Night flight

Posted in Travel at 22:48 by RjZ

Everybody’s got a theory on how to avoid jet lag. At my first job as an engineer, I was tasked by our jet-setting CEO with reading dozens and dozens of scientific papers on the topic in search of a device we might be able to allow executives to actually be functional when they step off the plane from California to London. According to those papers, a big part of the problem has to do with resetting your circadian rhythms, the biological clock that tells us when to wake and when to sleep.

Apparently, the most important factor in adjusting that clock is exposure to light. Loads of light. We thought of making some sort of portable lamp that an executive could sit in front of for a while, but as anyone who has ever squinted at the bright sky or even just a bright wall in full daylight knows, the sun is one heck of a bright lamp and the papers agreed, that’s the kind of light we need.

Here’s what I do. I just sleep whenever I can. I sleep on the plane as much as possible (not much) regardless of what direction I am going in. I take catnaps in the airports while waiting to change planes (set an alarm if you have to). I move slowly and quietly and do as little as possible until I finally get to my destination and get ready to sync up. If I arrive at night, I sleep some more, as much as I can, even if it means lying in bed staring at the ceiling, I still pretend to sleep. If I arrive in the day time, I go to bed as soon as I can after the sun sets. 

My logic is, getting out in the day light will do the most to get me sync’d up, but getting some shut-eye, even really low quality rest, is the best way not to be so tired later. Trying to get a jump on synchronizing with the local time works about as well as trying to sleep all day after a long night of heavy drinking. You may end up tired and hung over the next day and sleeping feels like it’s the only thing that will help, but unfortunately, by the time the afternoon rolls around, you’re up nursing your headache whether you like it or not.

With that in mind, I’ve got some sleeping to do…about this time tomorrow, I’ll be below the equator and at high altitude. I’ll write more if I find a cheap internet café. Otherwise, I’ll let you know if I tasted any cuy (guinnea pig) when I return.

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Game changer, or playing games?

Posted in Society at 22:27 by RjZ

Time Magazine makes the case well, and I buy it a little bit too. Sarah Palin, McCain’s choice for a running mate has even less experience than Obama, but there’s no reason to assume that’s a bad thing. She is about as socially conservative as they get though, and that doesn’t make me happy; I still want to the government to stay out of my business, but she wants to outlaw abortion even in the case of rape or incest.

The thing I’m wondering though, as likable as I suspect Ms. Palin will be to the American people, isn’t it possible that this choice wasn’t about the best person for the position, but rather the best person to balance the ticket?  Maybe the democrats are no better. Mr. Biden’s experience balances Obama’s ticket rather, after all, but at least, one could make a case that he really is qualified for the job. Ms. Palin’s leadership skills, outside of being governor for Alaska for two years, amount to being a small town mayor and running fishing business with her husband. It might be enough, but then, it might just be that the republican party thought they needed a young, conservative woman to counteract McCain’s old, male, not nearly conservative enough for the rabid right.

Don’t you feel pandered to?

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Lazy planning or travel activism?

Posted in Travel at 17:29 by RjZ

There are things I plan for on a trip and things I don’t. It’s probably a good idea to know where you’re headed and how many days you want to be in each place or you’ll wind up a character in “If it’s Tuesday, It must be Belgium.” Meanwhile, I really don’t need to know what my hotel room is going to look like before I arrive. I find booking hotels in advance is especially problematic. It’s easy to show only the best room on the online guide and it’s impossible for me to get a feeling for whether the hotel in question is located next to a noisy disco, or well outside of town. That’s not to say I’ll do much better upon my arrival, but at least I’ll know exactly what I am getting.

When we arrived in Chiang Mai, Thailand, well before six in the morning, hotels weren’t even open! Wandering around the small walled-city downtown, looking at the outside of many hotels wasn’t the most fun I had on the trip, but we still had a chance to get a lay of the land and guess where we might like to stay if we found a good enough bargain. Booking hotels in advance rules this plan out altogether, and budget hotels don’t usually cater to booking from 3000 miles away. Heck, when we tried to reserve a room in Chiang Mai, the woman at the desk simply said ‘OK,’ without even asking our names. “Was that a reservation?” we thought. She said she’d remember us. We asked her to take our name down just the same. How, exactly, was she planning on giving us a room when we returned a few days later if they were all full?

Same goes for travel plans. For very short trips, it makes sense to make some travel arrangements ahead of time, because it’s definitely a nuisance to find train and bus stations, decipher schedules, negotiate tickets and classes and generally be sure you get where you’d like to go. We had a plan to take the ‘most scenic train ride in Indonesia’ when we left Jakarta on our way to Yogjakarta. Things started to get fishy, and here, I mean, actually smelled like rotting fish, as we chugged along on our scenic train through endless shanty towns and slums outside Jakarta. It took puzzling out the names at a few passing stations to figure out we didn’t make the right train. We did arrive safely in Yogjakarta, just the same.

The hassles are worth it to me, especially when compared to pinning down your whole trip ahead of time. While reading the web and your guidebook you might be sure you only need three days in this particular city and you’ll be on your way to the next destination exactly 72 hours later. Eighteen hours into your visit, though, and you’ve met some fellow travelers who have invited you to a luxury condo for free; a local guide tells you about an unheard of temple that’s only a few hours away, but well worth a day; you discover that the ruins didn’t really interest you at all and you’d like to bail out right now…but none of it matters, book ahead and you’re stuck.

But all this flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants travel turns out to have another plus. It funnels money more directly into the economy. Booking directly, in the country, doesn’t just make things cheaper for me, it means no middle man taking a cut from the the local tourist economy. (sure, there will be plenty of local middle men in most transactions, but at least they’re local….) Buyer and seller shake hands and sometimes even get to make a personal connection. It’s harder to cheat a tourist to his face and it’s embarassing to be rude to someone you’ve just agreed to pay. And if things aren’t going to work out, as they sometimes may, at least I’ll have met someone who actually lives in the country I’ve made so much effort to visit, and not just a travel agent from back home.

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Veep week

Posted in at 16:06 by RjZ

This is what happens in a 24 hour news culture. Journalist, under constant pressure to write something, report over and over and on and on about who might be the vice presidential candidate for McCain or Obama. Folks, who cares? For gosh sakes, Dan Quayle was the vice president. Clearly, it doesn’t matter.

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Freak show

Posted in Society at 8:45 by RjZ

My fitness goals this year are about understanding my limits. Benchmarking myself by other runners and cyclists is as disheartening as it is inspiring, but it’s also a way to understand whether the limits on my pace and speed or in my head or my genes.

The new world records being set in Beijing are good evidence that plenty of it is really in my genes. Two decades ago, world class swimmers were supposed to be lanky, long-legged spiders with incredible reach. Michael Phelps showed us, four years ago already, that if you want to be great at swimming, you need to look more like a dolphin. His feet and hands are huge and he has a six foot four inch torso on his five foot nine inch legs. He may find it difficult to buy a suit off the rack, but he’s practically made for the water.

Usain Bolt is easy to pick out of the starting blocks. He’s the one who’s a head taller than all the other sprinters. The world record holder for 100 and 200 meter sprinting is going to change the face, well, height, of sprinting. Years from now, all those lanky young men who were guided to other sports will be funneled into sprinting to see if they can take advantage of the same mechanics that helped Bolt.

I am not very tall (about five foot nine) so I’ve seen these limits before. Most sports select for height. Basketball and volleyball are obvious examples, but it helps for many others as well. Taller people have a longer stride and offer relatively little extra wind resistance for their increased power. I see this in cycling all the time. My larger riding partners blow me away on the flats, easily cruising at 20 miles per hour. The only time I can catch up is on the hills where being smaller means I have to put out far fewer Watts to do climb to the top.

In a recent example, I beat a strong riding partner of mine up a four-mile hill. Knowing our average speed, altitude change and distance I calculated our average power output. His was around 350 W/hr compared to my measly 250 W/hr. Even Tour de France riders don’t maintain much more than 400 so my partner should be commended for his superb performance as an amateur. More importantly, he’s actually able to support 350 W/hr which is why he crushes me on the flats. It’s not just that he’s in shape (he is) but that his size means that just climbing stairs now and again, his body is used to putting out more energy, so his baseline is so much higher than mine.

It’s not really good news for me (because I am way too lazy) but most of these height advantages reverse as the sport turns into an endurance challenge. My cycling friend above may be able to put out 350 W/hr, but his body probably doesn’t digest food much faster than mine. At some point, he just won’t be able to nourish himself enough to keep going. It’s too bad we’re not competing in any double centuries…I might just have a chance (except that would be just dumb!) Compare those tiny marathoners to Bolt’s six foot five in frame.

Unlike my weekend warrior fitness plan, world class athletics is a very effective sorter for characteristics of success. Coaches can try to guide young Phelpses and Bolts into sports based on what they think is more suited to their bodies, but when everyone is training at such an elite level, what separates them becomes tiny little advantages like big feet and fancy swimming suits. Inexorably, the Olympics and other elite sports will become a freak show of bodies and minds perfectly formed for the sport in which they compete. Future Olympics won’t be inspiring in an ‘if I just tried hard enough that could be me’ sort of way and, to be fair, they probably weren’t in their debut in ancient Greece. Instead, like this year in Beijing, it will be absolutely fascinating to see what humans can do—and how their bodies will adapt—to break new records.

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