Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Prolog: Manchester Airport Etrop Grange Hotel

In the middle of March, my wife and I planned a visit to England. I realized that if I tacked on a couple of weeks at the end, this would be a chance to do a bicycle tour with Bowen in England, a country where I’ve never toured by bicycle before. I asked Bowen if he’d like to do this, and he said yes. 

I started the trip planning process thinking about a tour in the Peaks District or in Wales, but Bowen short-circuited the entire thing by asking if we could go to Gibbet’s Hill, which is a level in one of Bowen’s favorite game, Tearaway. I wrote to the developers and asked if Gibbet’s Hill was a real feature, and was sent to a Wikipedia link noting that Gibbet’s Hill was in Hindhead, near Guildford. 

I looked at the area and decided that between Manchester and Hindhead were the Cotswolds, Stratford Upon Avon, and Oxford, all worthy of visits. If time permitted, the rest of South Downs National Park looked pretty as well, so I did some  back of the envelope calculations which indicated that the entire trip would run about 300 miles, which was easily doable in 10 days if there was a train transfer back from Hindhead. 

Unfortunately, English trains do not typically take tandems, and in fact, the only tandem transfer service I could find back to Manchester ran from the London Euston station on Virgin Trains. This would add another 50 miles or so to the trip, but I figured in the worst case I could arrange a one way rental by car, take apart the S&S coupled tandem and stuff it in the car. It took several international calls via Skype to reserve a train ticket with a bicycle space, but that was accomplished by the end of May. 

The biggest challenge was coping with the bike. While Virgin Airlines’ website had led me to believe that a plastic bag was all that was necessary to bring the bike on the plane, at the airline checkin counter they insisted on a box. This completely messed up my plan to just ride the tandem to the hotel from the airport, and I ended up having to get a ride from the car rental company to accomplish this. 

After our 2 week family tour in England, Bowen and I put Xiaoqin and Boen on the plane, got back into the rental car, and immediately found a laundromat to do laundry. We then checked into the hotel with all our luggage, returned the rental car, and got a ride back to the Etrop Grange Hotel so we could assemble the bike. 

Upon assembling the bike, I discovered that I had forgotten to pack chain oil, and so we had to ride to find a shop to sell us one. We also tried to get clear eye protection for Bowen, but could not find any, so he was stuck wearing his sunglasses for the entire trip, rain or shine. 

Our final goal was to get a hair cut, as the short ride to the bike shop had made both of us itchy under the helmet, since neither of us were used to having longish hair and helmets as a combination. I asked the hotel receptionist if we’d have to go to downtown Manchester for that, but she told us to just walk to the civic center, which turned out to have a barber shop, several supermarkets, bakeries, and a shop which sold me a SIM card for UK services. Last year, T-mobile ran a promotion during the summer which gave us LTE speeds in Europe but this year the promotion was over and I could definitely tell that performance was less than acceptable. 

In the Alps, I wouldn’t have minded, but in England with its dense road networks and multitudes of ways to get lost, I was dependent on the phone for navigation. So I paid up for a SIM card: 20 pounds for 12GB of data, 300 minutes of calls, and 3000 text messages, which is very generous considering that the expiration date wasn’t for a year. 

After the haircut, we spent some time in the playground before returning to the hotel to pack. Painswick Park included a snake and ladders game, and this being Bowen's first exposure to that game, he insisted on playing it 4-5 times before returning to the hotel. On most tours, I’m a minimalist, trying to bring as little as possible. On this tour, however, I knew that there would be playground stops, and we wouldn’t spend all day riding, so brought a long more than the usual electronic luxuries, including the Playstation Vita and the Kindle

When in California, I’d plotted out a couple of potential first day routes , but looking at the weather forecast, I knew that any of the hillier options were off the table. Furthermore, it looked like the further south we went, the better the weather got, so our major priority was to head south as much as possible. 

One of the receptionists at the Hotel was a local, so I asked her advice on potential routes. I’m glad I did, since she immediately pointed out to me that the western towns (Wilmslow, Knutsford, Northwich and Nantwich) were prettier and quieter than the eastern towns near Birmingham, Telfords, and Stoke on Trent. That essentially caused me to replot the entire trip towards Market Drayton rather than through the Peak District.

Looking at the map, Market Drayton at 50 miles looked like a manageable first day, but of course, the riding would be full of unknowns: I'd never been in this country before, and I had no idea how much Bowen would want to do. It looked like there were plenty of towns to stop at should the need arose, however, so we went to bed full of optimism about the next day.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Review: Muse of Fire

Muse of Fire is Dan Simmon's novella about Shakespeare's plays, set in a far future setting. In this setting, human beings have been conquered by a hierarchy of aliens, and the narrator are a troupe of Shakespearean actors who travel human occupied space performing Shakespeare's plays. The plot starts when the alien overmasters demand that the troupe perform for them instead of just for the human audiences.

The inside-baseball account of being an actor in a troupe is well done, as is the commentary on Shakespeare's relevant now and far in the future, as well as Simmon's attitude towards various plays in the opus. The plot twist involving the alien overlords was also surprising, though perhaps overblown in its Shakespeare worship. It was a particularly relevant read for me as I was visiting Stratford Upon Avon at the time.


Monday, July 24, 2017

Review: Jessica Jones Alias

I picked up Jessica Jones Alias: Volume 1 during the recent marvel sale. It's a reasonably good title, depicting a superhero (who still has her powers). She becomes a private investigator, and then deals with various issues in the Marvel universe from her perspective as a non-costumed ex-superhero with various connections to the higher powers.

The conceit of the series is upheld, but we never really get much of a view inside her character: what her motivation is, why she took up a costume in the first place, etc. The art's also not the best. I'm not going to bother picking up the rest of the series.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Bowen's First Bicycle Tour

From July 5th to July 15th, Bowen and I conducted a bicycle tour of the English Midlands from Manchester to London via Hindhead. The ride was 354 miles with 13,610 feet of elevation gain. We had 10 riding days with 1 rest day, 2 flat tires, and 1 train transfer. This is the index page for the daily trip reports.

Daily Trip Report
  • July 4th: Prolog
  • July 5th: Manchester Airport to Market Drayton
  • July 6th: Market Drayton to Bridgnorth
  • July 7th: Bridgnorth to Worcester
  • July 8th: Worcester to Winchcombe
  • July 9th: Winchcombe to Oxford
  • July 10th: Oxford to Reading
  • July 11th: Reading Rest Day
  • July 12th: Reading to Hindhead
  • July 13th: Hindhead to Staines-Upon-Thames
  • July 14th: Staines-Upon-Thames to London
  • July 15th: London to Manchester Picadilly via Train and Manchester Downtown to Manchester Airport

Friday, July 21, 2017

Review: Hidden Figures

Reading Hidden Figures after reading The Rise of the Rocket Girls feels like reading a prequel. While Rise of the Rocket Girls focused on the West Coast and JPL, Hidden Figures focuses on Langley, and starts out during the world war 2 era, where due to the shortage of man (and woman) power, various administrations were forced to hire women (and Blacks) to work as computers during the war effort.

The issues covered are very different from The Rise of the Rocket Girls. For instance, segregation played a big role in the story, and the author covers the entire civil rights era, where the state of Virginia (where Langley was located) at one point shut down its entire public school system rather than permit Blacks and Whites to be at the same school. One of the protagonists later would attend adult school in one of those high school campuses and remark that the place was so dinghy that it was a wonder that this was what they were trying to keep Black people away from.

The story is well written, and also covers the creation of NASA from NACA, which was meant to help with aviation rather than rocketry. The politics behind the formation of NASA was interesting as well. All in all, I recommend reading this book.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Review: Pachinko

Pachinko is Min Jin Lee’s novel covering the Japanese occupation of Korea, and depicting the lives and various fates of Korean Japanese during the world war 2 period. As someone who’s always heard about how badly Koreans were treated in Japan for many years, I’ve always been curious about how it’s happened, and this book was a great way to find out about it.

The novel depicts Sunja’s family, starting from her parents’ lives, and including her children during the pre-World War 2 and post-WW2 period in Japan. Having been made pregnant by a Korean businessman living in Japan, Sunja refuses to become his mistress but then a Christian pastor on his way to his church in Japan feels sorry for her, marries her, and then they move to Japan proper.
Basically, Korean people in Japan have limited job opportunities. You can run a restaurant (or sell street food), or be hired into the Pachinko industry, which apparently has some ties to organized crime as well. As the war proceeds, we get views as to how the family survives (and in some case even thrive) and what the effects of the war is.

I enjoyed the book’s depiction of Japan and Korean people living in Japan. The book is a long read but at no point did I think it had filler. Definitely worth your time.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Review: Howl's Moving Castle

Howl’s Moving Castle is Dianne Jones’ fantasy novel upon which Hayao Miyazaki’s movie of the same name was loosely based. Fans of the book often say that the book's much better than the movie. I haven't seen the movie, but if this is true then I probably won't bother with the movie at all.

The story revolves around Sophie, who as the eldest daughter  of the house is predestined not to find her fortune, and is so reconciled to being a hat maker. Then she runs afoul of the Wicked Witch and is cursed, whereupon for random reasons she ends up in the castle of evil wizard Howl.

Howl ends up not being so evil, and Sophie ends up being able to release herself from her curse. I didn’t realize that the book was the start of a series of (apparently well loved) YA novels, but in any case, the book while well written didn’t feel compelling. None of the characters felt anything more than 2-dimensional, while there aren’t any interesting reveals: magic in the novel doesn’t really follow any systematic approach, and it feels like a random series of events rather than the characters actually driving the plot.

I bought the book when it was on sale on Amazon, but I won’t be pursuing further books in the series.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Review: My Sister Rosa

My Sister Rosa is Justine Larbalestier’s hybrid novel  both about a coming of age and of psychopaths in families. It’s an excellent book and you should just run out and borrow (or buy) it. 

Che is a typical teenager, except that he’s been moved between various countries in the last few years  by his do-gooder parents. As a teenager moving to New York City for the first time, he has 3 goals: 

  1. Keep his sister Rosa under control 
  2. Get to the  boxing ring and Spar 
  3. Get a girlfriend 

Except for the last goal, these are actually pretty unusual goals for a teenager. But Che’s sister Rosa isn’t just a baby sister, she’s a psychopath, which Che has actually looked up in the DSM. What’s more, Che seems to be the only person aware of it. Both his parental units seem blissfully unaware, and Rosa when she wants to can charm other people easily, to the point where they do whatever she wants them to. 

Che then goes through the process of settling into New York City, going to a new boxing gym where he does meet a pretty cool girl. Then Rosa decides to start messing with his life and everything quick goes into pieces. 
The novel’s well written, with most characters being fully realized. The twist in the second third of the book was profound, and the set up for that was fair. Unlike most other books which nowadays seem determined to shove a happy ending down your throat no matter what, My Sister Rosa doesn’t end on an undoubtedly happy note, and Che doesn’t achieve all of his goals. 

Pick up a copy of this book and read it. You won’t regret the time you spend in Che’s world. I certainly don’t. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Review: Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology is Neil Gaiman’s retelling of (what else) Norse Mythology. It’s written in modern language, but with the tell-tale Neil Gaiman style --- easy to read and straight forward, by lyrical as well. If you’re not familiar with Norse Mythology except (for example) through the Thor comic books, Norse Mythology isn’t just a good introduction, it’s a well-written one. Gaiman writes that many of the stories from the folklore have been lost in time, and it would be interesting to know which he picked to put in this book and what was left out because it was incomplete and he didn’t want to add to the mythology with his own fiction.  It would also have been interesting to see what he would have wanted to add to the mythos.

A light, short airplane read. Perfect for a vacation. Recommended.