stevemedcroft.com
17Nov/150

Peloton

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Hand-drawn silhouette in marker Photoshopped and repeated into the final image.

16Nov/150

Roberth Goldwraith’s Comeran Strike novels

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JK Rowling, the Scottish welfare mother who created the billion-dollar Harry Potter franchise, has been writing world-class hard-boiled detective fiction series under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.

It’s not hard to imagine that Rowling wrote under a pseudonym to distance herself from the expectations that being the author of Harry Potter might bring on her next works. And she succeeded in remaining anonymous for first few months after the release of the first book in the series - The Cuckoo’s Calling. Then a lawyer confessed in private to a friend that the unknown writer was in fact the pen name of one of the most wealthy and famous authors of all time and the second and third books - The Silkworm and Career of Evil have been release with full disclosure as to who the author is.

Rowling’s main protagonist, an over-sized former military policeman turned private detective named Cormoran Strike, an amputee missing the lower half of his right leg from an Improvised Explosive Device trap laid while serving in Afghanistan, who is the illegitimate and estranged son of a world-famous rock star and a murdered super-groupie mother, is a complicated human being. He is dogged a determined as any good private detective should be. He has a strong sense of good over evil. But he is also too proud to allow anyone to see him as vulnerable. Or to accept help. At the opening of the first book he is in dire straits. His business is on the rocks. He has just been dumped by his fiance, a girlfriend of 16 years. He has to resort to sleeping on a cot in his office.

The Cuckoo’s Calling starts with the arrival of a new temporary assistant. Robin proves resourceful beyond expectation and transitions to full time partner, despite this work being low-paid and somewhat dangerous, over the objections of her buttoned-down, upwardly mobile yuppie fiance. She reveals that she has always dreamed of working as a detective, that she has tactical driving experience, capable self-defense, and a bit of a dark motivation driving her.

So as you can imagine, there is a continuous tension between the burly, hard-charging detective and his assistant’s resentful fiance. There's also tension because Cormoron does not necessarily give Robin the respect that she feels she is earning with the help that she gives him.

Their first case comes when an old friend of Cormoran’s asks him to investigate what police have written off as the suicide of his half sister. She happens to be a famous model and solving that case propels Cormoran into the public narrative. But puts him in opposition to the police.

The following two stories and get richer and more complex, the contrast and tensions grow and play themselves out in different ways, and I arrived at the end of the third story wishing there was already a fourth.

There's a lot to like about this series of fiction. First off, it's world-class out of the gate. I enjoy John Sandford novels, David Baldacci, Lee Child, and I would put these new JK Rowling books right up there with them from book one. She has professional chops and the publishing infrastructure that mean you're getting a fully realized, competent work of detective fiction.
The characters are amazingly well flushed out. Even though Rowling starts off following some very common themes from the hard-boiled detective fiction, she layers satisfyingly rich depth into her characters over the course of the first three novels. For example, Strike’s opposition to police is a common theme in private-detective fiction (if they had the resources and help of the police, private detective stories wouldn’t be as relatable). Strike antagonizes the police repeatedly by getting involved in cases they feel confident they have answered, showing them up to the glee of the popular tabloid press.

Strike as an amputee adds a dimension to his daily life. He has to deal with navigating the world with a prosthesis. He has pains and physical limitations that slow him down. It makes him more interesting. Robin’s motivation to be a detective above the objections of her soon-to-be husband makes her more interesting than if she was just a prop for the detective to bounce off his brilliant ideas and receive support and maybe sexual tension in return.

Speaking of male/female tension, Rowling has done a good job of not simply putting her two main characters in a will-they/won’t-they romantic spiral. Not to say that there's not tension between them, a bond that’s growing beyond simple employee/employer.

Rowling also introduces and deepens the main character’s lives by bringing in their pasts, their present families, friends, lovers, richness not often seen in the genre.

And all of this depth feels unforced, natural, makes sense in the context of her novels.

On the downside, I think the first book is not nearly as good as the second two. It depends too much on interviewing suspects and witnesses to move the story along; not enough on action. Rowling sort this balance out in the second story and by the end of the third book, leading with action and using detective procedure to move the story along. You should be warned that the pace of Rowling’s writing in this series is very measured. Don't expect quick conclusions or a flash-bang of your senses on every page. Rowling paces things methodically. She lets the story build, doesn’t rush it. Days may pass between scenes. It feels right but takes a little time to read versus something more cinematic (like a John Sandford novel).

All in all, I would recommend reading Robert Galbraith’s, Cormoran Strike novels if you are a fan of detective fiction. You will not be dissatisfied.

Robert-Galbraith-The-Cuckoos-Calling 51JuBKSkAbL._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_ Silkwom

15Nov/150

Best Photograph Ever

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My wife took what is currently my favorite ever picture of me this year.

It takes great skill to take excellent photographs. And good equipment. And practice. But sometimes, getting a great picture comes down to being in the right place at the right time.

This year, my birthday fell on Saturday, the day I normally ride with the West Valley Cycle Club. The ride starts just after sunrise. I set off from home a little late for the ride so I rode by myself to try and intersect the ride halfway through. My wife decided she wanted to follow in her car and take some pictures. She has a good camera, she has excellent photographic skills, a great eye, and she's had years of practice. But this day, luck determined the outcome as much as any of those things.

I started South to where I thought I'd intercept the group. They weren't at the turn I anticipated yet so I turned East, into the early-morning sun. My wife caught the photo above.

14Nov/150

Customer Service Fail

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We have an alarm system installed at the office. When we first moved in, I narrowed the choices to either a nationally-known company and a smaller company referred to us by the property manager. I listened to both proposals and went with the local company because the system cost about the same to purchase but the monitoring service recommended by the smaller company was lower priced, I figured the system is pretty much a dumb machine and there shouldn’t be any problems, the real difference would be in the long-term costs of paying for alarm monitoring.

The system has worked flawlessly since we installed it. Until mid one afternoon last summer when the alarm suddenly went off in the middle of the day for seemingly no reason. I ran over to the panel and shut it off but it triggered the monitoring company to call. The panel said we had some kind of error code so we called for service. I called our technician. It probably should have been a warning sign to me when I needed to give him multiple hints to remember who I was. But he finally remembered and said he wasn’t familiar with the code and would come out the next day.

He never showed. Or called.

I let it go because we were busy and about to travel and the fact that the alarm system was not on wasn’t the worst thing in the world. But a week later (back from our trip), I called again. “I can come out this afternoon,” he said. I wasn’t planning to be in the office so that wouldn't work for me so we agree that he would “Call you first thing in the morning tomorrow and let you know what time we will be by."

He never called. Or showed up.

I was scheduled for another trip so I asked my wife to contact the alarm company and have them come take a look at the system but when I got back, she said she had left messages but received no return call.

At this point, my wife is pointedly questioning my decision to stick with the company but I assumed since they installed the system, it would have some kind of warranty and they were the only company for me to use.

The holidays came and went and when we got back to work, she made it her first mission to get the alarm system fixed. It took a couple of calls for her to reach the technician again but finally, we had a scheduled service call; for the following day. My wife made plans to be in the office early in the morning as I was again on a sales trip.

She called me late morning. She had finished her work for the day and was now just waiting. She hadn’t heard from the technician. She said she would occupy herself and get by. At noon, she voiced concern about not having brought lunch. At 2, she was openly complaining about hunger and getting frustrated because she was bored and because she had plans. At four, I was just as frustrated. At five fifteen, she said she had received a call from the technician saying he was tied up on a job. He said he would still come but he couldn’t guarantee how late it would be (“it could be midnight,” he said). She said he sounded vague about coming the next morning but she pinned him down as best as she could and the new plan was that at 8:30 the next morning, he would be on site to take a look at our system. Argh!

She was in the office at 8:30. The technician was not of course. Nor was he at 9. Or 9:30.

The most expensive battery I ever paid for

Then, at 10:45, I received an email invoice for the replacement of a faulty battery and spent 15 minutes diagnosing and repairing the problem. The invoice was for $205! What? $205?

I emailed them “$200 to replace a battery after not following up on our requests for service then making us wait all day long yesterday? Could you have not recommended we try replacing a battery when we called with the original problem three weeks ago? And couldn't you have mentioned that you were planning on charging 'commuting time' at $95 per hour 'before' you came out so we could decide whether or not we wanted to incur the expense? “

They had blown the chance to provide even marginally competent customer service after not calling me when they missed the first scheduled service call. But to miss two more times, take a week to respond, make my wife wait an entire day, then not show up first thing in the morning as promised. And after learning that the problem was a battery, I am flabbergasted that they did not simply suggest that I try first replacing the batteries in the system or the sensors. And I cannot believe for one second that a professional technician who works on alarm systems, especially systems that they regularly install and service, could not work out what the service code on our panel could have meant.

I thought I explained my position in my email. I expected a response along the lines of “yes, you’re right. We apologize for the missed appointment time and we’ll adjust the invoice to compensate for your trouble.” What I received instead was an email explaining their charges, justifying the charge of travel time (the bulk of the cost) and then explaining to me that travel time is an industry standard and comparable to shipping charges for a company sending product to me. In other words, they missed my point exactly.

I don’t begrudge them the ability to charge for their service. I just expect their charges (especially the travel component) to be presented to us before we committed to the service call - so we could make the choice whether or not to use them or call on someone more local to us. And I expected them to be a little more understanding with us when calculating the costs knowing they had ignored us, blown us off, inconvenienced us, and wasted our time more than once.

How many ways did Alarm911 fail us?

They failed to respond to our request for service. They failed to honor their commitment to show up on the times they set. They failed to contact us early to let us know they weren’t showing up on time. They failed us when they didn’t try to solve our problem over the phone by recommending battery replacement. And they failed when they sent us a blind bill without ever discussing up front their exorbitant travel charges. What they earned from the way they acted is the loss of a customer and the loss of any chance I would refer someone else to the, In fact, if ever asked, they earned the right to be bad-mouthed by me for their terrible approach to customer service.

The lesson here is that no matter if you are worth what you charge, no matter if you’re busy and have a lot of other customers, no matter if you’re struggling to handle your schedule, you listen when you’re customers are telling you you’re getting it wrong, you make quick amends, no matter the short-term loss, and you make sure that you learn from the challenge and make changes to avoid them in the future. And, if you can avoid it, don't do business with Alarm911.

13Nov/150

That one time I lit my legs on fire

knicker_legsIt's getting cold in the desert in the mornings and I'm starting to pull out my cold-weather riding gear, thinking about what pieces I'll need in the coming days as the temperatures drop into the 40's (Fahrenheit) overnight. It got me thinking about the worst experience I ever had riding in the cold. And no, it wasn't in the coldest weather I have ever ridden. It was a technical miscalculation.

One day last January, I had a planned road ride with a group friends.  When I checked the overnight temperatures before going to bed the night before, the forecast was for 37-degrees Fahrenheit at the start, rising to 50 degrees by the time the ride would finish. Temperature swings like this present a problem for cyclists. When you see a starting temperature like this one, you immediately think of bundling up. But the work involved in cycling builds up a lot of heat and that, coupled with a fifteen-degree warmer temperature at the end of the ride means all that bulk will be a burden. I've under-dressed and ended a ride with frozen feet and hands and a red, stinging belly from the cold. And I’ve overdressed and overheated inside my clothing halfway through a ride and gotten dehydrated and sluggish.

Winter cycling clothing is not necessarily the problem. The cyclist simply layers up; a tee-shirt like base layer that is made with fabric designed to draw sweat away from the body, a jersey, a thicker long-sleeve jersey, an outer layer to block wind and keep heat in, gloves in the right weight. The challenge is the bottoms. Add leg warmers to standard bib shorts and you protect the knees but leave a cold spot in the crotch that I find intolerable on the coldest days. There is an option called a bib tight, a full-length bottom made with thicker material to fit from ankle to mid waist for the coldest, most miserable days, but they are too hot for almost any desert cold streak.

The best compromise I have found is the knicker; which takes the higher waist profile of the bib tight and the thicker fabric runs only to just below the knee. The knickers I wear are tolerable up to sixty-degree rides but can provide comfort down to (for me) just below 40-degrees. You’d think that the exposure of the shin to the elements would be a problem in the cold end of that range but I have never had problems with coldness in that part of my leg. I don’t know if the human body is just equipped with weather-tolerant lower legs but so long as my feet are warm (socks and warm fabric covers over the outside of my shoes), the knicker has always been enough protection for the desert winter.

For this particular January ride, I was faced with 37 degrees, a little off the bottom of my comfort zone. Even with knickers, I needed extra protection. Then I remembered a small gift I had been given at an event several years ago; a jar of embrocation ointment.

There are cyclists all over the world, in every climate and facing every possible weather condition. And the problems of riding in inclement weather has been addressed in more ways than through clothing alone. In Northern Europe, where the early part of the year can be a nasty combination of bitter colder, drearily wet, and muddy, riders use a special ointment on their skin to protect them from the elements. With the consistency of Vaseline and smelling like menthol, the balm is a mixture of essential oils and a petroleum-jelly base that is used to coat the legs.

Embrocation as a concept for cyclist who don’t live in the kind of conditions where necessity has mothered its use, has an exotic and romantic tinge to it. Writers in cycling journals tell us about how the hardest-core cyclists in Europe use embrocation so they can ride in conditions that would level a weaker man, conditions where human beings are only outside if they absolutely have to be. They show us pictures of the famous Roubaix Velodrome locker room after the world’s second-most popular cycling race (Paris-Roubaix), a dank, muddy pit of riders who look wasted from the effort of what is probably the hardest race of the professional season, and explain that the room is dominated with the smell of embrocation. Embrocation is like the key to a secret inside club within cycling. If you’re riding in conditions bad enough, and you are determined to ride because you are ‘that hard’ of a rider that you need embrocation, you are something special.

I want to feel that I am that hard, special kind of rider. And I was sure that 37 desert degrees was the kind of cold that called for embrocation. In hindsight, I should have shelved that thought and never touched the stuff but since I didn’t know that embrocation is actually the devil’s saliva at the time, I set my small jar out and asked my wife’s help to apply it before my ride, excited about the smell and the toasty, good feelings I expected for the ride.

I may have never used the stuff before but I have done a little reading into embrocation so I knew a few things. I know that you should put it on your legs after you pull on your shorts (or knickers in my case); if the embrocation gets on your shorts as you’re pulling them up, it can sting and burn in your most sensitive areas. I had read that it provides a ‘warming’ sensation when exposed to cold air or rain. And I had read that it can last an entire ride.

We guessed as to how much to use; a liberal application like you would apply lotion rather than a thin coating like you might apply baby oil. I was expecting an almost liquid consistency but from the jar, the substance resembles beeswax, a clumpy semi-solid. Applied, I tuned my senses to my legs but honestly felt nothing. I could smell the menthol, but it was a light, not heavy touch. And off I went to my ride.

winter_scene

Okay, so my ride wasn't that cold. This would have been a more appropriate day to use embrocation. Or stay inside.

 

From everything I read, and from the black-and-white photos of riders from the Northern Classics races, I expected to feel something in my legs when I got outside and started pedaling but I felt no difference. It was chilly, and I can usually feel that in my exposed lower legs, but I was as comfortable as every other ride in similar conditions; no more and no less. I chalked the lack of difference up to the ointment having sat for three years in my garage. I figured the warming essential oils had evaporated and been made obsolete by time and heat and dry desert air. So I put the embrocation out of my mind.

The route we took normally takes two hours. We cover 40 or so miles of the same routes West and South of my housing subdivision; along sparsely populated roads with long stretches between stop signs and traffic lights. There are spots we go as fast and hard as we can and stretches where we spin casually and chat. About two-thirds the way through the ride, I started to notice a sensitivity to sunlight in my legs. We stopped at a stop light and my legs felt hot on the side facing the morning sunlight.

The outside temperature had risen thirteen degrees since the start of my ride. It was still cool. I was comfortable; not overheated, not cold. The sun had been up for two hours and on my face, felt nice; slightly warm, a comfort. But there was an itch, a slight burning along my shin. I found it interesting. Was this what I should have been feeling all along? Or was the embrocation making my skin hypersensitive to ultraviolet radiation? Was I feeling a sunburn or just a reaction of the ancient balm and my physiology?

It grew stronger every time we stopped. I couldn’t feel the sun’s effect on my legs while I was turning pedals but every time we paused for a traffic sign or signal, the burning sensation came back.

At the ride’s official endpoint, I said goodbye to the other riders who came along and rolled through to set off on the last three miles back to my neighborhood. Normally, I might stop for a moment and chat with my friends but today, I didn’t want to stop any longer because of the pain tax I was having to pay. The burning had become stronger and stretched beyond the point where the sun touched my shins. I wanted to get home now and scrub the embrocation off my legs. I wanted to see if I had done damage to myself; surely I had from the way it felt.

I rode up to my house, happy that I would finally be inside, away from direct sunlight, and would get relief from the uncomfortable heat emanating from my lower legs. It would have been so nice to step into the house and have the vat of burning oil I felt like I was standing in instantly melt away into the feeling of a mildly cool massage oil. But it turns out that direct sunlight was not my enemy, actual temperature was. So you can imagine what happened when I stepped from the 50-degree outdoors into the 75-degree interior?

Flames licked up my legs and lapped at the elastic cuff of my knickers. It was as if someone had just wrapped my shins in an electric blanket. Have you ever stood next to a campfire on a cold night wearing loose-fitting jeans? Then moved after too long a time in one position to have a swath of denim brush up against your leg feeling intolerably hot, like it could catch on fire at any moment? Imagine that on your lower legs but without the ability to adjust away from the overheated fabric or swat it to simply wait a minute for it to cool down. The heat was inescapable. I had to get the embrocation off my skin!

I clued my wife in on my dilemma and started the shower (ours takes a couple of minutes to heat up). She could see that I was struggling with the discomfort and I was writhing as I peeled away my cycling clothes. She suggested I apply some mineral oil to my legs. Keli is a licensed massage therapist and has studied the use of essential oils and said that mineral oil is used in both disciplines to cut down other substances. “It should absorb some of the essential oils out of your skin.”

The mineral oil instantly made things worse. I went from standing too close to a campfire to standing inside a burning building. The heat and discomfort went from five to eleven in mere seconds.

Damn the water temperature, the only relief I was going to get was to soap and scrub the ointment off my legs so I hit the shower and lathered liberal portions of body wash on my legs. Every drop of water that touched the skin below my knees was like the knife blade of an evil leprechaun, a dagger that I am shocked did not draw actual blood. The heightened pain continued as I lathered and only after five or ten scrubbings did I finally feel less heat and, finally, relief. Not total relief mind you; even with every trace of the embrocation off my legs, water still stung and my skin felt freshly, uncomfortably sunburned. But when I toweled off and checked closely, there seem to be no lingering after effect, no redness, no permanent damage. My ordeal was finally over.

So what is the lesson here? I could probably spend some time revisiting the way we applied the embrocation? There’s probably a lesson for me to learn about the proper storage of sucn an ointment and when to know it is past its useful life. I should probably contemplate the weather conditions that are best suited to the need for such a protective treatment. I bet I could even experiment with a few different ways to remove the embrocation after a ride. Instead, I will boil my experience down to one lesson:

Never, under any circumstances, no matter what the cycling media say, no matter what professional riders say, no matter what the hardest of the hard cycling gods, do, use embrocation again.