Seen from the train, No. 2

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Again from Newark, the kind of place that gives the old hazardous waste remediator in me palpitations. At the same time, it’s a remarkable remnant of industry from a time long ago, a time when companies were generally named for what they produced. There’s no way anyone would call their venture the “Diamond Hard Chromium Company” today &endash; the marketing wonks would come up with a moniker like “DiHarCo.” Why, back in the old days, marketing wonks would have disappeared in one of the vats in the back.

Seen from the train, No. 1

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Generally, I would say that Newark, New Jersey is best seen from the train. Securely wrapped in steel and moving right along. I’ve seen it the other way, too, and prefer the rails. But sometimes as I’m speeding through I see something I’d love to see better, and this building is one of them. It looks much larger than it appears in Street View, and much more imposing. For a long time, I don’t know if it was an old factory, an old school . . . perhaps a factory school. Either way, I thought it was lovely and severe at the same time, and has a quality that modern architecture never does.

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A quick look around the corner reveals that it’s the Murphy Varnish Company. I hope they were proud.

Update: Turns out it’s on the National Register of Historic Places, too.

The Flat State

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I take back everything I may have said about cycling in Delaware. For those who don’t know, I now spend a significant amount of time in The First State, so named because it was the first state to get a commemorative quarter back when that was the big thing. The fact that there are almost no paths, that any route out of Wilmington is through the kind of neighborhood that doesn’t feel welcoming to spandexed speedsters, and the generally hellaciously high traffic levels, combined with my inability to find more than one or two rides even mapped on MapMyRide, made me despair of finding a decent ride around here without driving for miles and miles to a decent starting point. But I ventured down to New Castle, pretty much like Colonial Williamsburg except people live there, and picked a couple of rides starting at its Battery Park. Yesterday I tried The Coastal Evacuation Route, which gave me no assurance that it would ever, in event of a coastal disaster, lead me to any kind of higher ground, but it did take me through refineries and industrial areas down to Delaware City. The shoulders on these roads are not to be believed — routinely 8 feet wide, in perfect condition (except for strewn glass), and generally used only for turning. When they are used for turning, signs require drivers to yield to bicycles. Who’s the bike-friendly state now? Well, I did get a flat tire, but I didn’t let it stop me, and I took on another 14k after that to stick with my plan.

Tonight I tried another run out of Battery Park, around the suburbs of Christiana and so forth, and it was more of the same. Only faster — MUCH faster. I posted my highest average speed ever in the history of ever, 31.9 kph, over 51k — and in reality I was doing more like 32.5 until I hit some sloggy traffic at the end. It was astonishing, and I wasn’t even trying that hard. The combination of flat, smooth and straight just delivered an amazing boost to my speed.

And then after that, of course, I sought out the Performance Bike store and picked up some new jerseys (well, actually that’s across the bridge) and a proper raincoat, justifying it all with the commuting I say I would be doing, if I were ever actually in Albany to do it.

The flood this time

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What is there to say about what’s been going on in this corner of the world since tropical storm Irene started a dump of rain that has barely let up for a day since? Yesterday was another day of that mounting sinking feeling, compounded by being away and worried that I wouldn’t be able to get home. There was also substantial flooding down where I was, with delays and backups all over the place, and as I watched news feeds and Facebook and saw the bridge closings and evacuations up here all over again, it became hard to pay attention to anything other than whether I was going to have to get reacquainted with the Greyhound schedule in order to get home. In the end things were okay, a little delayed but the tracks didn’t go underwater.

Stunning to me is the damage to the Barge Canal. Infrastructure that has survived a hundred years has been damaged or destroyed in a system that was held together mostly by bobby pins and the good will and ingenuity of the people who run it. Underfunded and misunderstood, I can only hope that this is an opportunity for the Canal, that its importance will be recognized and its transformation from pure transportation to a phenomenal recreational resource will finally be understood. But it looks like it will be out of commission for the year, and some locks, bridges and dams may be seriously compromised.

The end of the summer

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There really couldn’t have been a better way to wrap up a summer, much as I would like it not to end. Went from too much free time in the last few summers to not nearly enough in this one, with a lot of travel and and a very slowly healing ileotibilial band. So when friends were gathering in one place and family was gathering in another, the bike had to be ridden to one or the other. Picked the first but decided to take the shorter route with the much steeper climb two-thirds through. I raced the BusPlus on the nice fresh pavement from the Capitol into Schenectady, where I left it in my dust. Took a couple of breaks to look at flood damage along the way through Scotia, and then had to hit the hill. Up Waters Road because I’ve done it before, but apparently amnesia set in and I didn’t remember there was a hump in the middle, which amounts to wasted climbing that I started to think I didn’t have my legs.  Had a few minutes of bonk as the computer showed my speed in the single digits, and not some of the higher ones. But once I was up and over it, the last 15k or so were fine.

So a lazy, hazy day with old friends, the kind we see once a year but think of all the time, then a drive over to family to celebrate with a three-year-old who was much more interested in cake than presents, and back across the river again for a campfire and smores. A campfire and smores! What could be more fun? Well, perhaps singing along to Beatles and McCartney songs all the way home. All together, couldn’t have been a nicer time.

Love living in a region of rivers, but the post-Irene destruction really gave me a new appreciation for, and concern for, bridges. They were closing left and right last Monday, to protect from runaway barges, potential scouring, who knows what else. Yesterday, I crossed the Mohawk and Hudson 7 times in our running around. Miraculously, only one of the bridges, in Rotterdam Junction, is closed. The flooding has receded, leaving everything coated in clay and endless debris and very strong currents, so it may be a while before we can put the boats in again.

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Advice for parents of college freshmen

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A lot of us are sending our kids off to college for the
first time. It’s stressful and exciting all at once, and I think if we just
remember some of what we learned when we went off to school, it can really make
things easier. So here are a few tips:

  • Make sure your student knows how to dial long-distance. If
    they haven’t done it often, it can be confusing. Since direct-dialing means
    sitting in the phone booth with a pile of dimes, it’s best to just show him or
    her how to make an operator-assisted collect call. Yes, collect calls cost more,
    especially if they’re person-to-person, so tell her to make it a
    station-to-station call.
  • When calling your student, understand that he won’t always
    remember to be by the hall phone at the appointed time, or there may be another
    student using the phone. If another student answers, make sure you have your
    student’s room number so the hallmate can easily check if they’re in. If not,
    just ask them to leave a short message on the dry erase board.
  • Mail time is the biggest moment of every student’s day. Even
    a short letter from friends and family is a great way to stay in touch. Every
    now and then, send a sheet of stamps so your student doesn’t run out. If your
    student is particularly homesick, consider a mail subscription to the local
    newspaper – it’ll bring a touch of home into her mailbox every day!
  • Money is always in short supply for students. If your
    student is close by, she may be able to keep a bank account with her home bank,
    but if she’s going across state or out of state, she’ll need a new bank. If
    you’re sending checks, remember they can take a week to 10 days to clear.
  • Care packages are great, but don’t limit yourself to cookies
    and Rice Krispie squares. Kids also need fresh typewriter ribbons and
    Ko-Rec-Type. I know that as a student, I never had enough Ko-Rec-Type, and it’s

Swooning over science

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Charles Proteus Steinmetz, theoretician of alt...

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My old hometown is chasing its tail like a puppy because it has been blessed by a Hollywood visitation. A soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture is being shot in Scotia and Schenectady, and people are understandably excited. (I tend to be more miffed than excited by these things, as the regular residents and commuters of a city are massively inconvenienced for weeks at a time so that Angelina Jolie’s stunt double can hang from one of our collapsing bridges, but I’m well on my way to codgerdom.) However, knowing that the movie will run for about two weeks, and a couple of years after that there’s a good chance no one will even remember who these actors are, I think it’s worth pointing out that for decades, Schenectady attracted real stars, the true geniuses who made our world what it is today, people who are actually deserving of recognition.

We could start with Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the genius who made alternating current what it is today. The one who developed General Electric’s research and development center. The one who suffered from dwarfism, hunchback, and more ailments, escaped from German persecution for his socialist ideals, and became president of the Schenectady school board and city council. It was because of Steinmetz that dozens of other giants of physics and electricity came to visit him right in Schenectady. And they’re all recorded in the sign-in book from the research lab — originally located in Steinmetz’s barn.

Thomas Edison was one, of course. He didn’t visit Schenectady frequently and had opposed research outside of his Menlo Park labs (and his control), but by then the fate of General Electric was well out of the Wizard’s hands. So was Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize winner, creator of the most widely used model of the atom, and a pioneer in quantum mechanics. J.J. Thomson, discoverer of the electron and isotopes, and inventor of the mass spectrometer. Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the radio telegraph. Kunihiko Iwadare, founder of Nippon Electric Co., now known as NEC. Ivan Pavlov, best known for his dogs. Clifford C. Paterson, GE’s research director in the UK.  Fritz Haber, Nobel Prize-winning chemist who also came from Steinmetz’s hometown of Breslau.

Now those are some names to swoon over.

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Wet madness

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In order to commute by bike, I think you need to be at least a little bit mad. With all that previous investment — new shoes, new cleats, new respectable-looking commuting shorts, new rack, new panniers — with all that, I still didn’t have quite enough in the game to really force the issue, to push myself over the economic brink at which I would have to say that I had spent too much NOT to ride to work every time I could. It would take a spectacular gesture, a single stupidly expensive piece of equipment to send me over the edge. And it would have to be something that would answer my final objections, which were that the laptop was slopping around in the panniers I had and was likely to get wet, or banged up, or both.

Enter Arkel’s laptop briefcase pannier. Insanely expensive. Why? Because it’s worth it. I knew I didn’t want to stand around in the rain working the bungees and buckles of the other pannier; Arkel has a single bungee, and a single levered locking system. My old bag would slop about and wouldn’t let me stand up on the pedals without risking catching the bag in the pedals; the Arkel simply doesn’t move. Worried about the laptop bouncing around? It goes in a sleeve and hangs from the top of the bag, instead of resting on the bottom. Worried about rain? I can’t imagine how this fabric would soak through (they give you a sample with your bag and dare you to rip it), but for a reasonable-ish additional fee, they give you a fantastic, bright yellow reflectorized rain cover that wraps nearly around the entire bag. It’s stiff, sturdy, as big as you need it to be, it straps down tight and when it’s off the bike, it looks like a briefcase. And at the price of  $235 with the rain cover, pricey enough that now I have to ride, in order to justify the 78 days of riding the bus that it cost. (Oops.)

So when the forecast this morning said it would be raining in the morning and raining perhaps a little harder on the ride home, I dug out rainpants I haven’t used in years, the wrong raincoat (meant for sport riding, not commuting, and not at all waterproof in a drenching rain), popped on my new little Cat Eye loop lights, and set off. Luckily I know just about every crack in the road, because there was a LOT of rain and the potholes were inundated. Got there, locked up under the portico of the Capitol and walked up to my office. Happily, I had a change of shirt there, because the one I wore was soaked. Coming home, I got even wetter. Seriously wet. Wetter than I’ve ever been, and that includes being submerged. But at least I’d ridden a few pathetic miles more than I would have otherwise.

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Things we learned in Old Forge this year

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Old Forge Hardware Store

  1. There is a gang of mallards that is out to steal from us, and perhaps kill us. They are The Jets, and they are everywhere. We have been stalked, shadowed, harassed and jimmy-jacked (pathwise) by this murderous flock of fowl.
  2. Deer count: way down. Only in the 30s instead of the hundreds, though one of them was so bold that keeping it out of our shelter was almost impossible. (Then it treated us to a display of its ability to keep its own behind clean. Impressive!)
  3. When people are awakened by a bear in their tent, they scream really loud. It sounds nothing like “whoa, bear.”
  4. Mountainman has some paddles that are outrageously sexy, including a canoe paddle that weighs about as much as a marshmallow. We settled for a kayak paddle that weighs about as much as a peanut butter sandwich. And two PFDs. And some water shoes. And a new Camelbak. And some other stuff. . . .
  5. We invented three brilliant new foods: Coffee-flavored Nilla Wafers; coffee-flavored cranberries; coffee-flavored banana chips. Just store ground coffee in a ziploc bag next to a ziploc bag of the other ingredient, and voila!
  6. There is absolutely nothing funny about the name of local electrical contractor BJ Queen. Not even when it’s plastered on any number of passing panel trucks. No even when you’re traveling with teenagers.
  7. We’re going to start a real estate company. We will sell inexpensive vacation homes in the Adirondacks that will happen, for reasons of expense, to be built in drainage ditches. We will call it Last Ditch Real Estate.