Sunday, March 1, 2015

TV Show Review: Attack on Titan

Finished up watching this series last night.  Its certainly not for everyone.  Its Japanese, its a cartoon, its subtitled, its got naked giants without genitalia eating people.  Its anime which if you don't already know what it is, you probably won't like it.

That said, its about as good as anime gets.  Its weird in all the best ways.  Humanity has been stuck inside three concentric walls since it was almost exterminated some 100 years earlier by these giant "Titans" of which there are different kinds but all of which love to wordlessly eat people--lots of them.  Besides the enormous walls the only thing standing between humanity and extinction are teams of military like individuals who use waist mounted devices to swing from building to building or tree to tree with their reloadable swords to slice the Titans apart.

So you have the classic Japanese anime with lots of people flying through the air showering each other in oceans of blood.  Behind it all are the questions of what exactly are the Titans?  Where do they come from? Why does the royal family get to stay inside the safest circle and get all the resources?  How do we kill more of the Titans?  Why can Eren turn himself INTO a Titan?  Has a Titan who can transform into a human infiltrated the group?

It started off as a manga (comic) in Japan and has quickly spread across the globe with novels, films, video games, etc. with millions of editions in print.  The english subtitled anime series does not carry it all the way through where the manga has gone and leaves much unresolved and unanswered and thus a bit dissapointing that more answers aren't given and so I'm waiting for the collection of episodes (this first "season" was some 25 episodes long).  The translation is fairly good though a bit too literal vs. conversational as is typically the case with anime but there is definitely a bit of info lost in translation and there are gaps in information that leave you asking if you missed an episode or part of an episode that I attribute to the move from Japanese to English.

The series has been a bit controversial in Asia with those in Hong Kong and Taiwan seeing the Titans as stand-ins for invading China and South Korea calling it a reflection of Japan's recent militaristic turn.  I doubt its either but the fact that it has gotten a lot of people all riled up over it shows its now widespread influence.  If you've given things like Akira and Ghost in the Shell a chance in the past and enjoyed them (as I have, though I am only a VERY small anime aficionado, knowing only the largest of titles and series), I would recommend some binge watching to include Attack on Titan for a current look at the top level of work coming out of Japan.


Saturday, February 28, 2015

First World Gadget...

In a world where probably a billion or two people light and heat their hovels by burning yak butter candles and ox dung bricks it says a lot about me that I get such glee at such a simple gadget...but there it is....

The SnapPower SnapRays Guidelight is a brilliantly simple device.  Consisting of little more than your standard plastic outlet cover a couple tabs on the back to contact with the positive and negative terminals on your standard outlet connected to three small, white, LEDs, and a light-sensor the Guidelight replaces your standard outlet cover providing you a built in nightlight that allows you to ditch either the plugin incandescent bulb you likely have in your children's bedrooms and get that outlet back for use or the more expensive and time intensive to install versions that leave no outlets in their place.  Maybe its the Dad/Father/homeowner in me that thinks this is really neat but it just seems so natural an invention and one that screams "cool".

I know...kinda silly to get excited for this...but it is such an elegant and simple design and seems just...well...cool that I grabbed up a bunch and put them in my kids' rooms and elsewhere around the house and now my house is nicely lit with a dim little, comforting, white light in the kitchen, living room, kids bedrooms and upstairs bathroom...Oh, and they're energy efficient too!!!  Spending $12 a piece to replace a .50 cent outlet cover...ahhh...America...

SnapPower Website...

Monday, February 23, 2015

Lords of the Atlas -- Icon Raider Film of Triumph Tigers at Mexican 1000



Another well produced film of the race I ran in last year...kept looking to see myself in it, but no...not in there.  Can imagine trying to manhandle big bikes like this in that terrain and heat...Film is well shot and quite clean however.  Worth the brief 20 minute watch for a look at the terrain and race conditions.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Another Death in the Whites...

With every Winter comes a similar story here in New Hampshire.  The death(s) of hikers/climbers attempting to tackle various summits in the White Mountains.  While big events like losses of entire climbing parties on mountains like Rainier, Hood, and others typically make the evening news, the constant drips and drabs of hiker deaths in the Whites is rarely noticed though on a gross number basis, the Whites are likely the deadliest mountain range in the States.

This past week however the death of Kate Matrasova made it as far as being covered in the NY Post, NY Daily News, Bloomberg, and various blogs/websites that cover finance and technology and general gossip due to Matrasova's daytime job as a trader for BNP Paribas, her husband's job as a VP (one of thousands) at JP Morgan Chase and their (reported) million dollar mid-town Manhattan apartment.

Matrasova was attempting a Northern Presidential Range traverse.  She was not attempting the entire traverse but sought to top out on the peaks of Madison, Adams, Jefferson and Washington followed by a descent to the base of the cog railway.  A challenging effort no doubt, especially in Winter but not one that was beyond her skills.  What has not been generally reported on her is her extensive climbing/mountaineering background that includes summits of McKinley, Elbrus, Aconcagua, and Kilimanjaro amongst others and was an avid marathoner leaving her in peak shape.  With her extensive income she also had top of the line gear with her.  Bottom line is that she was more than qualified and competent to make the attempt.

Many will question her choice to make a solo attempt, I generally don't.  I don't have near the experience that she had but I have completed solo winter summits of Washington (NH), Marcy (NY), Greylock (MA), Bear (CT) and Mansfield (VT) as the highest peaks in each of these northeastern states.  I certainly understand the thought of doing these things solo.  No one else to rely on, go at your own pace, no one to irritate you, good or bad its all on your shoulders, etc., etc.  There is something about accomplishing something hard on your own that interests a good number of people, Matrasova was evidently one of them and attempting the Northern Traverse was not outside her capabilities as a solo mountaineer.

Her chosen route was generally conservative.  Taking the Valley Way Trail up to a col in between Madison and Adams was about the easiest route she could have chosen.  If she was trying to bite off more than she could chew she would have chosen the much steeper Kings Ravine Trail or more exposed Howker Ridge Trail.  The path she chose would be amongst the most protected ways to get to the ridgeline.

So that pretty much leaves us with the weather.  Going into the hike weather reports disclosed that peak conditions had temperatures of about -6 F and winds of about 40mph.  Pretty brutal for those used to living in the valleys and plains but near balmy (no joke) for the Presidential Peaks in Winter.  During my Winter climb of Washington the conditions were similar though in my case the sun was shining and no significant changes in weather were forecast.  Encased in a standard mountaineer's bubble of down, Gore-tex, mountaineering boots, crampons, goggles, etc., Matrasova would have been quite comfortable in that weather--likely sweating profusely in fact when faced with strenuous exertions required of climbing in deep snow.  Unfortunately, the forecast was wrong and conditions deteriorated to levels where no one could survive.

Matrasova would have KNOWN that deteriorating conditions were predicted for the area and was likely pressed to complete her climb and return to work (this was a Sunday afterall).  She wouldn't be getting a second chance to do this a day later (though being young, wealthy and having a supportive husband she could certainly have returned in a week or two...)  By the time Mastrova set off her emergency beacon around 3PM the temps had dropped to -21 and the winds increased to 77mph.  She had succeeded in summiting both Madison and Adams but turned back after reaching Adams peak in an attempt to get lower.  She missed her bailout opportunity some 2 hours earlier.  After sumitting Madison she would have had to pass both the Madison Spring Hut AND the Valley Way Trail she had come in on as the direction she chose required retracing the path up to Mt. Madison before continuing on to Adams.  At this point the temps would have already been dropping and the wind picking up.  It would also have been obvious at this point (about 1PM) that there was NO way she was going to complete her traverse.  She had started out at 6AM and some 7+ hours later she had only completed a single peak with an uphill climb the rest of the way (Madison being the lowest of the four peaks she had intended on completing that day).  With the Sun going down around 5PM or so and no mountaineering tent or overnight supplies with her (at least as has been reported) she stood ZERO shot at getting to Washington and down even in the BEST of conditions.  There should have been a single choice on her way back down from Mt. Madison towards the trail she already knew and had traversed earlier that day.  Bail and head down.  She'd have been back on tarmac before the Sun set with ease.

Instead, here is my speculation.  Matrasova was obviously experienced and driven and had succeeded in nearly everything in life having been born in (literally) Siberia and having made it to the top of her profession and the rest of the globe.  If she wasn't going to complete what she had set out for, she'd at least put in a good faith effort, challenge herself and grab one more peak before heading down.  This would, after all, make for good training for the rigors to be demanded of her in her future attempts at Everest and Vinson (looking at her list of summits, completing the 7 Summits was definitely a goal of hers).  At only 1 in the afternoon, she couldn't imagine herself bailing out NOW...that would have been a waste of a day.  So her intent was to push herself a little bit, bag Adams and THEN head down.  Which she completed.

Unfortunately the winds picked up beyond what she had ever experienced and literally blew her off the ridge.  Sometime after she initiated her distress signal the peak winds were recorded to exceed 140 mph.  Well above what it would take to sweep a fit girl of at best, 150 lbs. off her feet and down the mountain.  Her body would be recovered a few hundred feet off the trail, still above treeline but on the lee side of the ridge.  Given the scrapes on her face and removal of her pack she was either blown there or tumbled there, came to a rest and expired after having lost the will or ability to fight.  After having traveled the world, summited peaks in the most remote locations some three or four and five times the height of the Whites where only pressurized jet liners play, pushing on to summit Adams looked like a simple proposition...afterall...no one dies in mountaineering accidents five hours or less from NYC in little podunk New Hampshire right?

It was a simple mistake of hubris.  She shouldn't be vilified or made fun of nor her husband chastised for letting her go alone.  She could have made a better decision and turned back earlier (such is the story of 50% of mountaineering accidents) the other 50% being morons who don't belong up there in the first place.  But she didn't.

My only question here is--what was the delay in getting up Madison in the first place?  Someone so fit, and so experienced, should have FLOWN up her chosen path and gotten there much earlier.  Was the snow deeper than she expected?  Did she have snowshoes?  Did she get lost in the woods BEFORE ever reaching the ridge?  Something slowed her down early on and may have been the driving force behind why she was pushing to summit Adams, despite the deteriorating conditions, blaming herself for a silly error earlier in the day that eliminated any chance of the stated goal of the Northern Presidential Traverse.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Three New Lightweight Dakar/ADV Bikes Coming Our Way...

Question is...which will get here first and which will be the best product.

First off we have the CCM GP-450 Adventure.  A small British company who has supplied the military and NGOs with bikes for some time.  They have been out testing this bike across the globe (South America amongst other locations) and are doing demo rides for potential customers in England currently.  An interesting innovation is that the frame is not welded together and is instead uses an aluminum bonded design.  The bike definitely leans towards the "Dakar" style end of the spectrum vs. a ADV style bike.  Pricing in England is listed at about 8,000 pounds which translates to about $12,000 and putting it firmly in the KTM/BMW pricing range, particularly for a 450CC bike (though its weight of 290 pounds is pretty darn light).  At last notice CCM hopes to have the bike approved for sale in the US by late '15 with first sales I would imagine in early '16.

CCM Motorcycles


Then we have the AJP PR7 660.  A Portuguese product from a company that has to date focused on small enduro style bikes the PR7 was introduced as concept vehicle late in '14 and has reportedly been put on track to be introduced for sale in late '15--though this is in the UK with a US date not disclosed.  A significantly bigger bike than the CCM GP-450 using a 660CC Yamaha engine seen in the Tenere and weighing in at 342 pounds (dry), the PR7 is only a "lightweight" in comparison to the big BMW and KTMs but in the world of ADV and "Dakar" style bikes this is actually fairly small. In terms of styling and anticipated performance the PR7 appears to be on par (or nearly so) with the GP-450 targeting a more hardcore rider with intentions (dreams?) of actually racing the vehicle in a real rally race.  Pricing on the AJP when it is available is reported to be 9,000 pounds or $13,900 with like the CCM above puts it in the "premium" category of ADV motorcycles.

AJP PR7


Lastly we have the CSC (California Scooter Company) RX-3 Cyclone.  A true "lightweight" bike at
only 250CC but with a weight of 386 pounds, you won't be outrunning many fellow riders on this Chinese sourced bike (which goes under various other names in other countries around the world).  The RX-3 is styled and aimed much more towards the introductory ADV riding market vs. higher end bikes above.  Its price reflects this target audience at a eye-opening $3,495.  The power of paying people peanuts in China is obvious and while the bike does seem to be covered in a lot of shiny, bright, cheap looking plastic, it does come with a full, unlimited miles, two year warranty on all parts (first year sees all labor covered as well).  That said, the warranty is only of value if the primary company is still in business, time will tell whether the RX-3 is a bargain and great stepping stone to get people on a bike and at least CAPABLE of running fire roads and other more extended terrain or if CSC becomes a negative touchstone for any thirdworld motorcycle product in the ADV segment introduced to the US.  The first shipment of RX-3s have currently left mainland China and with a stopoff in Korea will arrive at the Long Beach port on 3/6/15 but are not scheduled to be unloaded till 3/24/15 due to the ongoing worker slowdown there (I would imagine it will be later this).  But if you can't wait for the PR7 660 or GP-450 or can't afford them, you could buy three RX-3s for the price of one of the aforementioned.

California Scooter Company


Thursday, February 19, 2015

Book Review: Zero to One by Peter Thiel

This book was one I had to hunt down on Amazon as it was not popular enough to show up in my local Barnes&Noble stores.  I knew of Peter Thiel from his involvement in the formation of PayPal and his continued private equity investments.  His membership in the "PayPal Mafia" is well known as are his libertarian-ish views and personal causes such as paying smart kids to NOT go to college and instead focus on a singular idea or product of their own development.

The book is written in a lecturing style which is fitting as the work is essentially a collection of his lectures to students at Stanford within a course on startups.

Within this collection are his thoughts on people like Malcolm Gladwell and John Rawls (who he thinks are pretty much boobs who focus on chance and "fairness" in their explanations for success and economics), the reason why current education and college produce a bunch of people studying everything but knowing nothing, why planning matters, how monopolies are a good thing, why successful startups contain people who are of a like mind/personality, etc.  Its all quite good and I must admit, my own particular political, social and economic leanings tend to make me a fan of Thiel's ideas.

What is most important about the book is its call to arms for people to think big, to plan, to try new things, and be contrarian (though you then get the "if everyone is being contrarian, is it contrarian anymore" argument, similar to the 1990's "Alternative" music argument).  Calling for a return to what he calls "definite optimism", a trait he finds in the world from the 1600's through the 1960's quoting Marx and Engels who stated that society had "created more massive and more colossal productive forces than all preceding generations together.  Subjection of Nature's forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground--what earlier century had even a presentiment that such produced forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?"

Thiel likely sees and cites herein, man's placement of 12 men on the moon as the ultimate example of planning, creation and optimism.  Mentioning the plans of a 1940s schoolteacher by the name of John Reber who was a self-taught engineer and proposed a series of dams in San Francisco Bay designed to reclaim land, provide freshwater, etc. Thiel states that such a plan would never be taken seriously today but at the time the plan ended up being endorsed by newspapers across California, congressional hearings were held and the Army Corps of Engineers built a 1.5 acre scale model of the plan.  The fact that such an idea from such an individual would be dismissed outright in today's society is a major failing of our current culture he feels.  No longer do we welcome big plans and ask merely if they would work and instead we have turned into a society ruled by the Baby Boom generation, like Gladwell, who see little to no value in planning or individual effort but instead see only luck, happenstance, and social context.

We need more people who believe in individual exceptionalism, the ability to make one-self into whatever we wish and to dream big ideas.  We need more people like Thiel and less people like Gladwell (who's book Outliers I reviewed positively here in the past) if we hope to move the human race forward.  If you are developing a product or company or even just fantasize about carving your own path rather than being told what your path will be, then Zero to One is worth the read.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Cool Nissan NISMO GT-R LeMans Racer Print...

This print is available on Easy (a website for "handmade" items) and is signed by the artist, Roger Warrick.  Warrick seems to be a big time endurance racing fan with most of his art centering around tracks and events like Sebring, Indy, LeMans, etc.

He essentially has two styles of art with one being a "serious" realistic depiction of the racing action and the other being a Dave Deal-esqe "car-icature" of various vehicles and their drivers.  This one is his most recent production and depicts the recently introduced Front Wheel Drive Nissan NISMO GT-R LeMans racer that will be contesting various WEC events (including LeMans) this year.  Some of the nice details seen here including the fire breathing exhaust exits on the hood of the vehicle (where they actually ARE located) and the positioning of Godzilla (the GT-Rs nickname) in the front of the vehicle where the engine is placed, are nice touches.  It will look nice in a frame on my wall.

Roger Warrick Etsy Website...