Wednesday, June 08, 2016

The Month That Was - May 2016

I wrote no fiction this month and that bothers me immensely. I have to find a way to get myself in gear on this but I haven't yet. The month was dominated by preparations for my house guests and my trip to Bar Harbor. I continue to be at war with my phone. I got the bike out of storage and managed a couple of decent rides. Blah, blah, blah; yada-yada-yada. But another month of nothing but my pleasant life is something to celebrate. Except for the whole fiction thing. That's disturbing.

[Travel] Down East
[Tech] I Hate My Phone, Continued
[Cars, Rant] Sin Diesel
[Good Links] Hit the Links

[Travel] Down East

I wanted to get back to Maine. I had only been once before, a brief visit to Kennebunkport on a 4th of July. This may get me in a bit of trouble, but for the most part, the storybook Maine coastal towns are very similar. They all have the style of old New England seafaring communities: cozy attractiveness, no-nonsense, homey architecture, a harbor, a series of bars and restaurants, craft stores where you can buy Maine merchandise both authentic and inauthentic, and little inns and B&Bs. It's all very nice, if a bit boring. You can only see so many stark, rocky shorelines and eat so many lobster rolls before they lose their luster.

Bar Harbor (pronounced Bah Habah), the most northern of well-known Maine coastal towns, has an advantage. It is the gateway to Acadia National Park.

One key aspect of this trip was that it was pre-Memorial Day. This was a genius move, since one overwhelming impression I got everywhere I went was that, in season, this place must be swamped. To access Bar Harbor you typically fly into Bangor and take an hour-long, non-freeway drive to the coast. Judging from the roadside attractions and advertisements along the way, I gotta figure it's bumper to bumper in season and there's not that much parking in Bar Harbor, which has to be a nightmare if you're commuting in for a day-trip or your hotel is outside walking distance.

That said, Bar Harbor is as top notch resort town. The presence of the park gives it an added draw and it's response is to be overly full of restaurants and craps shops compared to other places on the Maine coast, but it's not distastefully done. It's still obviously Maine, not Ocean City or Myrtle Beach. Besides I'm not some bearded hipster searching for some sort of faux authenticity -- I'm a tourist, and proud of it.

Hanging in a Maine coastal town is something everyone should do. They are as genteel as they look, begging to be strolled through in khakis and boat shoes having genial conversations about how lovely everything is. I know I sound flip, but I'm sincere. But unless you're a dedicated souvenir shopper or are otherwise happy to center your day around drinking and eating, you need more. Often there are fine water excursions available -- anything from lobster fishing to sunset sails aboard old schooners. This being before season there was little of that in Bar Harbor. But Acadia National Park is alive and kicking.

Acadia, in the midst of it's 100th anniversary, was a delight. It's highest peak, Cadillac Mountain is an easy drive to the summit. The iconic thing to do is get up early to catch the 4:30 AM sunrise from the peak, as it is considered to be one of the first places you can see the morning sun from the U.S. I passed on dragging my ass out of bed at 4 AM -- I was on vacation after all -- but I did make the drive on a one of the sunny days (I had two sunny days, one just before leaving) and managed to take some excellent photos.

My time in Bar Harbor consisted primarily doing something active in the AM the hitting town for a late lunch followed by some wandering and/or drinkin about the town or coastline. This is about a perfect way to spend your entire life and if you can afford it I highly recommend it. There a number of fine hikes in Acadia. You can haul your ass by foot up to the top of Cadillac Mountain if you choose. I chose not. Most interestingly, there are what are referred to as "iron wrung" routes which take to up steep and treacherous mountain paths via the use of iron handholds or ladders (not for the faint of heart). I did none of these.

My first night I headed on foot towards town and took a turn off to walk to Bar Island. You can only walk to Bar Island at low tide, the land path will be underwater at high tide. True, it's something of a novelty to do this. It isn't strenuous and you are in no danger of the tide instantly washing you back in. It's really just a sort of pleasant promenade a short way across the bay to the island. Some people actually drove it, which I found marginally obnoxious. There also appeared to be a meeting of a local vintage moped society, which I found marginally endearing. Mostly it's a mix of folks -- tourists like me, locals walking their dogs, kids running and screaming. Once on to Bar Island there is a path to the top of the island (easy, about a mile round trip) from which you can look onto the Bar Harbor waterfront. It's not quite as nice as many in Maine, but it's still photoworthy.

The next day I hiked the length of Jordan Pond on suggestion of a ranger who said that if the water is still, you can get those perfect reflection nature photos that garner attention now and then. The water was not flat that day, but the hike itself was a fine walk in the woods along the shoreline of the pond (actually a small lake). At the south end of the pond stands Jordan Pond House which is a bit a destination given it's a sizeable restaurant with excellent views of the pond and its surroundings. I suspect your average day tripper comes into the park, drives to the top of Cadillac Mountain then comes here for lunch. I chose to find my meals in town.

Dinner highlight that night was Scotch Eggs at Leary's Pub which bills itself as the Easternmost Irish Pub in America. Probably true. It's a tiny little place tucked down a short alleyway. I only found because the folks on Yelp seem to think highly of it. It has a solid pubby vibe, friendly bartenders, I could do without the Irish music, but that's just me. Were I resident and not out to explore, I wouldn't hesitate to make it a usual stop.

I had an interesting conversation with the bartender there. I had noticed just about every shop in town had Help Wanted signs up. She explained that much of town hires in seasonal help from Jamaica. This is not unusual -- they do this on Mackinac Island also. Summer is off season in Jamaica. However, this year there had been some snafu with visas so here everybody was a couple of days from the Memorial Day slam and the Jamaicans were missing. Everyone was understaffed and undertrained. Glad I wasn't going to be around for the holiday. I don't know if they ever sorted out the visa issues but if you're a young adult looking for summer work, you could do a lot worse than slinging drinks in Bar Harbor for a few months.

The next morning I rented a bike. Acadia's main road is called the Park Road Loop and it is exactly what it sounds like -- a long scenic drive through the park; 27 miles to be exact. I chose to bike it, although I did shortcut about seven miles off toward the end. The Park Loop will bring you in shooting distance of most of the park's main attractions, with a challenge of riding up to the top of Cadillac Mountain. I paused at a few overlooks along the way, but my main stop was at a place called Sandy Beach -- can you guess what is there? The bulk of the Maine coast is rocky, but there are packets of sand peppered throughout. On a sunny day in the height of summer, you could delude yourself that you've found a hidden cove in Florida or California. That delusion would last until you sank a toe into the frigid water. Still even pre-Memorial day there were optimistic people in bathing suits plunked down in the sand like they were going to work on their tans and sip a hurricane. Sorry, it was a lovely beach for what it was, but I've spent too many days on the Florida Gulf not to be a beach snob.

That said, the rocky coast is quite dramatic, with the perpetually crashing waves and the always threatening weather. Gothic is how I would describe the typical Maine vista. (You remember that old TV show Dark Shadows? It looks like the opening of that show.) And gothic is what I got the next day: on-and-off chilly drizzle without a ray of sun. It was a good day to be in the car, so that's what I did -- trolled the coast south.

My target was Camden, which has the tagline of Maine's hidden jewel, but the real hidden jewel was Ft. Knox Observatory. About half-way to Camden you stumble upon a suspension bridge over the Penobscot River that looks as though it came out of The Jetsons. Even better, one of the bridge towers contains an observatory; you ride an exceedingly fast elevator up to the top and are greeted with views of the surrounding miles, typical Maine coast picture-postcard views but dramatically expanded by your elevation. The coastal town here is Bucksport, an eensy little place with a nice harborfront that unfortunately ends in a large factory of some sort. But you get a lengthwise look at the broad Penobscot as it winds past green islands and shorelines to the Atlantic. Back on the ground you are free to wander Ft. Knox proper with its eerie stone catacombs and spiral stairways. All in all just very cool place. I'm sure there are guidebooks that suggest it, but I just happened on it by accident. One of those lucky rolls of the dice that can make a vacation.

I did make Camden, and it's as nice as any Maine coastal town. Not of the scope of Bar Harbor but of the same flavor. I snagged lunch on the waterfront and did a quick loop of the village, but there was nothing new or interesting. Just outside town there is a peak, Mt. Battie, that I drove up to try to get some shots of Camden from above, but by the time I got up there a dense cloud was covering the peak and all that could be seen was a uniform, end-of-world gray in all directions.

On the way back I made another stop, Southwest Harbor, which is yet another picturesque harbor and shops and restaurant town. The thing about Southwest Harbor is that it seems a little snootier than the other towns. The houses were definitely a step up, and there were a couple of restaurants that could be accurately described as high-end dining. I entered one took a seat at the bar and was completely ignored for a solid five or six minutes. So I left and tried to grab a sandwich at a deli but it was so crowded I couldn't get anyone's attention. So I abandoned ship and got dinner back in Bar Harbor.

My last day I decided to go for a run. Near my hotel, but in the park, there is a trail called the Witch Hole Pond route. It was identified by Runner's World magazine as one of the 10 can't miss running adventures. The loop is a bit over three miles and it was about a mile-and-a-half from my hotel so my plan was to run there, run the loop, then run back. 6-ish miles, easy peasy. First, the park is enormously hilly, so not easy. Second, as long-time readers will expect, I got lost on my way there. It took me two or three wrong turns and a couple of conversations with people who were smart enough to have park maps with them to find Witch Hole Pond. It also took me an extra three miles out of my way, so we were up to a 9-miler total. I did find the route eventually and it is a lovely run, enough that I had to stop a couple of times just to appreciate (not to catch breath, mind you).

So that was Bah Habah. As I look this post over, the tone seems a little unenthusiastic. That's real, but it's not the fault of Maine. Maine was exactly as promised and if you have an image of a coastal Maine vacation, Bar Harbor is the place you want to go. In fact, if the opportunity presented itself to go in season where I could partake of some of the water activities I might just do it. But I have traveled much and seen more. The Down East vibe of Maine, while a delight, can't hold a candle to Newfoundland. There is no place more Down East than Newfoundland. Literally. Hiking through mountainous regions -- well I 've spent my share of time in the Rockies and the various ranges in the Southwest. And as for waterside resort towns, all along the west coast of my state are the beach towns of your dreams. In fact, even one of the ten great running adventures, the loop around Witch Hole Pond, while beautiful, was no more beautiful than the runs on the Potowatami Trail a few miles from my house. And let's face it, these days you can fresh lobster in North Dakota.

So yes, Bar Harbor was a fine trip. I'm glad I did it and enjoyed myself. I can understand couples and families making an annual summer pilgrimage, especially families -- it would be a perfect week long summer vacation for a troop of kids. But set your expectations properly and reconsider if you're looking to step out of the box or for something that can't be had elsewhere.

[Tech] I Hate My Phone, Continued

I swear, everything with this phone is a chore (Nexus 5x - my first encounter with pure Android). I tried to figure out how to make it read text messages to me in the car. Turns out you need an app to do that. I downloaded one, spent a frustrating half hour trying to figure out which options to set to make it work. I sort of got it working, but the sound quality is awful, and it has a bad habit of reading the texts twice. I suppose it would be gratuitous to mention that my Windows Phone just did this perfectly out of the box.

The camera is mediocre and the photo editor is lame. Another app to download and another entity to have access to my info.

Transferring files to my laptop is a stupidly complicated. Why doesn't it just appear in Explorer like any other device.

I tried to set myself up an alternative lock screen to make use of all those wonderful customization options Android is so famous for and it turns out the Nexus doesn't allow you to turn off the native password protection so if you want to use an alternative lock screen you have to sign in twice.

Every app has different requirements, every app behaves differently. I get a message from someone on facebook and a circle with their picture appears and hovers in the way of everything until I dismiss it. Some icons show valuable info on the icon others you have to click through. It's as if the last 20 years of user interface design advancement have all been for nothing. It's like using DOS again.

No complaints about the Google Fi service. So far it's been exemplary and I'm coming in under $30 a month, but I just don't know if it's worth putting up with the bloody mayhem of Android. If I had it to do over I would probably go back to pick up an iPhone SE and go with TMobile service, or even back to Verizon (no complaints about Verizon except expense). I may still end up there. I plan to give my current set up through the summer then re-assess, but at this point I think its days are numbered.

I hate the world for not buying Windows Phone.

[Car, Rant] Sin Diesel

I've been casually following the Volkswagen Diesel gate developments and I'm fascinated by how it could happen from an organizational standpoint. The naive narrative is that these greedy corporate interests happily polluted the world for profit. That's good enough if your goal is to work up the warm glow of indignation in your chest, but it's not reality. I strongly suspect that in reality, no person in the decision chain that led to this thought they were doing anything wrong.

My experience in a management in a big multi-national corporation is that nobody has any malice or duplicity in intent, it's just that systems and incentives are mis-designed to allow or encourage it. When I first read about Dieselgate, I wrote, but did not publish, this as an expected analysis: A much more likely possibility is that everyone thought that within their purview they were doing what they should. Worker A is preparing a checklist for a car that's going into testing. Worker B gives worker a list of setting or equipment that he knows will pass inspection because he got the list from Worker C who didn't realize what he was submitting was not how shipping cars would be set because Worker D sent him an ambiguous email that read "These settings will pass the test but the final settings are not known" and Worker C assumed passing the test was the goal while Worker D meant for him to wait for the final specs before initiating the test. The Worker D got transferred and Worker E who took his place didn't realize anything was amiss and just thought the test was passed and years later heads are rolling and VW is fighting for its life.

That was way off. As it turns out, algorithms were created with the specific intent to pass emissions tests knowing full well they would never be used in the real world. A whole lot of people had to know of this and approve. What possible excuse could there be other than an outright company-wide endorsement of fraud? Again, given my first hand knowledge of corporate functioning, I would observe that if your conclusion leads to a bunch of avuncular old men sitting around a table exploring ways to lie, cheat, and steal to bolster next quarter's profit, then you have been watching too much bad TV.

It looks to me like the cheating the test was really just a baby step over the line from accepted practice. Here's a long, but telling description of the testing environment from Kapersky:
The biggest issue of emissions tests is that they are always performed with some standard model, like the so-called NEDC (New European Driving Cycle). This model consists of a few pretty short acceleration-braking cycles and one long cycle with higher speed, which represent city and highway traffic respectively. In real life nobody drives like this, and definitely nobody drives exactly like this.

But for emissions measurement they use this very model, thus engineers at car companies can do tricks to improve measurement results. Why do they do it? Plain and simple: it's way cheaper than to do real improvements. If an enterprise could do something in a cheaper way, it definitely would prefer this way to any other as the bottom line is important to company performance.

"Trickery on that tests is very common," says Lange. "What tricks people are doing to drive down the emissions? For example they blow up the tires by 3 bars more than you could actually use them on the road. The bottom of the tire looks like this, so that means that you only have that very small portion of the tire that still touches the ground, your resistance gets reduced."

"They put diesel into the oil, because diesel is lighter than the oil, so friction gets reduced. They take off the mirror on a passenger side, because that is not legally required to exist. So resistance gets away with it. They tape close all the openings of the vehicle. Obviously, when the wind goes over it, it goes much smoother once you have everything taped. All of these things are either Ok, or they kind of borderline grey area. And they do this. This is how actually emissions are tested."

The results of this trickery are very simple: measured values have pretty much nothing to do with what is going on in the real world. The whole auto industry knows this very well. Perhaps every car manufacturer uses software tweaks, just like Volkswagen did. As a matter of fact, 15 years ago BMW was actually caught on using a similar trick with software of its motorcycle.
So this stuff is known to occur even by the testers. With this as the accepted state of emissions testing it's not surprising (note: did not say "it's OK") that somebody pushed the envelope to the breaking point.

There is a also the effect of historical reputation. VW cars have dismally lagged the market in quality both in cars and service for many years. There is little goodwill to draw on. On the other hand, imagine if this happened to Toyota, makers of our beloved Camry and Priii. Toyota has been devoted to giving us cars that last a lifetime and beyond for a reasonable price as long as I have been alive. If I heard of this scandal at Toyota I would immediately assume it was an honest mistake and feel confident that they would do everything in their power to sort things out. In contrast, I would assume VW would deflect, defend, dodge, duck, dive, dip, and dodge (as they in fact did).

Heads have rolled at VW and more may yet. They are not exactly playing the PR game very well. Their stock price has crashed and sales in the U.S. have tanked (although not so much elsewhere). Enormous fines will be levied and it's entirely possible VW will be struggling to survive when all is said and done.

But should we not also hold the government agencies, who created such environments to get away unscathed. How did these tests get to the point where they were so divorced from the real world that there was an acceptable level of cheating. What was the reasoning behind not simply buying production models and testing them as is? That would seem a lot more logical. The system allowed automakers to game it, and even tacitly encouraged them. The cynic in me asks, Who profits? Well, the auto companies do obviously, from being able to save money by gaming the system. But to allow such a system to be set up in the first place, I can't escape the notion that lobbyists greased the correct palms to shepherd this convoluted and corruptible system into place.

Now look at me, doing exactly what I chastised others for doing: Assuming there was a cadre of greedy cartoon villains at the heart of the matter. The fact is there is nothing surprising in any of this. It is the nature of institutions, either multi-national corporations or government agencies, that they veer off into dubious activity now and then. They get caught, punished, and either correct themselves or disappear.

So thinking it through, it's hard to wax indignant about this. In fact, if I was in the market, I would be shopping for a VW. I have to figure there are some serious discounts available while they try to dig themselves out. Maybe they'll pull it of. The difference between VW and the government agencies is that VW will adapt or die, the government agencies have no reason to change.

[Good Links] Hit the Links

It's been a while since I dumped some interesting links on you, so have fun with these.