightest shoe available at a decent price when I visited REI. I was nervous about the shoe, since it was my first synthetic waterproof shoe. I've been disappointed in the past by claims of waterproofing on synthetic hiking boots --- they rarely live up to their claim.

These shoes, however, were very comfortable. So much so that I brought them to England as my only walking shoes (during my bike tour I wore cycling shoes). I wore them while driving, which I never would have done with my traditional hiking boots. While I had occasional soreness, those were usually addressed by lacing the shoe differently rather than hoping that the shoe would break in properly.

I finally tested them on waterproofing during a recent backcountry camping trip. They are indeed waterproof. Recommended.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Long Term Review: Vivoactive HR

The Vivoactive HR proved itself all through England, the BVI, and a recent hiking/camping trip. The battery life has stayed incredibly good, mostly because I only have to charge it every 3 days or so, rather than nearly after every activity. That's because at half charge, I know I can still do a 4 hour bike ride and not run the battery down. It also charges insanely fast, which is great for a device that should be on your wrist for you to get the most out of it.

The Achilles' heel however, is insect repellent. Both DEET and Picaridin will break down the seals in the watch, causing water intrusion and rapid failure. Both Arturo and I suffered the same failure, so it's likely a design "feature" of the Vivoactive HR, rather than a manufacturing error.

I would still recommend the unit --- it's very reliable, just keep it away from insect repellent of any sort!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Review: REI Sahara Convertible Hiking Pants (Boys)

I will admit that like many men, I let my wife do my shopping for kids clothing. This is usually for the best: not only am I red-green color blind, I also have zero fashion sense. But when it came to the England walking and cycling trip, I had to get my act together. Hiking and cycling clothing can't be made out of cotton, but Bowen's wardrobe was mostly cotton. Cotton kills in cold or rainy weather.

During a sale, I visited REI with Bowen, but found (perhaps I shouldn't be surprised) that they didn't have any boy's clothing to try on. I settled for Bowen trying out the girl's version, and then went home and ordered the Boy's REI Sahara Convertible Hiking Pants from the website. It wasn't until we owned them and used them for the hiking trip, cycling trip, and backcountry camping trip that we realized how good these are.

For starters, there are belt loops, but you don't ever have to use them. Inside the pants are a set of elastic bands that are controlled by buttons. You essentially can adjust how tight a fit the waist band of the pants are by adjusting where the buttons are on the elastic bands. Totally awesome.

Then, on the days when I had to remove the leggings to turn them into shorts, I was flabbergasted. The left and right pant legs are color coded on the zippers: red on the right and blue on the left. So when you need to turn the shorts back to the pants there's no fumbling on left and right. But wait, what's this? Each leg piece has a second zipper down the middle, and when you unzip them, they undo and come off the leg without the kid having to take off their shoes! I wish my adult convertible pants had these features!

The pants come with a full complement of pockets, unlike most kids pants. Bowen can stick a cliff bar in one, though we tend to use his camelbak for that.

On sale, these pants are about $22. If it were up to me, I'd replace every pair of pants Bowen has with these. They are the best pants ever. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Review: The Telomare Effect

The Telomare Effect has 2 outstanding authors, including a Nobel Prize winner in Medicine. I expected a detailed explanation of the process of discovery, at least some high quality speculation on how telomares get shortened or lengthened due to lifestyle changes, and then practical advice.

Instead, it was long on the latter, and short on the former. In particular, all the things that you already know to be healthy lifestyles (eat good food, avoid processed food, exercise, meditate and live mindfully) lengthen telomares. All the things you know to be bad for you shorten telomares. Drugs that lengthen telomares appear to cause cancer, so unfortunately lifestyle changes are the only way to do this.

If you didn't already know all this, the book would be a great read. But for me, it was a big disappointment. I got very little science and a huge dose of what I already knew.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Review: Parable of the Talents

Parable of the Talents is the sequel to Parable of the Sowers, Octavia Butler's novel about a post-apocalyptic America. Let me remind you that the special thing about the novel is how real it seems, because the cause of the apocalypse isn't some weird disease or nuclear war, but global climate change and religious fanaticism in American society, both forces that we see in play today in our current disastrous administration. 

In many ways Butler's optimistic—the book implies that the USA as a whole survives this apocalypse, with the exception of Alaska seceding from the union. But the novel takes the characters through some pretty dark places, including a first hand look at slavery. There were sections where I wanted to stop reading because it was all so horrifying, made worse by the versimilitude of the novel as a whole to present day circumstances. 

In parallel, we also get to see the start of a new religion, Earthseed, which acts as a counter-point to the fanatical Christian ideology that drove the apocalypse in the novel. 

The biggest sticking point of the novel for me is the wrap up. It feels like the author ran out of paper to write more pages, and so she hurries through the ending. I felt like Earthseed went from a twinkling in someone's eye to a huge success overnight, though of course, what happened was that Butler compressed time scale so much in the last few pages that I could not keep up. 

I enjoyed the novel enough to recommend it. I should go read more Butler. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Day 14: York Train Museum

We checked out of the hotel in the morning after eating in the room, and then walked over to the train museum, which was free! The kiddie rides weren't available, though there was a turntable demonstration. Bowen and Boen spent most of their time in the play area rather than the exhibits, but the museum itself was very well done and well worth a visit.

From York to Manchester Airport was a 2 hour drive direct, but 2 hours and 20 minutes if we drove through the Peak district. We did the latter, but it was so windy that we didn't really stop for pictures, and I noted that there weren't many places along the main highway where you could stop anyway for pictures. It was pretty, but there was nothing wrong in being checked into the hotel early so Xiaoqin and Boen could rest for their flight the next morning, so that's what we did.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Day 13: Osmotherly and York

I noticed that Osmotherly was right in between Hartlepool and York, and I remember it being part of the coast to coast walk, so we drove there, bought a pamphlet from the village store, and started a hike. The hike started out nicely, with Xiaoqin and Bowen picking raspberries from alongside the trail and eating as we went along.
Then on top of a ridge the instructions started making no sense. We asked someone and they pointed out the rest of the route to us, but by the time we finished, I knew that the situation and paths must have changed between when the pamphlet was printed and when we did the walk. This is not unusual in England, and the fact that footpaths are usually unsigned by destination or trail names made situations worse.
Nevertheless, it was a fun, easy walk, and we had lunch in town, after which we visited the local playground before driving on to York. In York, we settled in and then walked over to the Pakistani restaurant Scarlet had picked out, which featured a family sized Naan that was indeed huge.
After dinner, we walked along the York City wall for a while, itself an enjoyable diversion.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Day 12: Scarborough and Robin Hood's Bay

The night before, we'd booked an AirBnB via Instant Book. But this morning I had a message from the owner cancelling us! She obviously couldn't figure out how AirBnB worked. So it was back to, and we found a place at the Melbourne House Hotel in Hartlepool. It wasn't a super long drive, but it was annoying. What was worse was that we'd counted on the AirBnB's laundry service, so now the morning was spent scrambling for a laundry machine. The nearest one turned out to be in Scarborough, so off we went.
Scarborough was very touristy, we got some cotton candy and walked to the lighthouse, and tried a few rides in the arcade before picking up the laundry and going to Robin Hood's Bay to meet Scarlet. My last visit to Robin Hood's Bay was on foot. Driving there, I realized how much harder it was to go there by car: there was no parking in town, and when I tried, the road was so narrow I quickly realized it was my mistake. Yet there was no way to turn, so I tried to back the car up, whereupon it complained that the transmission was over-heating. (The 30% grade meant that all the transmission oil pooled up at the wrong end of the car which was leading to the over heating) I ended up doing a 3-point turn in a very tight spot and then driving to the out of town parking lot with my face drenched with sweat.
Once on foot, Robin Hood's Bay was gorgeous and very pretty. We walked through town but missed Scarlet, having been an hour late. But as we ate lunch Boen started screaming like he was two years old, and Scarlet had heard it from the other side of town and came over, surmising that was us. She was not wrong.
We got a selfie since we met in Scotland in 1995, about 22 years ago, and were in the same area purely by coincidence! We both had gray hair now, and were toting along sons. We exchanged notes and realized we were going to be in York at the same day, so we agreed to do dinner together then.
We then did a walk along the coast to Boggle Hole, and then back to the car for the drive to Hartlepool.
Hartlepool was not all that exciting, though the hotel we stayed at, the Melbourne House Hotel, was impressively new and well appointed, with everything obviously renovated.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Day 11: Grainary Farm Stay

We had bought breakfast at a supermarket the night before, so in the morning we had breakfast in the room, I moved the luggage to the car, and then we checked out, but spent some time in Leeds city center before we left for our farm stay.

The traffic was fast, but we actually had to fill up the car, our first time on this trip before returning the car to Manchester. The car's dashboard had bragged 700+ miles between refuellings, and after all that driving, I was willing to believe it!
All the way to the farm, Bowen had complained that he didn't like farm animals, just bunnies. And of course, when we arrived, what did we see but bunny cages! Bowen loved it.
There was a misty rain, which made us not feel like going anywhere, but also lended the place an other-worldly feel, which you would expect from us being in the Yorkshire Moors.
I had somehow neglected to make reservations for the next evening, which was a Saturday. So a mad scramble ensued. We found a place on AirBnB through Instant Book, so at least we thought we were set.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Day 10: Leeds

The road to Leeds was surprisingly long and full of traffic jams for no apparent reason. Once in Leeds, we parked in a parking lot near downtown that had so many stories but so few empty spaces that we ended up on the top floor. Since check in wasn't until later, we first headed over to the Royal Armoury Museum.
This was a huge, free museum full of exhibits and even live demos, including one covering the history of the English assault rifle from the musket days to the latest stuff. They even let your 2-year old handle the (deactivated) rifles.
There were also other exhibits, including the famous Battle of Agincourt.

We went back and checked into the hotel, and I had to move the luggage by hand from the parking lot to the hotel, which was an ordeal, but also gave me the opportunity to move the car to a more convenient location for the next day. I then went across the street to the downtown car free area to explore.
The old-style Victorian arcades were pretty, but what drew Bowen's attention was the sushi shop, Wasabi! So we bought sushi, and Bowen even got his first Japanese convenient store-style handroll, which came wrap in plastic and you'd unwrap it and turn it into a handroll yourself. He loved that and would have it for lunch again the next day.

After we bought take out for mommy and Boen and brought it back to hotel, Bowen and I went for a swim in the hotel pool before coming back for bed.

Monday, September 04, 2017

Day 9: Haweswater

This turned out to be a bit of a bust of a day. It all started in the morning when we packed, and while packing I pulled my CPAP machine's hose at the wrong place and tore it! I signed up for Amazon Prime trial in the UK and ordered a replacement shipped to our farmstay in Scarborough, but in the mean time managed to visit the hotel's workshop to borrow duct tape to engineer a temporary fix, which held.

After checking out, we failed to go hiking, then we had lunch in Keswick and did laundry, and then we drove to Haweswater in the rain. We got to the hotel, and in the drizzle I went out for a walk but there weren't any footpaths that were open near by so it was just a lousy road walk.

I got a call from the Castle Inn telling us that Bowen had left his bunny behind! I arranged for it to be sent to the Etrop Grange Hotel by post so we could pick it up when we started our cycling trip.

The food at the Haweswater Hotel was good, but it was windy and rainy. We had a free day tomorrow, and it was forecast for more rain, so we decided to go to Leeds the next day(on the way to the East Coast of England). Rainy days are good for cities and terrible for country side.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Day 8: Keswick

It was raining in the morning, so we decided to have a museum day. First was a visit to the pencil museum, which would have been a waste of money (it's basically the size of a tiny house), but the kids loved spending a lot of time drawing there, and they introduced us to the water color pencils, which are kinda neat: you use the color pencil and then smear a bit of water in it to get a watercolor effect without the mess.

It was still raining when we left the pencil museum, so we decided to go to the The Puzzling Place, which turned out to be great fun, full of optical illusions. The kids enjoyed the various illusions especially the tilted room, and if nothing else we got a number of cool photos out of it.

We ended up buying take out pizza for dinner and then Bowen and I swam in the hotel swimming pool.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Day 7: Muncaster Castle

Muncaster Castle featured a big collection of Owls and other birds of prey. We tried to attend a show but had to go mid way because Boen started making a fuss. The castle also had a playground, a maze (which Bowen loved so much that we had to go through it three times), and of course, the castle itself, which had an infamous court jester named Tom Skelton.
After that, we had a long drive to the Castle Inn in Keswick, where we arrived too late to do much but settle in and go out to dinner, just as rain started coming down.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Day 6: St Bees Head and Ennerdale Bridge

The day was forecasted to have the best weather of the rest of our visit to the Lakes, so I was determined to make the most of it. After breakfast, we headed out to St. Bee's Head, the starting point of the coast to coast walk.
The weather was gorgeous, and the scenery great: we got to see the Isle of Man far off. It was also the rest of the family's introduction to the peculiarly English construction known as the kissing gate.
After the hike, the kids got to play at the St. Bees Head playground, which featured ziplines and obstacle courses. In fact, the zipline was particularly kid friendly, as Bowen didn't need me to help him jump on it!
We had lunch at a local place, and then headed over to Ennerdale Bridge. I remembered it as being my entry into the Lakes District and being stunned by how pretty Ennerdale Water was. The entry had been redone and now had some ugly equipment near it, but once you got past it, it was just as pretty as before.
After that, we drove back and tried to buy dinner food on the way home but all the supermarkets were closed early on Sundays, so we ended up eating at the hotel restaurant. On the way to the restuarant, we noticed that the peacocks we had seen yesterday had spread their tails!
From the road, I'd seen signs for the footpath into Irton Hall, and I had to explore it. I tried a few times to find the path from near the hotel, but couldn't so in a fit of frustration, hiked out via the road and followed the footpath back, which included encounters with cows, goats, and an alpaca.