Friday, December 17, 2010 of yet

Took a friend for a drive the other day. Happened to drive by the familiar trailhead to a modest urban area summit. We didn't stop (my friend is over ninety and uses a wheelchair) but I was reminded that I'd tried to ascend the peak some time ago with a couple of willing cohorts. We had heard that the trail was vague, with a number of offshoots leading away from the best route. Game trails, some of them. Otherwise the word had it that almost any approach meant a traverse over at least one of several loose boulder fields. Not classic hunks of talus, but mobile, long tongues of decomposing granite spilling down the steep shoulders of the peak.

So on the day of that hike, we weren't surprised when we arrived at a sizable field of this sort. Having traveled through brushy lower trails, it had been hard to keep the summit location in view. The gadget lover amongst us, I had a GPS unit on hand, but the surrounding rocky foothills played hell with its view to satellites. The GPS track zigged wildly over the map, to features we knew we hadn't come anywhere near. So we made a guess to the direction of the summit and began a route. The boulder field we encountered seemed to match an earlier hiker's description.

Soon, after many careful steps up loose suitcase-sized rocks, steeply arranged and none too secure, we began to see a narrowing chute above us. We needed to stay to the sides of the upper reaches of the rock field, avoiding a conveyor like center path. Entering the chute meant fewer loose rocks, but the terrain began to arrange itself in taller stairsteps, with the walls of the chute blocking any effective view of our destination.

Though we hadn't planned to, soon we were bouldering and beginning to reach a more exposed aspect of what we'd been led to believe would be a loose walkup, though strenuous. When we began to take stock of our position, we realized that we had all begun to think about the downclimb. We had reached a stairstep more like a wall; provoking us to entertain having the tallest among us give the other two a hand up to a wide ledge. Here is where we finally had to decide just what it was we were trying to accomplish. We were none too sure that our route wasn't destined to cliff out at a false summit. The day was advancing. And once we talked about it, we had to accept that our route no longer resembled the one described, nor was it a route we had fully prepared for. When you start wishing you had a rope, and have none, it's time to turn around. So, we descended, the better to fight another day.

In the many months since that adventure, things have intervened to delay and prevent another go. But it is still in the back of my mind to tackle it once more. Driving around the area, varying angles and perspectives can be seen; mostly one notices the large spilling tongues of loose stuff. The thing to do next time may be to contour further south, crossing right over the lower part of our ill fated boulder field that had led to the chute. We could make for a different rock field, then ascend after a longer approach that will still entail some loose stuff. A saddle to the south looks promising.

It's interesting having a challenge waiting to be cracked. This is no fabled peak. But it has the potential to frustrate if you're looking for the obvious. Prior hikers seem to agree that no obvious track exists. For now it is a study in topography to ponder. A vantage point to imagine surmounting.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010


  If you live somewhere for more than a few months, you surely will meet one or more of your neighbors. There is no assurance that you will have much in common or even want to have anything to do with your neighbors, but on a very basic level these are the people you share the world with.  

  The discrete nature of our respective yards, fences, and doorways represent a small piece of private territory that we come home to every day. For many, this transit from the larger world to home and hearth, takes place in almost complete isolation from the people just over the fence, across the street, or on the balcony above.  That may be the best strategy in a society where it isn't obvious that we want or need anything from those living adjacent. No longer a tribal arrangement, our lives allow us to imagine that we create and obtain all that we need on our own. We strike out on individual pathways. Independent of others except perhaps our immediate family and those we must traffic with in order to make our way in the world.

  I'm prompted to insert the phrase here, "No man is an island" from John Donne. But even in a tribal, clan, or team situation, refuge and sanctuary from the teeming masses is a requirement for the human soul, I believe. We need space and time for reflection, unchallenged by grasping demands. From neighbors, from anyone.

  It has been said that "good fences make good neighbors." Surely because some are prone to abuse the unwritten rules of sanctuary that we want to enjoy. Either by imposing on neighbors with unwanted (even if well-meaning) attention, or by engaging in uncivil behavior that spills past the boundaries of one's own walls. Because at least at first you don't know the caliber of person living next to you, it can seem wise to avoid all engagement.

  For me, the relationship of neighbor is a non-committal one, defined slowly over time. We've made no compact, though we recognize each other's need to castle within our respective keeps. But what kind of world agrees to shutter eyes entirely to the humanity that is a stone's throw away, in favor of distant arenas for showing fellow-feeling?  Still, it seems prudent to look for lasting friendships outside of our neighborhoods. Instead, seeking friends within the pathways we carve while pursuing interests, devotions, avocations, and family obligations. Nevertheless, there are times when neighbors grow to occupy a higher status than mere neighbor. At a minimum, we hope that our neighbors have some civic sense, if only to look out for each other's security or at least to respect each other's boundaries. It is a bonus, then, when a sympathy between neighbors appears.

  I think of occasions growing up, watching my parents and their interaction with our neighbors. There often was at least one neighbor with a propensity to cause friction. In the mix may have been one neighbor who never engaged the rest, even denying eye contact. In contrast, there were the neighbors who knocked on our door and invited us to their garden for home-made strawberry ice cream. We had the elderly lady on the corner who waved her gilt hairbrush in agitation at the young kids riding bikes and scooters over her lawn. The large family on the corner, with a sweet black Labrador Retriever, whelping puppies in their basement, causing neighborhood kids to yearn for one of their very own. I remember the quirky family that dressed up in Renaissance garb, members of the Society for Creative Anachronism. I never knew exactly what that was, but lately suspect I might qualify for entry somehow.

  Today in our neighborhood, there is a moving trailer packed and ready to carry away the temporal belongings of a dear young couple and their baby. Vicariously, I'm aware of the sense of adventure and the courage to face change that they are embracing. Moving is exciting, tiring, daunting, and somehow liberating. It's a chance to cast your lot with a whole new cast of characters. Including those characters who'll be your new neighbors.

  If I'm asked to vouch for them, I'll tell the 'hood they're going to that you can't ask for better. Who wouldn't want the young man who was compelled to sit on our porch, with borrowed book and tepid cup of coffee for cover, in order to keep an eye on an escalating fracas taking place across the street. A young woman's safety seemed threatened, and this good neighbor wanted to be discreet. Yet he refused to ignore the threat as if it had nothing to do with him. His wife, a writer, grew up around here, went to school a block away. She is unafraid to declare her community obligations, and respectfully encourages us to follow our own, whatever they may be.

  Somehow I don't think the sense of community this couple has relies just on familiarity and a sense of local ownership. I know they will carry it with them into unfamiliar territory. Their baby girl stands to grow up to be a decent neighbor in her own right. And so much more.

  The neighborhood here will miss them.
- Posted using BlogPress from my mobile device

Monday, July 12, 2010


The place in which you live.

  I go by this willow structure a few times a month. It's one part of a very appealing elemental sculpture on the grounds of Colorado College, installed by sculptor Patrick Dougherty.  It always makes me think about shelter; our conception of what makes a good shelter. It is often by chance or circumstance that we live in a particular abode. A place to be while pursuing education or some other thing, we reside in a home (or apartment) until a career move or other change takes us elsewhere. Usually we start out small. As we obtain more means, or become rooted to a place, we think to reach beyond making do, to make our habitation more permanent, or at least to let it reflect a bit more of our selves and our willingness to commit to a locale.

  We in North America are seen to be obsessed with making a display of our houses, the bigger the better. It's not exactly a humble approach, but then, many of these aren't humble homes. Traveling in Europe, I knew that giving guests a tour of one's home was not something generally done. I didn't even ask. Even to me, it seems an unnecessary burden to expect to give a tour on moment's notice of what is supposed to be one's private space.

  A popular tide sweeps many along, at which point their choice of abode can have more to do with what is expected of them, instead of being a reflection of their individual nature. I can only be thinly disguising my dislike of artifice and sheer size, as a measure of what makes a great home. A cookie-cutter development, spread across the landscape, is not my ideal. Other than the cost of sprawl and the disconnect from the larger community, I personally feel unease at the idea of coming home to that. This isn't meant to be a moral judgement of the inhabitants of such houses. There's nothing wrong with the people who live in them (at least nothing that can be attributed solely to the house they live in.) We can assume that inside these homes good, generous people are going through their day. But I do sometimes refer to suburbs ballooning with outsize houses, grand and looming over each other, as soul-robbing. It may be a case of  'maximizing-your-dollar.' Because you can. Because others already have. Because you won't be recognized as a success if you don't.  I don't intend to go into foreclosures and the overall home mortgage crisis happening now. But I do think about the impulse of overreaching to own a lot of house.

  In the minds of homebuyers, thoughts on the psychology of one's choice of home aren't at the surface, if they are there at all. Practical considerations such as square footage, the room count, number of bathrooms, and so on, loom large. Nearness to job or schools play a big role, as you'd expect. Yet I am amazed at how often the intelligence of a group, in desiring these practical amenities, is poorly served by the producers of those amenities. I believe that the masses don't specifically desire the papier-mache constructs that have been built for the average home-buying public by production builders in the last forty years. I think they'd appreciate something less 'faux.'

  Where are those homebuyers, scheming around their kitchen tables, proposing to "make it brick on one side only." "Put fake quoins on the corners of a stucco box, that's what I want" or, "give me a twenty-foot tall entry hall, I want the house to be visible for miles." There are technical and aesthetic reasons why these artificial approaches are somewhat out of balance. Perhaps what bothers me is the attempt to project a style using fakery, rather than accept that budget dictates using a more honest list of materials. Can't afford stone? Select otherwise.

  Anything seems possible in our global way of living; we tend to import, truck, or ship by rail, all the things we desire. If that is too expensive, we make up a veneer to resemble the materials that are native to another locale. Often the material is not the burdening cost, instead it is the labor to work with it in a skilled manner that is the budget breaker.  And we are reluctant to pay for the skilled execution.  Thus the fakery. I stop myself here, realizing that these points are just my own prejudice against artifice and against disconnect from materials' honest structural origins. For example, brick was not meant as 'cake decoration' over another structural element. Its real beauty resides in an engineered pattern of repeated courses, done to meet structural requirements, to become the load-carrying element all on its own.

  But to bring this back to the concept of shelter. I have the highest regard for an abode that meets perhaps its most important role, no matter how large or small,  simple or look-alike the abode may be: to house the people within, away from the elements, sheltered from the cares of the world.  (Too many do not have even the most basic form of this.) A shelter with perhaps a pot of tea resting on a chipped counter, a waiting chair, and an invitation to take refuge within its walls for a time.

  We create the feeling of 'abode' every time we settle somewhere to take a respite, in a way. The noun abode is meant to refer to a place we dwell more than temporarily. Yet the urge to make ourselves fit in any number of locations in a more than temporary way seems to emerge in surprising impulses. At a hotel, we find the ice machine and test the windows. We trust the roof over our head for a night or two.  At a restaurant, we look for an appealing table, away from the din by the door. Gathering chairs, we welcome our friends around.  Camping on a windswept beach, it seems a game to gather driftwood for a bonfire. With it we enhance the amenities of our abode-by-the-sea. When the stars come out, we sit near the crackling orange warmth as a defense against the sea-mist in the night. Once inside a tent's fabric shelter, the flimsy barrier suddenly takes on a protective dimension. Our abode for the night.

As my Scots ancestors might have said: "bide a wee." Abide. Stay awhile.

The willow sculptures seem to say that, too.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPod              --all photos  by the author.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


Thinking today about the word focus. Well, about the concept of it, and of a certain kind of focus, that I suppose fits into the category of mindfulness.

I like to be aware of my surroundings in a loose and unconditional way. Not tensely expecting, yet not neglecting. Maybe this was influenced by an early study of martial arts. Anticipation of possible moves; being ready. (It's wasteful to prematurely launch into a specific posture if you are instead going to be asked to respond to an opposite move.) Honing your reflexes, holding a neutral stance, training your impulses to be able to leap into action in any number of directions, then return to a core stance.

My take on focus is somewhat different than behavior that resembles "tuning out." That variety of focus I regard as hypnotic, in a way. For example, I know of people who can be engaged in a task, a book, a phone call, or some other thing, and they are completely unable to describe any other activity that took place around them during that time. Not one thing. They might claim that they were in fact cognizant enough to know that surely nothing of note happened in that space of time. Meanwhile, it might instead be true that they were surrounded by activity, noisome and busy; such that their attention was probably warranted during the interval. But they "tuned it out." I'm not making a judgement on this, just pointing out a behavior that is one kind of focus.

Outside of this hypnotic kind of focus, another type comes to mind. One remains aware, while giving appropriate priority to a focused task. This attentive concentration at the same time keeps a figurative eye on the horizon. One isn't too easily distracted by other things; those are noted, filtered, and ignored or responded to only as needed.

I often find myself attentive to a task in a focused way, so that my immediate gaze, thoughts, posture, and movements reflect a quality of attention that wants to do the best possible job, and that gives due respect to the current arena of interest. This may mean that in the middle of a careful operation or tricky mechanical maneuver, I may drop something on the floor, but I won't immediately stoop to pick it up. An observer will think I didn't notice that it fell. Their comment is usually, "you dropped something" or similar. They may even pick up the item for me. I'm pretty sure that when they drop something, their first impulse is to stop what they are doing, and pick up the object. Even if they don't need the item in order to complete the task. I'm not faulting that person's impulse completely; but in a shared working environment, I don't encourage that style. (Don't get me wrong, I don't have tools or parts all over the floor; of course I do pick them up, when it makes sense in the order of things. Everything we do may not have the urgency and implications of something like, say, surgery, but there is sometimes good reason to resist the urge to "scratch one's nose."

It's just that If I'm working with someone on a detailed task, I don't want them breaking off just when the target is in view, just when they need to keep their eyes on their part of the task. I want them to focus. Being distracted by a fallen pen, lid, extra tool or whatever, to me is a possible sign that they aren't really paying attention, or fully engaged in the crux of the project. They may think I'm not present, when I curiously ignore the item. I am present--but not a slave to what to me is a mere distraction. I should say I'm not talking about the drop-in friend, or an untrained helper or "gopher" when I say this. Their best use while they learn may well be to work the periphery, pick up fallen items, procure parts and tools as needed for key workers. But I'd model to them to gravitate toward this kind of focus when they're at the center of a project.

Unless it's broken glass or some other hazard, I try not to break stride if I don't have to. The thing I've dropped, I almost always do notice as it falls. But my first impulse is to stay on point unless I really need the object. This is a style of focus I only sometimes notice in others.

Picture a chef in the kitchen, prepping food items, scooping skillfully cut pieces from cutting board to bowl. A few bits drop to the floor. In kitchens I've been in, it's the better chefs who finish the immediate task, and only then attend to incidental casualties. There are many reasons to focus in this way, and efficiency is high on the list of reasons. Why bend at each event, when more is sure to fall? Are they sloppy? Don't assume so. Are they in favor of a messy kitchen? Doesn't necessarily follow. If you watch the entire scenario you may see that a good chef ends each task with an equally focused period of straightening. The best clean and restore order as they go--but at logical intervals, not in jerky corrective maneuvers. Their focus is on the end product, and on which steps are essential to getting there, getting there on time.

There is a pace, a flow, to my favorite kind of focus. The order of tasks within a project is key. Not that I'm compulsively obsessed with the order; a new encounter with the same task may present things in a different order, and that's okay. Part of being good enough to do a task is being flexible enough to conquer it in different ways. But each encounter still benefits from avoiding fumbling with something twice if a more logical approach can prevent that. It pays to take a moment at the outset to think about the order of tackling something. A hasty focus on false priorities wastes time, and puts the effort off track.

This mindfulness or focus may be easier to develop for use as a technique alone. It is possible, but  harder to create in a team environment. I think of different endeavors, where two minds (or more) need to coordinate and focus together. I think it is a rare thing when it coalesces into a high order of working in tandem or unison. Many times what you get instead is closer to a clumsy compromise of shared effort.

In over ten years of competitive cycling, I only encountered perhaps three team mates who could naturally put together such a shared focus. This out of scores of team mates. It was completely gratifying to experience. Think of competing with someone who tuned in so well, that you barely thought about exchanging positions and they were there, taking the front, making your two-person team feel like one person. This can't merely be agreed upon in arbitrary schedules or split times. Changing conditions, terrain, and relative strengths being displayed over the course, it takes a sensitive and focused team mate to feel the pulse of the competitive machine you are trying to create together. Only then can expert skill be applied in pushing the team to its best effort. I had one team mate who needed no words between us, instead using experienced intuition and knowing what signs to read. (We hardly needed a speedometer to know our speed down the course when competing as a unit-- and once won a Thanksgiving turkey to prove it!)

In thirty years of working in a shop or trade environment, it was also the exception to sync up in this way. My dad was one who could, uniquely so, with a non-verbal kind of leadership that mostly modeled how to do a task. Succinct words of advice or troubleshooting, not a lot, kept the work pace and quality in line.

My oldest brother shares my craving for what I call "poetry in motion" in performing skilled tasks. He hates wasted steps and meandering approaches to problems. He recounts anecdotes of fellow workers habitually wasting time by making endless trips to obtain tools or supplies. After a while it was questionable if they were merely ineffective at making progress, or just lazy. Scouring around the jobsite eats up a lot of time, and at the end of the day little gets done. I love my brother's solution to this, at least the part about "not having the exact tool on hand." I love his approach because it is mine, too. One can learn to improvise, to keep the work moving. This doesn't mean spudging up a precision part by mauling it with the wrong tool. It does mean knowing other possibilities, and using them. A kind of selective "MacGyvering." If you have any kind of literal or metaphorical Swiss Army knife, you should know how to use it, and then some. Be able to do the job right in more than one way. (But do make it right.)  And try an extra helping of focus.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Blindsight; or, A Banner Day.

I have a family member who is legally blind; my mother. She has glaucoma. With that, various things within the structure of the eye can conspire to alter and eventually rob one of  one's sight. Pressure within the eye is a key component. Although proper care can forestall and perhaps for some prevent the worst case scenario, it is a worrisome disease. It has been interesting to follow the way mother has coped with this difficult ailment. The worst event so far was the complete loss of sight in her right eye a few years ago. It made the lingering sight in her left eye that much more precious.

Mom has suffered both from glaucoma and cataracts. It has been hard to know which has lately dealt the greater blow to her remaining sight, but we've assumed the glaucoma played the greatest role. It was the reason her right eye was lost to her.

Mom is of the generation that truly learned good penmanship. She has especially clear and beautiful handwriting, with attractive flourishes that aren't overdone.  The large "G" that we know from General Mills' cereal boxes comes to mind. Besides her pure skill at handwriting on the page, mom is talented with actual content, having been a writer her entire life. The loss of this expression is perhaps the hardest part of the blindness for her. What will she do if she can't sit at her desk and write?

I've been amazed in the last few years to watch how mom became less able to see from her remaining eye, and yet the letters that came in the mail were, as before,  written in her distinct and attractive hand. This even though she could not view the writing on the card anymore. It was all done by feel, and by rigorously staying within the physical confines of the paper. She registered the edges with her fingers, and had to compose her thoughts in longer streams; pausing to reflect or letting her thoughts wander meant she would lose her place on the page, and scribe new ink over existing writing. 

She became good enough at this to continue to correspond, albeit with shorter missives, and you would not guess that the sender was blind if I didn't tell you. Perhaps the lines of writing were a bit less level, or more tightly crowded.  It must have been a strain. And I imagine it affected spontanaeity and turned a leisurely task into a "finish it now" chore.

Essays and longer work finally became too hard to create in successive writing sessions. Returning to a work, how would she review the existing content? Adjusting the message, editing the flow, revising the tone, all require some review and a chance to "listen" to what you've already composed.  Waiting until evening for a family member to read her work back to her was not very satisfying or effective. The stream of thought gets lost. The requirements of the day have moved on. Direction gets derailed,  for even the most tenacious and disciplined thinker.  Physically writing with either a pen or a typewriter may have been possible, but the full activity of writing a work comprehensively was less and less possible.

Those who merely have cataracts may be able to think of surgery for replacing their lenses as routine. But glaucoma makes cataract surgery a more daunting proposal. Anything that intervenes with the eye's structure may cause the pressure within to climb, and this can lead to more damage. At least one surgeon advised caution regarding surgery in mom's case. Even so, the hope of regaining vision made mom ponder the surgery more as time went by.

Recently, mom took the plunge, and had cataract surgery. She selected a talented and confident specialist who felt he could overcome the extra challenge her eye presented. In the days leading up to the surgery, she covered her "good" eye, to practice what it would be like getting around  with a patch on after the procedure. This sounded odd to me at first; how much difference would that make to an eye that didn't really see? But I hadn't understood how much mere light helped. Losing that wasn't trivial, mom's best status for vision had become mostly an awareness of light. I was surprised how much just this input helped her to navigate. Though objects and faces were not clearly visible, light from windows and doorways provided landmarks that helped orient her with surprising accuracy. She could walk in her familiar surroundings from one location to another with good results if she was careful. But the lack of detailed sight left many activities unavailable.

The suspense of a full day with an eye patch after the surgery was anxiously spent trying not to get her hopes up. She had decided it was no better than a 50/50 chance, and spent time reconciling her mood to the possibility of failure. Waiting to see what kind of window would open up was a tantalizing and edgy twenty-four  hour period.

The happy ending here came the next day, when the patch was removed. A quick eye test followed. Mom read out the letters, trying to absorb the sensation of sight restored. It turns out that the cataract was the main impediment to sight at this point in time, and the risk of the surgery proved to be worthwhile.

The rest of the day was a visual feast, including looking out of the clinic windows to see a view of  hills with saguaro cactus and  houses dotting the landscape. A celebration lunch followed.  An extra treat was a walk around a nursery to look at colorful spring flowers. A banner day.

Can you imagine losing your sight?  You wouldn't be reading this, or anything else....

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Just say "GPS," and some of us are hooked

Dual Electronics' XGPS300 cradle for Apple's iPod Touch

As a long time PDA user, I've recently been immersed in the gadget fascination that is the iPod Touch.  For some background,  I've used various Palm brand handheld devices, and still have a lot of respect for my wi-fi and Bluetooth enabled Palm Tx that now sits in my dresser drawer. (to keep my Palm apps handy, I use a Palm Centro cell phone--alas, no wifi...but I can use an unlocked sim card, unlike the iPhone.)

I loaded tons of applications onto my Palm devices. One of the things I've used the Palm Tx for is GPS mapping, routing, and tracking. This was done by pairing the handheld with a very small Bluetooth GPS receiver. (the Freedom Keychain GPS.) It worked pretty well, and there were car navigation apps, topo maps, workout tracking apps and the like to make it useful. 

Along came the ipods, and for me that has meant the Shuffle, then a 2nd generation Nano-- and finally, the thin and sleek iPod Touch. This last has put me back into application heaven, with a nice clear screen and it is so much more than a music player.  Reminded me of my old Tx, where I'd been using Pocket Tunes for music and hours of fun and utility through the thousands of applications available. Now, I'm experiencing the smooth touch screen swiping, pinching, etc. of the Touch interface.

I'd been looking for a way to use GPS with my new 32 GB, "3rd generation" iPod Touch. This was accelerated by seeing well designed GPS applications in Apple's App Store, some specifically for geocaching.  One, "Geosphere," is so well designed that if you delve into it, even without a GPS receiver in use, a cacher can be totally organized out in the field using it in tandem with a Garmin or other GPS device.  The sticking point for stand-alone use is that unlike the iPhone, the Touch lacks a GPS chip. (even the iPhone is said to have some issues with it's internal GPS, though.)  Unless one 'jailbreaks' their iPod Touch, the use of an external GPS receiver isn't an option--it's not supported by Apple and I'm guessing there's a good reason. Someday this feature may be enabled, but I didn't want to wait. (I'm already hooked on a few geocaching and other map-aware applications.)

So, in the spring of 2010 here comes Dual Electronics, with the announcement that they've built a cradle for the Touch that packs in all the GPS you could want. The XGPS300 cradle is not marketed at anything other than the iPod Touch. It's not cheap, costing $200--but that's still less than a Garmin GPS, that would have only some of the features the iPod+cradle can provide, and you also get NavAtlas software that is probably on a par with other software costing $70 to $100 dollars on it's own. The Touch slides into the cradle, and off you go. Your map-aware applications take on new life, and GPS specific apps finally make sense to download.  After a short delay in its release, I joined other eager GPS fans and got one.

It bears pointing out that this cradle can be used outside of your car. This is a key advantage of this product. The GPS electronics are inside the form-fitting pocketable sled that the Touch slides into. You can hike, run, bike etc. With most other Touch gps solutions, you're tied to your car by the bulky suction holder since the works are inside that, and power via DC must be connected.  Dual's cradle has its own battery, and won't borrow power from your iPod. But generously, it will let your iPod sip on it's battery (if you're not currently using the GPS mode.)

The windshield mount (see picture at left, minus it's suction cup portion) for Dual's XGPS300 is there to provide a car holder, plus DC power for charging with a car lighter plug, and an audio out. It does not contain the GPS unit.

The actual sled-like cradle, which does have the GPS electronics, has a rechargeable battery, it's very own audio out for headphones,
                                                                             a speaker,

a microphone,

              a test button  for checking state of charge,

 and mini USB for syncing, and limited charging capability. (Can't charge both iPod and cradle if just using USB.*) USB-only power input seems to be just to charge the cradle itself; I imagine it's main use is to boost the cradle's battery during iPod syncing, which it will do--you don't need an Apple connector if you have the iPod in the cradle, and connect that to your computer with USB cable--I haven't tried syncing this way yet.)
The windshield holder and its DC lighter cord are the best way to charge up both the  iPod and cradle all at the same time to get ready for action. Then you can venture out of the car on battery power alone. The Dual windshield holder "knows" if the cradle is inserted, and it will charge both devices simultaneously. In the house, I'm using an aftermarket "lighter socket" that plugs into an AC outlet, and I plug the XGPS' lighter cord into that for charging both cradle &  ipod overnight by my desk.
The cradle itself appears well made and is smoothly rounded on its corners. It does not weigh much at all. It slides into a pocket nicely, not too much bigger than an iPhone, though certainly it adds size to your slim Touch. (note that this cradle will definitely NOT work with an iPhone, there is no way it would fit.) The iPod is securely held within the accurately molded cradle. There are two thin wings on either side that barely interrupt the visual or tactile lines of the Touch's bezel. No screen real estate is covered up. Dual says that the cradle works with every Touch version made, but you do need the current software, or I think at least version 3 and up? I'm using software version 3.1.3. There was/is a typo on Apple's storefront that says "2G" Touch devices only; that is wrong according to Dual, and proven wrong by users.
The fit is so good, I have to say that removing the Touch takes a bit of pulling. I find myself gripping the sides of the iPod on its upper half, and that means I usually am pressing on the volume switch of my 3rd gen Touch. (see photo.)  I wonder if constant squeezing of the volume button is a good idea over the long haul. If  I instead squeeze below the wings on the lower part of the iPod, there isn't as much purchase on the iPod before my thumb and finger hit the bottom of the wings. 
This removal effort is my only gripe to date about the design. So much of the XGPS300's design is excellent, and this I don't consider a show-stopper. I might like to see some kind of "release" lever or button on later cradle revisions. Meanwhile, you don't have to fear the iPod falling out of the cradle, and that's good.  If you have a thinner 1st gen iPod, there's a rubber spacer for the cradle-though I think the owner's manual may have this backwards, as it says to  "remove rubber spacer." The spacer in my package was not attached, but came in a plastic bag. I can't imagine it is for use with the 3rd gen Touch which is plenty snug without it, and there are two long tactile strips in the cradle as it is.   (I did slide a 1st gen Touch into the cradle without the rubber square, and it also seemed snug enough; --if you have a 1st gen, ask Dual about this pad.)
Using the XGPS300,  first impressions

Software included with the cradle is by NavAtlas,  (it says "NavTeq" on the splash screen.)  A pretty good solution for driving. I've been doing more off road and geocaching with the cradle, using Topo and Geosphere, but the couple of times I've lit up the NavAtlas it seems very accurate and the graphics look fine to me. 
You need to go fetch the software as an App from the App Store, there is no CD in the box. This is fine considering the AppStore is the gateway in general for software for Touch users. If you want to, you can buy other road navigation solutions from the app store, such as Tom Tom or Navigon, but I don't see the need until I go outside of the US or Canada, those both being covered already. (see Dual's blog at for a list of compatible apps. ) Among NavAtlas' features is the option to select between "car" or "truck" for route planning, choose "fastest" v.s. "shortest" route, select to avoid:  Ferry route, unpaved route, carpool lane, and more.  Pretty standard but  helpful settings. For the Main screen there are 4 large icons: Where to, View Map, Route, and Options. If you select "Where to," there's a list of bold options, including Favorites, Recently Found, Contacts, POI, Address, Zip Code, a few other choices including Coordinate which lets you then search the  map.  There's  Emergency, showing Hospital, Fuel, Police, Auto which opens to a list of dealers, service, road assist, rental, and more.
Contacts in particular  is nicely integrated already with your ipod's contacts; I didn't have to do anything other than tap Contacts in NavAtlas and there they were.  If you have physical addresses filled in for your contacts, you can route to them, merely tap on the pane showing the street address. (This is motivation to always fill in addresses for your contacts.) I used to have a Mio in-car device, and the NavAtlas software is so much better and more in tune with what you expect when you try to drill down through the options and menus.
I've been out about 3 times so far since receiving the XGPS300. During geocaching forays, the accuracy is about as good as my very good Garmin Vista Hcx, based on the general feel for the hunt. It got me very close to ground zero. In one case it  said 4 ft away, and I was standing in reach of the camouflaged container. ( I didn't take my Garmin with me for a back-to-back comparison.)
In town using NavAtlas my position on the maps seems pretty true--only when starting up does the blue dot denoting "me" wander, until satellites are fully acquired. I don't know anything about the "ublox" GPS chip said to be in the XGPS, but it seems to work as well as my Sirfstar II devices. (Need to research the chip.) Others have said to turn off the iPod's wi-fi for fastest initial lock, this seems to be true.  Turning wi-fi back on after good lock doesn't hurt accuracy, but it may slow down drawing of cached map tiles.
 About cached maps: some software besides NavAtlas (which stores all map tiles on iPod) wants to look for maps on the (non-existant in the field) network before showing map tiles cached from prior online browsing. You'll see a message that map load failed at such times. Just wait, & more importantly, zoom out to to a higher level to see cached tiles in  Geosphere or Geocaching apps.
 Unlike the iphone, the Touch can't use 3G to fetch maps out in the field. If you get other location or navigation based apps to use with this cradle, be aware that some rely on network maps.  As a work-around, browsing and scrolling around areas of interest before going out, while connected to a wifi network, will "park", or cache, those particular viewed maps tiles in the iPod's storage. There are cases where map tile caches get cleared, and I've ended up map-less in such situations with network-based apps. For certain apps, I plan to use Verizon's Mifi device as back-up, which gives the Touch wifi access anywhere. (but consumes phone plan data.) Remember that NavAtlas and others like it store maps on the iPod, you won't ever be caught without maps with them. I have also used MapCandy to load up state and regional maps in various levels of detail. I have 32 GB of storage, though. Those with an 8GB Touch will do well to browse and  "cache" map tiles, before heading out with Geosphere & other non-resident map apps.
What are you waiting for?

I guess I would say that the one thing that could hold you back may be budget issues because of the $200 price. But I don't think it is over priced; it's built well and provides good GPS data. It includes battery back-up of 1100mAH for your Touch that you'd otherwise pay $100 to purchase in a similar, non-GPS enabled battery sled. You can use it for Skype with it's mic and speaker. It is nicely tailored to the sleek iPod Touch. If you're wondering how existing users like it, count me as one who is glad to have the XGPS300 cradle.
I'm not associated with Dual in any way, and in the early going I may have got some details wrong. If you think so, write a comment.    (all photos are by the author. )
*You could charge just the cradle at home, without the  windshield holder, with an aftermarket AC/ USB adaptor, or by using your computer's ports. If you put a USB adapter from Belkin or Rocketfish into your car's cigarette lighter, you technically don't have to use the windshield holder to charge the cradle, but--and this should matter to you--a plain USB charging set-up won't charge the iPod and cradle at the same time. I'm still figuring this out, it seems that the iPod while in just the cradle does not charge at all if USB is plugged in, even if cradle's Power switch is set on "Battery." Only when I unplug the USB and set cradle to Battery, does the Touch's charging symbol wake up. And for the cradle to charge, I begin to suspect it matters what the switch is set to.   I'll have to test that by running cradle down (say to where only 1 out of 4 blue charge indicators light when tested) and then try charging via USB. If I do this routine separately for each of the 3 Power button positions, (GPS/Off/Battery) I will be able to confirm if position matters.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Hands on

I took a drafting class years ago.  Thought it'd be nice to while away winter evenings by taking a class of some kind. Mechanical drafting caught my attention, seemed fitting for the furniture making I did. Before this I'd done some self study and was proficient already at reading blueprints. There'd been some exposure to the subject in high school. 

The idea of working with sharp pencils and onionskin paper, tasked with detailing drawings and getting a better understanding of the principles, was truly my idea of fun. I saw it as a chance to hone or add to what I already knew.

As it turned out I had little trouble meeting the class goals, and did a decent job on my assignments. I enjoyed revisiting techniques for drawing in perspective, scaling objects, line pressure with the pencil, and so on.  I tried to produce a distinctive lettering style all my own, but others had more impressive results here.  My handwriting is merely expedient in daily scribblings, and though I can carefully block letters into an architect-ey appearance, I think it is a chore to maintain. So except in class, or on paperwork for a client, my lettering isn't very artful.

The truth is, I just liked the tools of the trade.  The pencils, paper, special erasers, the thin erasing shield, protractors, triangles, the whole lot.

On the very first night of class, I was the last one into my seat. I made it on time, just.  Under the high workstation, next to my tall drafting chair, I set a wooden box down. Made from solid cherry and a couple of panels of baltic birch plywood, it held a small collection of drafting tools and supplies, according to the instructor's list of required materials. (Picture the curious looks from the other students....)

The telling thing about this box was that I constructed it with an enthusiasm that outweighed the ambitions I had for the actual class. I sketched a plan, planed and jointed the wood, mitered the cherry frame and rabbeted it for the birch panels. I detailed it with holders and fasteners to keep everything organized. Outside, I fastened a small drawing board with a protractor and a sliding straightedge. The box when open could have its upper half propped at an angle for drawing. Lifting the lid, a narrow box with a long row of holes for pens and pencils was built as a hollow compartment, with foam inside to keep the lead points from breaking. A small lid covered another compartment for leads, erasers, sharpeners, and the like. Behind a divider, large pads of paper could be safely stored.   Triangles, rulers and protractors  nested between foam holders on the inside of the upper lid. To finish, I carved a cherry carrying handle and attached it with wooden dowels so it could pivot.  I completed the whole thing about a half an hour before the first class was to start.

Obviously, my real focus was on making the thing drawn. Doing the hands-on work. It became quite clear that although drafting and sketching is enjoyable, and a useful part of my bag of tricks, what I really want to be doing is raising the physical object into reality. My pre-class drafting box folly was proof of that.  

After more than twenty years, I may have forgotten the intracies of drawing three-point perspective, but I still use that drafting box. A lot of projects have passed over its drawing surface. 

Monday, March 15, 2010


Today I fingered my keychain as I got in my car. It has been slowly growing as to number of keys. I've even indulged in a little faux-key that is really a tiny pocket knife. I used to hate having to carry too many keys. I would make keychains that pulled apart so I could travel light. But after several instances of not having a key on me when I needed it, I accepted that the locks and locations in my life need for me to have the keys on hand.

When I was a kid, I had a cigar box full of keys. To me, it was a wondrous collection. I enjoyed having them in that box, and I would go through them from time to time.  I think many of them came from my dad, perhaps from locks he no longer had, or houses we no longer lived in.

 I would add to the collection, usually from finding a cast off key in the street somewhere. There was a sense of loss when I came upon a lost key, at least a sense that the owner had suffered a loss--what would they do without it? It represented access to a unique location, a door or a chest or something that needed to be locked. And unlocked.

I knew that each key was unique, that a key only fit a certain lock. Sometimes I would line them up with each other, looking for keys that were cut alike. The different shapes of the heads of the keys were something I could arrange in groups. I preferred brass, and liked the Lego-like jagged edges of some keys over the smallish Kwikset pattern with it's Volkswagen "VW"-like cutout. Skeleton keys for old mortised locks held extra charm. From their bony name, and from the idea that many of them would fit a wide number of door locks. The elusive "Master" key was a tantalizing concept.  Once I'd outgrown wanting to be a trash collector, I harbored visions of becoming a locksmith. (the garbagemen in our neighborhood frolicked with early morning raccoons, and hung in daredevil fashion from their awesome truck. Didn't you want to be a trash collector? I thought everybody did.)

The weight of my box of keys felt like a stash of coins. I may have had the idea that at some juncture, a lock somewhere would need unlocking, and maybe, just maybe,  I would have the key to fit. I did like to be prepared for anything, but never was asked to produce such a key.

There were several personal additions to the box.  Keys from bike locks I had lost,  and old skate keys.  Or more poignantly,  from houses I had moved from.  I had moved some 3,000 miles when I was nine, across an ocean.  I would revisit particular old house keys with a feeling of sentimentality. Those house keys were a touchstone to my former homes.

 I have a lockbox on my office shelf now, that holds the keys to houses in other states, houses for which I still have active ties. Somehow the keys in the lockbox are less alluring; they represent responsibility.  My treasure box of keys seemed to represent possibility more than anything else.

When the day finally came that I no longer saw the need to keep that cigar box of keys,  I was somewhat at a loss for what to do with them.  I didn't need to worry about keeping them secure, they were obsolete. But as I grew older and acquired more things, it seemed silly to keep them around.

 I reluctantly threw them in the trash. I wonder what the garbageman thought when he saw them.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Go Fly a Kite

Benjamin Franklin had his turn. Had mine yesterday. Took a friend and two kites to an open field, and we let them fly.


It was in a large way just an excuse to get outside on a rare warm Colorado winter day.  The thermometer made it to 50 degrees which brought thoughts of spring to the foreground. Being Colorado, the snow is sure to return a few more times, so days like yesterday are meant to be siezed upon.

Flying kites seemed like the thing to do.  The kites had been purchased on an impulse a few weeks ago. Long plastic tubes contained cleverly fashioned fiber skeletons with nylon fabric skins.  One, a butterfly, the other, a cheeky dragon with realistic shiny green eyes.  It took less than 5 minutes to arrange each one for flight. Kite string reels were pre-assembled and ready to hook to the string harnesses on the kites.

If you know Colorado, you can think of at least two reasons why kite-flying in this locale might be a fool's errand.  (Not including that it is child's play and my childhood days are a few decades gone....)  The first reason in most seasons would be the nature of the wind. Notoriously fierce, that is.  In the spring especially, gusts of 50 miles per hour are not uncommon. Easy to imagine losing a kite to the stratosphere, or at least the next county.  The other reason is more sobering, and may exclude a large part of the summer from safe kite flying.  Thunderstorms and lightning strikes occur here in abundance, perhaps more than any other state in the union. 

No worries about lightning on an early March day, thankfully. The warm winter day also  proved ideal in the wind department, even perhaps a bit on the slack side.

I'm no Benjamin Franklin, but I found myself analyzing the effects of the wind at different heights from the ground. The flying field we chose had a small berm at the south end, and the prevailing wind near the ground was coming from the south. It seemed to me that it helped to move some distance north of the berm to get a bit more consistent wind.  The kites we were using each came with a cheap plastic wind meter; if I read mine right (and if it was accurate) we had less than 5 mph of wind at the site. After a while, I observed that any attempt to let out my kite to a height further than some 20 or 30 feet from the ground resulted in a quick collapse, and several times the dreaded "death spiral."  When I maintained flight at the lower level, my dragon held its posture nicely, with decent tension on the kite string.

After an hour of flying (actually a little less due to the occasional death spirals) I practically had to drag my friend away from the field, she was enjoying it that much. She logged more flight minutes with her butterfly than I did with my dragon.

The view from our location was a great background for our flying friends. I'm looking forward to the next flight.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Because It's There

That's supposed to be what a climber said, when asked why they climbed the mountain. An offhand kind of answer, saying little, yet saying much. But if explaining an elemental need, desire, ambition or impulse, how better to describe the reason? The mountain being there, being what it is: so high, visible for miles, seemingly unreachable, a beacon to the eye. It is there. I am here. I want to be there, be up there. This perhaps is the draw, the siren song of mountains.

There is a great mountain six miles away from my house. Broad based, surrounded by partnering foothills and reaching well above treeline. A mantle of snow clings to the steep upper features. A picturesque scene. You cannot escape seeing it from nearly any location in the city, the county, even beyond.

Rambling around in this 1920's house, I am amazed to note, not for the first time, that though generally well-appointed with windows, there is not a single one that affords a view of the great mountain. There is one tiny window in an upstairs bathroom, that teases the eye with a hint of the peak. How can that be?

I think of the time when the house was built. The title reveals that the owner was a woman. The building took its place on this street that was the end of the known city limits. The street was the starting point for parades, on the main drag a few blocks west. ( It is still considered the parade start point.) A copy of a faint plot plan with township lines reveals a development wherein the entire block was up for sale as lots.

This corner house with no view has a grand wraparound porch. In recent times I hear the neighbors and passers-by refer to it as "the big house." Smaller houses of varying architecture line the street. Victorian styling is well represented, but bungalow, saltbox, and modest variations on themes appear. Perhaps only one other house approaches the size of this one.

With its seemingly grand position on the street, I can't help but wonder what the original owner thought about the view potential. Did they attempt to site the house for a view, but hit a bureaucratic snag? Was the modest little house to the west built first, and did that dictate that the new house keep its facing windows small to meet some code? I somehow suspect codes were less in evidence at that time. Yet common sense might suggest that neighbors in closely spaced housing would avoid large windows peering over at each other. Perhaps cost was a factor; some fine features on the front of the house bear witness to the pride and means of the owner at that time, but budgets being what they are, it seems likely that cost savings were realized with smaller windows away from the front of the house.

I may never know why the view was dismissed in the planning and building of this house. I do know that it seems strange to me to have to walk down the front steps, and go stand in the middle of the street to see a sight that never fails to impress.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Aah Moments

Little ones. That cause you to stop what you're doing for a moment.

Here are a few:

-Hawk landing on urban porch railing, just outside the window

-Walt Whitman poetry read on the radio

-Flames waving from the center chimney of a Thai soup kettle

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Coffee Dreams

Ran away to the coffee shop this afternoon. Bottomless cup, scone, wi-fi, not much else. I tipped the jar.

Local coffee house, not a chain; they roast their own.

Watercolors on the walls, I think one of the baristas is the artist. I like one of a funky car garage, iconic old cars in view, a '50's architecture building. Looking northwest from the cafe, the building appears in real-life cameo. Still in honest use as a repair garage.

I like that.

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