Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A New Hope for humanity, now in theaters!

Recently I saw a science fiction movie that's been in the news a lot, so I thought I'd review it here on my blog.

The movie was about a guy living on a farm on a dusty planet that doesn't have much to offer in the way of a future. He spends his days dreaming about expertly piloting his aircraft around the skies, while farming and tinkering on robots and robotic farm equipment to put food on the table.

One day, after some routine farming robots go haywire, our hero finds a mysterious message hidden right under his nose.

The hidden message leads him to an old man, who he's surprised to learn knows who he is and knows his backstory. The old man explains that he's been chosen by a Force greater than himself to fulfill his destiny and save his people.

Realizing that he may never see those he loves again, he embarks on a journey across space to help find a way to save his people. His companions include a pair of clunky but functional robots that lighten the mood with witty banter and help provide technical support to the mission.

He joins a rugged but determined crew of individuals who are going to help him on his journey. Using advanced technology, they travel across hyperspace in a fraction of the time it would normally take.

While he's gone, the old man who served as his mentor dies, never getting to see his pupil fulfill his destiny, but knowing he's given him the tools he needs to complete the job.

This young pilot is determined to complete his mission and save his people. But, after a series of seemingly impossible setbacks, it looks like all hope is lost. Our hero, undeterred, decides to allow his intuition to guide him. With the help of his wisecracking mechanical copilot, our hero bravely flies his ship straight into certain doom.

Despite not knowing what was going to happen, he risks his own life and uses his expert piloting skills to send himself and his faithful robot sidekick directly into the most dangerous region in the galaxy.

He learns that the thing that guided him was a force that crosses all dimensions, a force that binds every living theme across space and time. It was this force that our hero learns to harness in order to save his people. The force can guide us, connects us to the past and present and to the people that had a major impact on our lives. It is real, palpable, and something that can be manipulated in the real world.

Once the fracas is over, our hero finds himself reunited with his robot sidekick, who miraculously came out of the ordeal an unlikely victor as well (and unsung hero of the whole effort, really).

He's honored, along with the rest of his crew, and realizing there is much work to be done to save his people, jumps back in his ship to continue venturing out into the great unknown of space.

That said, I thought Interstellar was a great movie.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Bicycle Trip to Denali National Park

A few weeks ago I decided to get out and do some exploring of one of Alaska's greatest treasures, Denali National Park.

Friday night, a friend and I loaded up our gear and my bike and headed north to Healy. Our plan was to camp at Riley Creek just inside Denali National Park and then make the bike trip on Saturday morning. The rest of our crew was going to meet us in Healy later that night.

About 4 hours and a disappointing number of Disney song singalongs later, we made it to Riley Creek.
After setting up our tents, we learned that the campsite we had picked was actually reserved, and that the whole campground was full for the night, so we would need to find another place to camp. So we headed about 10 miles north to Healy, where we found a nice little secluded campground on the shores of Otto Lake.

We got to our campground at sunset, which turned out not to be a terrible thing at all. 

This is the view from our campsite as we set up our tents. Not a bad sight after a long day of driving.

 From there my buddy and I headed into Healy to check out the 49th State Brewing Company, an excellent bar and restaurant where I had an Alaskan-raised yak burger with carmelized onions and gruyere cheese, topped off with a couple of pints of white peach wheat ale from their brewery. This is how you Alaska, people.

Savage River parking lot, the start of our journey. Civilian vehicles are only allowed to drive to this point, and any further travel is either on foot or bike, or on one of the park's tour buses. 

After about 2.5 miles of straight climbing right off the bat, we ran into this bastard right in the road. He trotted straight at us while we waved our hands, clapped, yelled and hurled insults at his mother. He only left when I flexed my biceps at him. #sunsoutgunsout

Long climbs mean long downhills, which are fun until you remember that they turn into long climbs on the way back. 

Looking north from the Sanctuary River bridge.

Our party stops to survey the mighty landscape before us. 

Sanctuary River, looking south.

Sanctuary River is a glacial-fed river, so it will clog up your water filter bottle with glacial silt pretty quickly if you're not careful. 

My trusty steed, with way more gear than I ended up needing. Cannondale CAADX Disc 6. I was initially worried that my 35c tires wouldn't do well on the rough road, but they ended up being more than fine and I probably could've gotten away with as small as a 28c. 

Stopping to have a snack. This was a frequent occurrence for us. Turns out you have to eat a lot when bike touring to keep your energy up. Who knew?

Teklanika River, looking north. A braided glacial river. There was a big caribou standing in the river bed but he was too far away to get a picture of. 

Teklanika River, looking south.

Panoramic view, Teklanika River bed looking south.

Fall was just starting to show up in Denali National Park, and the leaves were slowly changing colors in patches throughout the parks. Different elevations change at different speeds. 

Finally we reached our destination for the evening, the Igloo Creek campground. Igloo Creek is a backpacker-only seven site campground with a bathroom, secure bear food storage and a bus stop nearby. You have to reserve the campground on the day you plan to use it, and we were lucky enough to snag the last spot at around 11 am. 

Just north of our campground was Cathedral Mountain, which sits next to Igloo Mountain forming Sable Pass between the two. 

Igloo Creek looking north.

Long and lonesome road.

Another shot of Igloo Creek looking south towards Cathedral Mountain. 

Since we started at mile 15, we actually only biked about 20 miles in. Had we gone farther, we would've needed a backcountry camping permit, as the next established campground on the park road is at Wonder Lake at mile 85. 

Our campsite for the evening. 3 tents, although my small yellow backpacking tent is barely visible in the background.  The Igloo Creek campground has 2 toilet with locking doors, a bear-proof food storage locker, bearproof garbage disposal, and picnic tables. There are no fires allowed in Denali National Park, so no fire rings, though you are allowed to bring a campstove, which we did. 

After we cooked dinner, we hiked along this dry creek bed next to Igloo Creek hoping to find something cool, but we didn't see anything but a bunch of dumb rocks. So we turned around and headed back in the other direction. About 100 yards south of where we set up camp, we found...

...a huge meadow filled with ripe blueberries ready to be picked. We grabbed all the ziploc bags and Nalgene bottles we could and picked berries until we ran out of things to store them in. 

There were so many blueberries as far as you could see. There were also some lingonberries, but everyone knows those are bullshit berries. Blueberries are the money berry. 

This bag represents about 15 minutes' worth of casual picking. We probably filled 8 or 9 bags with berries. Berries for days. No wonder bears do this shit all summer.

Resting in a meadow after a fierce battle with a grizzly over a berry picking spot. 

After the berry picking, I took a little walk up the road a ways to stretch my legs a little after so much riding. 

A patch of trees changes color on the mountain. 

There was a small herd of Dall sheep up on this ridge, but they're too small to see in this picture. 

Another panorama of the berry meadow, turning red as fall begins to set in. 

Mountains in the distance near our campsite. 

Looking back north towards our campsite. The white roof of the toilets is just barely visible in the left side of the picture. 

All in all, Denali National Park is one of my favorite places in all of North America to visit, and bicycle touring is a great way to see the park. You have to be prepared for bad weather, lots of climbing, and the potential for wildlife encounters at any time, but the payoff is well worth it and bike touring is one of the best ways to experience this side of Alaska. 

Here's an elevation profile of the park road to give you an idea of what kind of climbing you can expect. The most difficult portions were the first 2 miles going into the park, and the 4 or 5 mile uphill on the way back. That part was especially difficult because we had a good 15 to 20 mph headwind blowing directly at us the whole time. I think I averaged about 4 mph the time I wasn't pushing my bike up the hill to avoid the wind. 

And finally, here's some video I shot with my helmet-mounted GoPro of portions of the ride. Apologies for the shaky video; no apologies for the wonderful jazz soundtrack.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Wizard of Oz: A Violent Tale of Prohibition-era Gangsters

The Wizard of Oz is one of the all-time classics of American cinema. It tells the story of a young girl lost in a strange land, who has to use the power of her imagination to find her way home.

Or, at least, that's what they want you to believe. My theory is that The Wizard of Oz is actually a giant metaphor. Now I know what you're thinking, it's a metaphor for the election of 1896 as written by L. Frank Baum way back in the day. Wrong. The Wizard of Oz is actually a metaphor for a violent movie about gangsters and Prohibition in the late 1920s. Consider this:

Dorothy is a small-town gangster who's looking to make her fortune by heading to the big city to run hooch to her hometown in Kansas during the height of the Prohibition era. Kansas, of course, is dry, which is represented by the black and white film, the dust, the tornado, etc. She arrives on the outskirts of Chicago (Oz) and immediately clashes with a local police captain (The wicked witch of the east), who she kills. This ruthless cop-killing earns her the respect and support of the local gangsters, (The Munchkins), who offer her protection in their territory, (Munchkinland).

Dorothy is offered various gangsters' weapons as a thank you. 

 Dorothy wants to meet with the big Chicago mob boss and booze kingpin, The Wizard of Oz (oz=ounces, the wizard of ounces, duh).The Munchkins agree to help her find him and give her instructions on where she needs to go (follow the yellow brick road). She decides she needs a posse if she's going to be safe, so she recruits 3 local gangsters to accompany her: a brainless thug (scarecrow), a heartless ax-wielding enforcer (tin man), and a ruthless killer from the jungles of the Dark Continent (Cowardly Lion).
We ride together, we die together. 
They set out to find the Wizard, but trouble hits them not too long after they begin. They're set upon by local law enforcement, represented by screeching flying monkeys, and narrowly escape capture. The chief of police, represented by the Wicked Witch of the West, has taken a special interest in Dorothy and her gang of murderous thugs, because she's responsible for the death of the police chief's friend and partner during that showdown in Munchkinland. The police chief attempts to use an opium sting operation to cut down Dorothy's rise to power and stop her in her tracks, even putting her on notice that she's wanted by the law (Surrender Dorothy), and it's successful.

It's the fuckin' 5-0! Run!
Dorothy and her gang are captured by law enforcement (flying monkeys) and taken to the police station (the Witch's castle). Although heavily guarded by police officers, Dorothy's gang overcomes their captors and helps Dorothy kill the police chief (wicked witch of the west), escaping captivity and being free once again to continue seeking The Wizard.
I didn't choose the thug life, the thug life chose me. 

Finally, she arrives at The Wizard's palace, a mansion painted in green, his signature color. After being allowed in by his bodyguards, Dorothy and her gang are escorted into the company of the Wizard after taking a tour of the mansion.
Getting past the Wizard's bodyguards
Dorothy meets the Wizard and tells him what she wants. There's no place like home- she wants to run booze back to her hometown in Kansas, where there's no booze and thirsty people. The Wizard is intrigued and snide, but continues to play mind games with her and attempts to confuse her. Finally, she makes the Wizard a final offer to accept her deal or suffer the consequences. He eventually obliges and agrees to help her get back to Kansas with booze. Dorothy is visited by the corrupt replacement local police chief, (represented by Glinda the good witch), who offers her protection in exchange for curbing the violence. Dorothy agrees, and begins the process of going back home to Kansas, where she will begin preparations for her rumrunning operation under the protection of the mob boss and the corrupt police.