Category Archives: Around the Watercooler

Freddie Mercury as Nietzsche’s Overman

Who is, really, Nietzsche’s Overman? What do we know about his Overman, der sogennanter Übermensch? The first clue is the preposition ‘over’. The preposition may carry a sense of overlooking or passing over. The verb übersehen carries this connotation, as in “Sie hat mich auf der Party übersehen (She had ignored me at the party).” But this is not the sense in which Nietzsche uses it. He uses it more in the sense of ‘overcome’. The Overman ‘overcomes’. But what does he overcome? He overcomes man; he is ‘over’ man. Here a most interesting question arises: what does it mean to be over man?

To be over man, one does something that is hard for man to do. So then the question becomes: what is the hardest thing for a man to do? It turns out that the hardest thing is the eternal recurrence. Nietzsche calls the eternal recurrence the ‘greatest weight’ in section 341 of The Gay Science where he encapsulates the idea in the parable of the lonely demon:

The greatest weight.–What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence–even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.” If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, “Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?” would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

The point of the parable of the lonely demon is, of course, that few can withstand one life, let alone the eternal recurrence of endless lives. For evidence, look around at how quickly despair sets in. In just a few decades, many tire of being alive. To handle the greatest weight, an Overman became necessary. Man was not up to the task.

Nietzsche’s Overman is greedy. He is someone insatiate of life, someone who eats up existence. He is yes saying and life affirming. Pain and joy are children’s toys from the perspective of eternity. The Overman is the one who says: ‘I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now’. Who else can the Overman be if not Freddie Mercury?

Freddie Mercury has the life affirming spirit. He will have the pain and the joy and the small and the great. He has the force of life, which is the will to power. Only the Overman has the gall to say, ‘I want it all’ and qualify his want by saying, ‘It ain’t much I’m asking, if you want the truth’. The nerve! Remember, the song came out in 1989, right after his AIDS diagnosis. But instead of despair, he is living it all and giving it all. He will not be crushed. It is in this sense the Overman is over man. He asks for no quarter, nor gives quarter. The universe deals him a death sentence, but he still desires to have it all, to have it again and again, time without number, such is his hunger for life. The Overman is the personification of appetite for existence. And that is why Freddie Mercury is Nietzsche’s Overman.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Coherent Audio – Retro 15 Neo Be Speaker Review

This is a review of the “Retro 15 Neo Be” speaker. It’s a drop-dead gorgeous horn-loaded and hand-made speaker by Frank Fazzalari, founder of Coherent Audio, a small Canadian speaker manufacturer operating out of Stoney Creek, Ontario. The speaker measures 22″ long x 13″ deep x 34″ high. They sit on small stands which raise them 7″ off the ground. This places the tweeter at approximately ear height for seated listeners. On the rear of the cabinet there are two ports. Rear wave resonances are tamed by lattice slats inside the cabinet rather than the more commonly seen polyfill insulation. The front baffle sounds solid when you knock on it. The sides sound less solid. And the top sounds hollow. I believe Frank has tuned the cabinet by using panels of different thicknesses. Like Audio Note speakers, these cabinets are designed to resonate. This philosophy of cabinet design contrasts with the current craze to make cabinets as inert as possible by using multiple layers of composite materials or, in some cases, aluminum enclosures.

The speakers probably weigh close to eighty pounds–one person can move them, but with difficulty. The level of woodworking, from how the terminal posts are inset into the cabinet to how the model name is stamped into the cabinet, is superb. I think of these speakers as a piece of fine furniture that happens to convert electrical into sound energy. Size and finish wise, they bear a physical resemblance to the DeVore Orangutan O/96, another lovely and well-regarded speaker.

This is the demo pair from Coherent Audio’s booth at the 2017 Toronto Audio Visual Entertainment Show, otherwise known as “TAVES.” There they were powered by a Triode Amps 2A3 setup, a captivating combination of a lower power tube amplifier with a high efficiency speaker. Since there were no local dealers, I travelled to Toronto to have a listen. Also on the listening list at TAVES were the JBL Synthesis K2 ($80,000), the GoldenEar Triton Reference ($11,000), and various speakers by PMC. PMC champions transmission line cabinets where the rear wave of the speaker goes through a tuned labyrinth. They claim that this results in deeper and more integrated bass than either sealed or ported designs. I find this approach fascinating and wanted to have a listen. The GoldenEar Triton References were appealing because their low-end has been compared to that of the legendary Mirage M3s, a speaker I lived with and enjoyed for many years. They could produce subterranean bass that energizes the room. To be able to charge up a room is great fun. And the JBL I wanted to hear because JBL is a legend and the K2 was there attempt at a state-of-the-art horn design. Unlike the speakers by Coherent, GoldenEar, and PMC, I was not planning on buying the K2s. At $80,000 it was listening only! In the end, I purchased the Coherent Retro 15 Neo Be demo pair from Frank for $11,165 (CAD), shipping included. They were 3 months old, so they were pretty much new. At the time of writing this review, I’ve enjoyed the speaker for a year. This last year I moved, so I’ve also experienced how they perform in different settings.

At the heart of the Coherent Audio Retro 15 is a modified Radian 5215 15″ Neo Coaxial Speaker. These bad boys are designed for commercial applications, boast a 700 watt AES power handling capacity (!), and retail for $1200 (CAD) each. A 3″ horn loaded driver handling the frequencies above 800 Hz is built into the dustcap of the 15″ treated paper woofer, hence the “coaxial” designation. The advantage of coaxial designs is that the low and high frequency drivers are time-aligned. Conventional speakers that have separate woofers and tweeters mounted on a panel are not time-aligned: the different frequencies arrive at the ear fractions of a second apart, smearing the presentation. Heroic crossover design can ameliorate this, but with a coaxial speaker, time alignment happens automatically. The Radian 5215s combine two great technologies. They are time-aligned. And they are, above 800 Hz, horn loaded, which makes them super efficient. With one or two watts of power, they will fill most rooms with concert hall levels of sound. On a side note, Radian is the last manufacturer who still builds and assembles all their drivers in the USA.

What modifications has Frank done to the Radian 5215? He took off the dustcap so you can see the high-frequency horn in the centre of the speaker (no grilles come with the speaker). And he discarded the Radian designed crossover with an autoformer of his own devising. You see, the 5200 series Radian drivers were designed for punishing commercial use. The crossover was designed to protect the speakers, not for audiophile sound. Sound wise, it’s like a horse-blanket. Frank’s genius was to recognize that, if he could come up with an audiophile crossover, the Radian 5215 could be the centrepiece of a world-class home loudspeaker. Traditional crossovers use resistors to match different sensitivities of low- mid, and high-frequency drivers. Autoformers match drivers of different sensitivities by multiplying impedances. Autoformers are much more expensive than resistors. They are, however, much more efficient than resistors, which dissipate the power produced by the amplifier as heat. With autoformers, the amp never has to produce this extra power since the driver appears to the amp as a higher impedance device. The “first watt” crowd will love the autoformer concept: musical purity favours simpler, lower power designs. Klipsch is another manufacturer that combines high-efficiency horns with autoformers, at least in their “Heritage” line.

Horn loudspeakers are the holy grail to me. Horns are efficient. Two or three watts of power is sufficient. No need for half-kilowatt monster amps. You have your choice of any amplifier. Single-ended triode?–check. Output transformerless OTLs?–check. Class A tube or transistor?–check. Huge Krells?–you could use these too. The horn colouration, if anything is an advantage. Commercial speakers, because efficiency is important, are invariably horn loaded. As a result, we naturally associate the sound of horns with live music. Though horns can play loud, they sound extremely pleasing at low volumes. This is true of the Coherent Retro 15s as well as the Klipsch LaScala, another horn I lived with happily for many years. They are a great late night speaker. Horns are quite different than Magnepan panels in this regard. I have owned the MG-II and, more recently, the 3.7i. I love them, but you always are reaching for the volume to turn them higher, and they just soak up the power. Not so with horns. Late night listening sessions are possible with horns. Horns take you closer to the music, as they project more direct sound towards the listener.

While both the Coherent Retro 15s and the Klipsch La Scala use horns, the sound from the Retro 15s is more refined. The La Scalas, on the other hand, tend to grab you more viscerally. Another difference between the two is that the bass driver on the La Scala is a folded horn (a type of compact horn). The bass (and low midrange) handled by the 15″ woofer on the Retro 15s is not horn loaded. As a result, the cabinet size of the Retro 15s is about half the size of the La Scala, which is massive. Both speakers seem to put out a ton of bass. But it’s different bass than the bass from the latest ported speaker designs with multiple low-end drivers such as the Mirage M3 or the GoldenEar Triton References. Those speakers can convulse rooms. The bass from the Retro 15s and the La Scalas is more airy. And since many owners of horn speakers will be using low powered tube amps based on 300B or 2A3 tubes, the bass will have the bloomy tube sound. I’ve had tubes in the past, having built single ended 300B and OTL kits (I build speakers too, which is great fun). But right now, the Coherent Retro 15s are being powered by a Devialet 120 amplifier. It’s an all-in-one design, perfect for condo living: built into one box the size of a bathroom scale is a class A/D amp, a digital-analog converter (DAC), a world-class digital preamp, and a wireless function where you stream music from your computer. No more unsightly box and wire clutter from preamps, amps, transports, and D/A converters. Yay!

Frank expressed surprise when I told him I was going to be using the Devialet with his speaker. He’s built and tuned his speaker to work with tubes. At the show, he demoed the speaker with a 2A3 tube amp. What I love about the Devialet, however, is that it is dead quiet. It is dead quiet, dead accurate, and like horn speakers, it is–being a class A/D amp–efficient. At its hottest the chassis gets up to 45 Celsius. I’ve had tube amps I could fry eggs on. You know, the ones that input 100 watts of power and deliver 2 watts to the speakers. Who needs such inefficiency anymore? I love the Devialet’s analytic and revealing sound. Tubes are fun, but their euphonic characters sometimes add a pleasant bloom to the sound that isn’t there. This bloom masks subtle sonic cues and emphasizes others. Devialets are all about control and efficiency. And yes, you can use them with horns. My Devialet 120 started off as a Devialet 110 five years ago (purchased in 2013 sight unseen). It became a 120 from a free firmware upgrade. We’ll see more and more audio manufacturers take this route in the future. This is as good as Tesla owners who wake up one morning to find they have the new ‘ludicrous’ mode update.

How to the Coherent Retro 15s compare to other horns? Just as they were more refined than the La Scalas (a speaker I’d very happily purchase again), the JBL Synthesis K2s were that much more “airy” in the top end than the Retro 15s. But whereas the Synthesis K2s are a three-way design, the Retro 15s are a time-coherent two-way design. As I get older, I favour simplicity. Two-way rules! Then there are the Tannoy Ardens, another 15″ dual concentric speaker. The Retro 15s, however, blow this legendary speaker out of the water. I auditioned a used pair (with new surrounds in great condition) driven by McIntosh electronics. Like the Retro 15s, they had a big, big, lifelike sound. Perhaps even bigger than the Retro 15s, which have a laser focus to their presentation. But the bass from the Ardens was absolutely out of control. Bloated, big, and flabby. Some may like their gigantic presentation. But, to me, they’re out of control. I’ve also heard the Avantgarde Duos, but it’s been too long to draw comparisons. I do remember that I loved the sound of these beautiful art-pieces and that the powered DSP bass was module was a great idea. They must be going for close to $25,000 (CAD) these days, so they’re out of my price range. At least right now. Maybe one day down the line though. The Avantgarde Solo was in my price range, but they sounded congested.

Here’s one feature of horns that I find very interesting. I used to live in a New York style loft condo: the upstairs is open to the downstairs. One thing that horns do that no other speaker does is that they sound very lifelike from the next room. The speakers were downstairs, and I had a home gym upstairs. When working out, when the horns were playing, it would sound like a real band was playing downstairs. When I had box speakers, it would never sound that real. And the Magnepans sounded downright wrong. It must have something to do with the radiation pattern of the sound?

Now another interesting thing about all these high-efficiency horn speakers (the Retro 15s, La Scalas, Ardens, and K2s) is that, while they seem to pump prodigious bass out of huge boxes, they don’t actually go that deep. The lot of these speakers go down to the low 40s before dropping off. Considering that conventional ported box speakers with 8 or 12 inch drivers can routinely get down to 35 Hz or lower, this doesn’t seem so impressive. Of course, conventional box speakers are much less sensitive and need to be paired with big amps to achieve this. So low bass must be one of the tradeoffs of a horn design. Here’s how the Retro 15s measured from my listening chair (roughly 12′ from the speakers). Measurements taken with Galaxy Audio Checkmate CM-140 SPL meter:

  • 20Hz 59dB (-17dB)
  • 25Hz 59dB (-17dB)
  • 31.5Hz 64dB (-12dB)
  • 40Hz 66dB (-10dB)
  • 50Hz 68dB (-8dB)
  • 63Hz 66dB (-10dB)
  • 80Hz 76dB (0dB)
  • 100Hz 75dB (-1dB)
  • 125Hz 79dB (+3dB)
  • 160Hz 77dB (+1dB)
  • 200Hz 78dB (+2dB)
  • 250Hz 80dB (+2dB)

The Retro 15s measured similarly in my previous condo:

  • 20Hz 60dB (-24dB)
  • 25Hz 61dB (-23dB)
  • 31.5Hz 69dB (-15dB)
  • 40Hz 73dB (-11dB)
  • 50Hz 81dB (-3dB)
  • 63Hz 87dB (+3dB)
  • 80Hz 84dB (0dB)
  • 100 81dB (-3dB)
  • 125 79dB (-4dB)
  • 160 86dB (+2dB)
  • 200 84dB (0dB)
  • 250 84dB (0dB)

They’re fairly flat from 50Hz and up. The 50Hz (-8dB) and 63Hz (-10dB) dips at my current place have more to do with the room than the speaker. They drop off fairly sharply in the 40s and have useable bass down to the low 30s. One thing that’s been illuminating from measuring speakers: a “big” sound isn’t the same as deep bass. A lot of box speakers (such as the Mirage M3s and the Golden Ear Triton Reference) go lower, but the horns sound much bigger. Instruments and voices sound more solid, like they occupy a real space. Box speakers have a leaner, smoother presentation. Horns are raw and elemental. One of my friends, a jazz singer, commented that these were the first speakers she could make out subtle changes in pitch and timbre in her favourite vocal recordings.

To fill in the bottom octave, I went out searching for a subwoofer. Like many of you, I’ve had subs in the past. There was a Yamaha, a B&W, and Hsu. The Hsu ULS-15, a sealed 15″, was actually quite nice. And a good deal. I’ve never been able to perfectly mate the sub to the mains, though. The ULS-15 (with wireless option!) was probably the best of the bunch (the B&W was 12″, too small), but they were matched with the Magnepan 3.7i, a brilliant and exceedingly frustrating speaker. After much research, I ordered a Rythmik FV15HP. It’s a 15″ aluminum cone self-powered dual-ported sub. It is big and it plays at -2dB at 17Hz or -6dB at 12Hz. That’s pretty impressive. I use it with one port plugged. After months of hair-pulling tuning, fidgeting with knobs and controls, and moving things around, here are the frequency measurements with the sub at the listening chair:

  • 20Hz 77dB (+1dB)
  • 25Hz 70dB (-6dB)
  • 31.5Hz 71dB (-5dB)
  • 40Hz 80dB (+4dB)
  • 50Hz 77dB (+1dB)
  • 63Hz 75dB (-1dB)
  • 80Hz 76dB (0dB)
  • 100Hz 73dB (-3dB)
  • 125Hz 75dB (-1dB)
  • 160Hz 81dB (+5dB)
  • 200Hz 77dB (+1dB)
  • 250Hz 82dB (+6dB)

Not bad! +/- 6dB across the board! Purists will inevitably poo-poo adding a sub to such a brilliant time-coherent speaker, but purists be damned! The big sub is big fun. And, every once in a while, when a recording has deep bass (Bach organ music, Andy Stott, Portishead), one is rewarded. The sub also does a good job of bringing out bass guitar lines in rock music, say Springsteen. On most music, the effect of the sub is quite subtle, certainly more subtle than the measurements suggest. Unless I were doing A/B comparisons or listening to electronic music with room shaking bass, I probably couldn’t tell if the sub were on or off. The sub is positioned in a corner behind the right speaker. The left and right speakers are placed about 4′ from back wall (measured from front baffle), so that’s just enough room to fit the sub there. The right speaker almost conceals the sub. Almost. Did I say that the sub is big? And for those of you wondering: “Why not a sealed sub?” the answer is that at my old loft-style place the sub had to energize a 15,000 cubic foot space (30’x20’x25′). Although sealed subs may be more musical, a vented sub puts out power. At my new place, it’s quite overkill. It’s coasting along at maybe 10% of its capacity. Nothing wrong with that. Power in reserve.

How do the Coherent Retro 15s compare to the Magnepan Magneplanar 3.7i? With the Coherent speakers, you’re sitting in first row, like it or not. And with the Magnepan speakers, you’re sitting 20 rows back, like it or not. With the Coherent speakers, the treble is crisp. With the Magnepan speakers, the treble is silky smooth and extends into the air. With the Coherent speakers, you can hear where the left and right speakers are. The centre image is stable and focussed. The soundstage is contained between the speakers. With the Magnepan speakers, it’s harder to heard exactly where the left and right speakers are. The centre image is diffuse. The soundstage extends far beyond the edges of the left and right speakers, and the depth is awe-inspiring. The Coherent speakers are ever-present. The Magnepan speakers are ever-distant. With the Coherent speakers, the midrange is detailed and palpable. With the Magnepan speakers, the midrange is detailed and recessed. With the Coherent speakers (without the sub), the bass is articulate and light on its feet. With the Magnepan speakers, the bass is, well, different. The Retro 15s will play all types of music: from heavy metal to Lieder and from Bruckner’s symphonies to Woody Guthrie, they will perform. Despite what some aficionados say, the Maggies do not like Motorhead. I found that, with the Maggies, I would listen more to choral and symphonic works. The Maggies are good at recreating the empty space around the instruments such as the interior space of a cathedral. But their ability to do this comes at the expense of recreating the exciting and visceral punch of rock music. With the Coherent Retro 15s, I found myself tapping my feet more often. With the 3.7i, I found myself cranking up the volume and closing my eyes more often.

Frank hasn’t been the only audiophile interested in the Radian coaxial drivers. Live Act Audio out of Germany uses the same driver in their Emotion and Reference Series of speakers. The Emotion Series employs one coaxial driver in a ported box. The Reference Series employs a single coaxial driver with multiple bass drivers. Their Live Act Series 115 (LAS 115) is the closest model to the top of the line Retro 15 from Coherent. Front instead of dual rear ports. Similar size. Full floorstander, as opposed to the Retro 15, which sits on a compact 7″ stand. But while the Retro 15 retails for $11,165 (demo model, includes delivery), the LAS 115 retails for 29,990 Euros ($45,000 CAD). I don’t even want to know how much Live Act Audio’s top of the line Live Act Series 512 costs: it employs four 12″ bass drivers with a single 12″ Radian coaxial driver in a 2 – 1 – 2 configuration. I’m sure it sounds great. And I’m sure it goes for six-figures.

Though Coherent Audio is a small Canadian company run by what seems like a husband and wife team, local audiophiles seem to have heard of their speakers. The reason may be that there is a huge (well, huge by audiophile standards) following for Tannoy dual concentric speakers. The offerings from Coherent Audio offer a very viable and attractive alternative to purchasing used Tannoy speakers. The pair of Ardens I auditioned, for example, must have been 40+ years old. They had new surrounds put in at Sound Hounds. The cabinets had been reveneered and in great shape, but nothing like the beautiful fine furniture finish Coherent offers. For example, the Ardens have wood veneer sides, but sport a plain black front baffle. The Ardens were going for $3000. I offered $2800, but the owner wanted $3000 firm. And I’m sure he got it. In a way, I’m glad he didn’t accept my offer. Now I have the mighty Coherent Retro 15s. But if he had accepted my offer, it wouldn’t have been all that bad. The nice thing about vintage is that you can enjoy the speakers for a few years, and turn around and sell them for the same price. Rob at Q-Electronic has also heard about Coherent Audio and the Radian drivers. He’s going to come by for a listen one day. And if he likes them, he’s going to build a pair for his own use at home. Radian drivers are a hidden gem in the audio world.

Here’s a photo of the speakers in the listening room:

The Listening Room at the Global Warming Villa
Front baffle, comes with magnetic bezel around the driver
Dual ports on rear, note how the binding posts are perfectly flush with cabinet

These speakers sound great and look great. Frank is superb to deal with. My biggest worry was the shipping. But it turns out my fears were misplaced. They were professionally packaged in a box within another box. Both speakers were attached onto a single pallet and shrink wrapped. It was a joy to unpack them, as much though had gone into protecting them on their journey across Canada. I’m glad I went to TAVES 2017 to hear these speakers. Although they’re slightly off the beaten path, Frank exhibits regularly and it’s easy to find him. I’m a very satisfied customer.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

A Diabolical Halloween Story aboard the VIA Rail

A Mephistopheles Story

I love my Mephistopheles story. It’s a true story. I’ve told it to a few friends. The ones who are raging atheists (most of them) are skeptical. My religious friends (the minority) find it strange, as in, “Dude, you know, that’s like weird.” So I stopped telling it. But, hell, Halloween is coming up. And, perhaps we can all agree that Halloween gives storytellers an excuse to break out their best ghost stories? If so, keep reading.

Choices, choices, choices

Let’s go back to 2014. I was finishing my last year of work before going on an indefinite sabbatical to finish writing The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. There were enough funds for one more vacation. But it’d have to be frugal. Or relative frugal. A variety of options lay on the table. First option was a guided hiking tour in the Albertan Rockies. Credit card tramping in the Rockies!–what could be better? Nice hike during the day and return to civilized hotel in the evenings. This is my style! Second option was a trip to Kiev, Ukraine. Believe it or not, they were offering round trip airfare, hotel included, starting at $1100. Of course, this was after Russia invaded Ukraine (but before the Malaysian Airlines plane was shot down…). Maybe there was a modicum of danger. But for $1100 dollars all-in to Ukraine, I’ll take a few chances, no problem! Third option was a train trek across Canada. Trains have a certain lore. And you never know how a train trek really rides until you try. Choices, choices, choices.

So, on decision evening, as I was pondering the options, Journey happened to be playing on the stereo. Then the song of songs came on. You know where I’m going with this, don’t you? You know the song that runs:

Just a small town girl,

Living in a lonely world

Took the midnight train going anywhere.

Just a city boy,

Living in South Detroit

Took the midnight train going anywhere.

Never mind South Detroit would actually be in Windsor, Ontario: that’s a great line and a great song. And what is more, Steve Perry was telling me to catch the midnight train! No more decision-making required!

Not Quite Midnight Train (but close)

So here’s where the story starts. The VIA Rail line starts in Vancouver in a grand old terminal close to Chinatown, the “Pacific Central Station.” To get the best view of the Rockies, it’s an evening departure. The train was delayed several hours, so we ended up leaving closer to midnight. I had reserved a sleeper cabin. They’re the coolest things. The cabin is maybe 6′ long x 4.5′ wide x 7′ high. With a window. The bed folds up, and when it reclines, it covers the water closet and the lavatory. Which means, of course, if you get up in the middle of the night, you’ll need to fold the bed up.

Sleep Patterns

Did you know that this sleep routing of ours, the one that says: “get eight hours sleep each night” is a nineteenth century phenomenon? It turns out that in the Middle Ages people slept in shorter intervals, but more frequently. How do scholars know this? Well, there’s a set of early morning prayers for 3am. So people must have been getting up to pray. Some conjecture that the body’s natural sleep cycle may be to sleep four or five hours twice a day. Because we work 8 hour shifts during the day, it’s hard to test this out. But since I was on the train, I was going to give intermittent sleeping a shot.

Sleeping on Trains

Yes, the tracks are loud. No, it was no problem going to bed. Quite easy actually. The sounds of the tracks functions like a white noise. That evening, I had a few beers with the Australian rugby team in the drinking cabin (wow, they sure can pound them back, and so can their wives). Actually, I had been sitting in the corner of the drinking cabin and one of them more or less grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and said: “Some drink with us!” He was so big, I didn’t know if it was an invitation or a threat at first. And I met one of the VIA Rail conductors, M. She was a Catholic lady, originally from Quebec. But she had since found out about this magical land in BC where it’s nice all year round and was living on the islands with her family. She worked the west coast leg of the trip: from Vancouver to Winnipeg. At Winnipeg, she would get on the train going back to Vancouver. She liked her job. It meant being separated from her husband and kids, but the job also gave her a week or two free time between shifts.

After retiring to my cabin at around 11pm, I set the alarm for 3am. At 3 I would get up and read. And look out the window. And just eat in the whole train experience. For this trip, I had brought a special book to re-read by one of my favourite authors: Goethe’s Faust. Every decade or so, when I want to read the story of the good and evil that men do, the lofty heights of ambition and the wretched lows of depravity and loss of direction, I return to this play to relearn the sum of human existence. Faust, of course, is Goethe’s retelling of the old legend of the magician/scholar who makes a bet with the devil.

Goethe’s Faust

My favourite Faust translation is Philip Wayne’s verse translation, easily available as a Penguin edition. I also have a Norton Critical Edition with a helpful commentary: the text is not the easiest to follow. And, to round it off, I also have Kaufmann’s translation which has the German text on the facing page. All three texts came with me on the trip.

At 3am sharp the alarm woke me up. I could hear the beat of the train going over the rails. It was pitch black outside. I turned on the light and propped the pillow on the wall, and dug out Wayne’s verse translation of Faust. Now 3am is actually a great time for reading. No distractions. Quickly, I got to the part where Faust summons up the great earth spirit. And here’s where the trouble started.

I was reading the passage where Faust summons the earth spirit, and it was so powerful that I thought, to do it justice, I really out to be reading it in German. Fortunately, Kaufmann’s edition with the German text was also there. I dug this out and started reading the German lines. And while I was reading the words, they clinged and they clanged together so much like a magic spell, I thought, to really really do the lines justice, I should read them out loud. Which I did. Now halfway through the passage, I started hearing a banging noise from the adjoining compartment. And since I could hear it above the sound of the tracks, it must have been some commotion.

Fearing some disaster (anyone seen Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express?–David Suchet probably has the most convincing film adaptation), I jumped up and went over to M’s cabin (my new conductor friend was staying next door). She opened the door after a few knocks and she looked white like a sheet. I was glad that she opened the door, and sort of awkwardly asked her if everything was okay. And in a sort of awkward way she nodded and said yes. At this point, I didn’t know what to say so I just said I was checking up on her because I thought I heard something. And then I said good night and excused myself. Going back to my cabin, I thought that was weird, but didn’t think too much of it. Maybe I was just hearing things–the excitement of the train had affected the nerves, perhaps? I kept reading.

Breakfast

The next morning, I went down to breakfast. Now breakfast (and all the other meals) aboard a train is a special treat. You’re paired with other folks at the table, and you’re all expected to tell some kind of story about your train experience. But that’s another tale. After breakfast, I went off to the next compartment to read for another hour or so before having a nap. That’s when M. approached me. She apologized for the previous night. She said that she had had a dream. I said that it must have been some dream you were having to make such a racket. And then she said that she dreamt that the devil was sucking out her soul. Now, if you ask my friends, they’ll say that I’m the last person to believe in ghosts and goblins. But even this made me feel odd. I could feel the goosebumps rising. Perhaps Goethe’s spell, in some weird way, had worked? After all, I had been reading the diabolical incantation out loud. Well M. saw my strange reaction. I hastily made something up: “I’m glad it was just a dream,” or something like that and went back to my quarters. And I thought: “Could it really be? Could there be more out there?”

Lunch

After lunch, I was sitting around one of the compartments reading Faust again. M. came by to say hello (on the train people are constantly running into one another, as you can imagine). By this time, I was feeling a little self-conscious, and when she sat down for a quick chat, I made a little move to brush the book aside. You see, on the cover is a picture of Faust with the devil. For obvious reasons, I didn’t want her to see this.

But of course, every time you brush something aside, however discreetly, it unfailingly draws the other person’s eye. We exchanged some pleasantries, but during the conversation I could tell she was trying, in her own equally discreet way, to see why I was trying to conceal the book, which I had brushed off to the corner of the table and was covering with my free hand.

For the rest of the afternoon, we continued to play this cat and mouse game. Each time she came around, I’d brush the book off to the side and then she’d try to see what sort of suspicious book I was reading.

Next Day

The next day, I was chatting with M. again. While we were chatting, the cook came out and joined the conversation. The whole VIA Rail crew quite enjoys being on the train, and, as a result are often in jolly spirits. Now the thing I remember the most about the cook is that, at one point–and it was almost preordained–he asked what I was reading. I said, “Faust,” and thought that was a save, since who these days still remembers the name? Out of a hundred people, if you said “Doctor Faustus,” maybe ten would remember the old tale. And if you said: “Faust,” that number drops down to single digits.

But here my luck ran out: the cook was quite familiar with Faust. “Faust,” he says, “isn’t that the guy who sold his soul to the devil? Cool!” As he said that, you could just see the blood draining from M’s face. She got up quickly and left without a word. I have no doubt in my mind that she put two and two together: her dream of the devil sucking out her soul and the guy in the next cabin reading occult texts. Luckily, the train was almost at Winnipeg, where M. would head back to Vancouver and I would continue on to Toronto.

Happy Halloween!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

The Kingfisher, or the Defining Moment

A few months ago, I moved from downtown Victoria to View Royal. It’s about twenty minutes from downtown. The new place is a condo unit on the Esquimalt Harbour, high bank waterfront. It’s set back about 50′ from the water’s edge and 30′ up. There’s a trail along the harbour complete with tsunami warning signs of a walker being swept out into sea. I call this place the “global warming villa” because, soon, instead of high bank, it’s going to be low bank waterfront. But there’s some time. The City of Victoria is projecting water levels to rise just over a centimetre each year. So at 1.5 cm/year, it’s going to be six centuries before it’s low bank waterfront. I don’t know if I’ll be around that long. But, while I’m around, it’s interesting to watch all the natural patterns that happen around here.

The most interesting thing about this place is watching nature’s cycles. The Esquimalt Harbour, towards the end, is a big mud flat. And, since the global warming villa is right at the end of the harbour, you really notice the tides. At full flood, the water comes, well, within 50′ of the building. At it’s ebb, it goes out a hundred feet and all that’s left of the harbour is a ten foot stream. As you can gather, the water’s not very deep. In fact, there’s an island maybe a thousand feet out: Cole Island. When this area used to be an artillery fortress (Fort Rodd Hill is close by), the munitions would be stored on Cole Island. The local residents say that the water’s shallow enough that they’ve seen intrepid individuals walk out there. Past Cole Island the water gets much deeper. So the first of nature’s cycles you see is the ebb and flow of the tides: at any given time, you never know if you’ll see the sparkling sheen on the water or the brown flats of mud.

Now there’s also the action of the tide coming in and out itself. Sometimes the tide comes in and its hungry. If the wind’s blowing, you can get up to 6″ waves. It actually looks quite aggressive. And then there’s the wildlife. In March, when I was first out here, it was the herons. What a patient bird! The water’s shallow enough that they can walk around. And then they wait. For a long time. For fish perhaps? They’re an awkward flier, which also makes them an interesting specimen for observation. Big wing span. Not very gracious. But their patience has won me over. It’s August now, and they’ve all left, which has bummed me out. Maybe they’ll be back next year? There’s eagles, hawks, turkey vultures, and a bevy of other animals. I see raccoons venturing out into the mud flats by day, which is strange: aren’t they supposed to be nocturnal? And the swans, I am told, when their haunts around Royal Roads University (a couple of kilometres away) become overcrowded, will come up my way. But of all the creatures, nothing has captured my imagination like the herons. Until now.

The other day, I saw this bird dart out of the trees. A smallish bird, maybe a bit bigger than my fist. It hovered for about five seconds maybe twenty-five or thirty feet above the water. It didn’t hover stationary like a hummingbird, but it hovered in these five seconds within a one cubic foot space. As it zigged and zagged within this cube, you could tell from the beating of its wings that it was going all out. And then it dove headfirst, vertically into the water where it plucked out something out. And then it beelined back into the trees. What a sight, especially the precipitous vertical dive! It turns out that this fascinating little bird is a kingfisher.

It strikes me that when this kingfisher hovers and dives headlong, it fulfils its purpose. The moment must be perfect as it strives with every nerve and every muscle to plunge into the bullseye on the water’s surface. This is its defining moment where all of its powers are concentrated on one aim and goal. This is its apotheosis, if such a thing can be said. And then an interesting and important question occurred to me: what is our equivalent of the kingfisher’s moment?

What is our defining moment? Is it a feeling like the one the Pixies describe in their cover of Head On?

As soon as I get my head around you

I come around catching sparks off you

I get an electric shock from you

This secondhand living just won’t do

And the way I feel tonight

I could die and I wouldn’t mind

And there’s something going on inside

Makes you want to feel

Makes you want to try

Makes you want to blow the stars from the sky.

Have you ever felt like blowing the stars out of the sky? That’s a great great line. Even better is the supporting line: “I could die and I wouldn’t mind.” Is this what the kingfisher feels?

Or is the kingfisher’s moment lecturing before a great crowd? They’ve come to hear you, what you have to say. Their attention’s rapt and you are nervous. But as you start talking, you can feel your initial smallness grow into a larger room filling presence. That’s a sort of triumph.

Or is the kingfisher’s moment like the moment when the master sleuth Hercule Poirot exposes the murderer?

Or is the kingfisher’s moment the same as when a prize-fighter drops an adversary onto the hard canvas?

But it seems there’s one big difference between ourselves and the kingfisher. For us to define ourselves, for us to reach that culminating moment where all of our powers are concentrated on one aim, we have to pay the price. In “Death on the Nile,” Poirot sums it up well as he converses with Jacqueline on a listless evening aboard the steamer:

Jacqueline: Ah, well, one must follow one’s star.

Poirot: Love is not everything.

Jacqueline: Oh, but it is. It is. You must know that Monsieur Poirot. Surely you understand?

Poirot: It is terrible, Mademoiselle, all that I have missed in life.

But is the opposite not true of the kingfisher?–to make the dive involves no sacrifice. Rather, not to make the dive incurs a sacrifice, as perhaps a meal is lost. That’s the difference between us and the kingfisher, and thereby hangs a tale.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

2018 SCS Society for Classical Studies (SCC) Annual Meeting

Ever heard of the term ‘bomb cyclone’ or ‘explosive bombogenesis’? Lots of people haven’t. But on January 3rd, lots of people learned what a bomb cyclone and explosive bombogenesis are. The strength of a storm depends on the air pressure: the lower the pressure, the more intense the storm. Why is this? Air is being sucked up during the storm, so the lower the pressure at ground level, the more air is being moved up. ‘Bomb cyclone’ or ‘explosive bombogenesis’ is a measure of how quickly air pressure drops. If pressure drops more than 24 millibars in 24 hours, the result is a bomb cyclone or explosive bombogenesis. Between Jan 3-4, the pressure of the Nor’easter known as winter storm Grayson that was ripping up the east coast dropped 50 millibars. The result was over a foot of snow from Virginia to New Hampshire, flooding along the coasts, wind gusts of up to 120 km/h, and arctic blasts taking the temperature down to -30C (add wind chill to this and this is the chill that goes straight into the bones. Of course, during this time I was travelling to talk at the 2018 SCS in Boston. Not a good idea.

The flight was originally scheduled to depart Victoria Wednesday evening and arrive in Boston Thursday morning. The SCS Greek tragedy panel was scheduled to convene Friday morning at 8AM, so that gave me 24hrs. Lots of time. Or so I thought. The first indication of trouble was a call from WestJet Wednesday morning. They told me Pearson and Logan airports were shutting down. They wouldn’t be able to get me into Boston until 930AM Friday. That doesn’t work. After being on hold for an hour, they were able to reroute the flight: Victoria-Seattle-Detroit-Manchester, NH. The agent had travelled from Manchester to Boston before and remembered that this was a possibility. From Manchester, I would catch a bus. But the catch was I had to leave right away. Okay, it’s a few connections, but game on! I hadn’t packed yet, but I pack light: one backpack. I threw everything in and bolted out the door. Time: just after lunch on Wednesday.

Flash forward. Now it’s early morning Thursday, January 4. Made it into Detroit. Made it into the States. Made it past the customs officer who was having serious doubts about my motives. He asked me the reason why I was travelling. I told him I was presenting at a conference. He asked which university I was affiliated with. I told him I was a free agent, this was a hobby. He asked me if I was getting paid. I said no. It turns out if you travel on your own coin to present a really interesting idea, this raises flags! He eventually let me through after logging onto the SCS website to confirm I was really speaking. I also had to show him a copy of my speech, which, fortunately, I had on me. You know, now I reflect on it, maybe my case is odd. After all, who would spend their own money to tell people about interesting ideas? Silly me!

Now in Detroit waiting for the flight to Manchester. Buses between Manchester and Boston have stopped running. So I’d have to stay overnight in Manchester and catch the first bus out on the 5th. That’s cutting it close, but it’d still get me there in time. 2 o’clock rolls around. Manchester flight delayed, delayed some more, than cancelled. Ouch! But then there are two flights into Boston at 5:36 and 7:36 that are still a go. The storm in Boston ends 7PM so by the time the planes get there from Detroit, the storm would have subsided. Delta rebooks me for the 5:36. Flash forward to 5PM. Flight to Boston delayed once, delayed twice, and then cancelled! Everything into Boston is now cancelled until Friday, January 5. Now this is looking bad to get to SCS in time. Getting bummed out. But hey, one last hope. There’s a flight at 10PM going into Providence. I’d overnight in Providence and catch the MBTA train into Boston in the morning. 40 minute ride. Easy. Flash forward. 9:30 rolls around. No plane. No flight crew. No captain. Flight’s not cancelled yet. Delayed 15 minutes. Then delayed 1/2 hour. Nobody can give any straight answers. Then cancelled. This is the point of maximum despair. Helpless. Hopeless. I email Helene Foley (who’s presiding the SCS panel) to ask whether someone can act as a surrogate presenter. At least that way the paper can see the light of day. At this point I book an airport hotel. I’ve been on the road for 36 hours. One evening sleeping at the airport or plane is okay. More than that is hard. Getting old. I check into a Knight’s Inn. When I get there, it turns out they are overbooked too.

One nice thing about getting stranded in the airport is that you talk to people you’d normally never talk to. There’s one guy, Jignesh, he’s studying computer science in Boston, going for the mighty MA. He’s from India. His goal is to make a six figure income. We get talking, he’s asking how I passed the day. I tell him I’ve been trading stocks (some dividends rolled in and I ended up buying some Brookfield preferred shares BAM.PF.D, Clearwater Seafoods CLR, and American Hotel Income Properties REIT HOT.UN). So we start talking about stocks and he tells me to go onto Youtube. It turns out before he came to the US to study computer science, Jignesh was a stock analyst for CNBC in India–there he was, in a suit and tie, analyzing stocks on Indian TV! Then there’s a lady, Yvonne. She owns a farm in Zimbabwe with her son. She’s visiting her sister in Washington. She grows corn on her farm, it’s got an automatic drip irrigation system. Also grows ginger which she’s starting to export to Europe. She had some photos. The system is more sophisticated than I thought it would be. We talk some politics. It turns out Zimbabwe was ruled by a president-dictator who had just been ousted by the military. If the new guy enacts some democratic reforms, things could go really well there. Fingers crossed for her! This is the first time I’ve heard of a ‘good’ military coup.

Now it’s 4AM presentation morning. I’m back at the Detroit airport waiting for McDonald’s to open (sausage mcmuffin and coffee) and praying that the 5AM to Boston will depart as scheduled. Jignesh and Yvonne slept at the airport, they ask me if my nerves are getting frayed. I tell them I’ve been disappointed so many times now that the feeling is one of resignation. So now 430AM rolls around, the captain and flight crew are standing around but no plane at the gate. The gate moves, then moves back. Everyone’s still standing around. 5 rolls around. Then 530. A plane shows up at the gate. The crew get in. We’re told depart at 630. 630 rolls around they say the plane’s too cold. Too cold?–get us on the damn thing! Finally we start boarding a little before 7. Once on the plane, I have a little snooze. At this point, I’m passed the point of caring. The body is just tired. It’s been close to 48 hours of travel. That’s long enough to fly around the world! Too long.

I’m not even sure when the plane gets into Boston. Almost mechanically, I jump up and run for the taxi. Lucky for me, no checked baggage! Outside, there’s snowbanks everywhere and its damn cold (the sort of cold that hits your bones), but the road crews look like they’ve pulled an all-nighter. I jump into the cab, ask him to take me to the Boston Marriott post haste. When we get there, I notice the hotel is huge! Registration for the SCS is on the fourth floor. Out of breath, I ask for directions to where my panel is (SCS is huge: 84 panels, a ton of poster sessions, an publishers exhibition hall, a live play, awards ceremonies, and private receptions spread over four days and two hotels, it’s a zoo). Luckily, the seminar room is close by. I run in there like a bat out of hell.. and hear the words of my presentation!

As I burst in, everything stops. I must have looked like a madman. 48hrs on the road. Hardly any sleep. In my big winter jacket and all my travel gear. It turns out the SCS panel had thought the flight was still delayed. They had waited until the other speakers had presented, and then were nice enough to find a surrogate presenter. But there I was. I made a joke about low-probability events (since that was the topic of the presentation and the snow bomb cyclone was certainly low-probability) and there were some chuckles and nods. A fortuitous start.  I stepped up to the mike and delivered the presentation, relishing every moment of it. And though I felt beat, there was so much adrenalin, I felt the thrill of being up there. It felt like it was meant to be. This is what I live for! Though presenting isn’t theatre, there’s something very theatrical about it. Wow, what a rush! This is a campfire story for the ages!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work on the run.

Eagle Creek Surgical Centre (View Royal, BC)

It’s great to have been part of the construction team at Victoria’s newest medical facility, Eagle Creek Village Surgical Centre in View Royal. The facility is right next to Victoria General Hospital and is run by a Calgary company called Surgical Centres. Here’s their ‘About Us’ blurb from their website:

Our goal is to give you timely access to world-class surgeons who are using advanced technology. And as Canada’s largest and longest-serving broad-based private surgery company, we can do that. Since 1988, we’ve helped more than a quarter million people get access to the surgery and diagnostics they need; from spine surgery, orthopedic surgery, and endoscopy…to plastic surgery, corneal transplant, carpal tunnel surgery and more. Our staff and surgeons continually receive the highest ratings from our client surveys, something we pride ourselves on.

We work with organizations like the Workers’ Compensation Board, Regional Health Authorities, Department of National Defense and other third-party payers like your insurance company.

They’re going to start off by doing day procedures and endoscopies and then branch out to more complex procedures involving overnight stays (they have four overnight rooms). My friend DR who works at WCB and looks after injured workers is looking forward to reduced wait-times to treat folks who’ve been involved in workplace accidents.

Construction of the Surgical Centre

It was a challenging and rewarding project. Because it was such a fast paced project, a coworker, GM, from my days with Bayside Mechanical enlisted my help. GM now heads the Vancouver Island division of PML, Professional Mechanical and they had won the contract to install the mechanical scope of work, which includes plumbing, air conditioning, sheet metal, medical gas, fire protection sprinklers, insulation, and controls. Speaking of fast paced, did you know that they ripped open the roof in a functioning office building in the middle of winter to upgrade the structure so that it would support all the additional rooftop mechanical equipment? And for those of you in nicer climes, yes it snows and rains here.

I was holed up there in a construction shack from October to May. Actually, the office was rather nice. It had a waterview of the Gorge, for one. I didn’t know you could see the water from there. That will be nice for the doctors and patients. The views of the woods and farmland on the north side are also spectacular.

Lots of eye opening experiences. One of them was seeing the 275 ton mobile crane, (largest on the island) in action. This thing is a monster with a jib that goes up to heaven! Expensive too, all-in the rental was in excess of $2000/per working hour (that includes the 6 hours to assemble and disassemble). Though I’ve project managed care facilities before, this was my first experience with a full hospital. There’s sterilizers, washers, ultrasonic cavitators, macerators, RO water, filters: you name it! Thanks especially to GM, JB, MS, and KS for their help and tips. The Mechanical Contractor’s Association of BC had a writeup of the project in their Spring 2017 edition, thought I’d share this with all the assiduous readers out there. Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work in a roundabout way.

MCABC_Spring_2017_FINAL

Captive Capital: A Reply

Assiduous reader LH posted a thoughtful reply to the last post on the idea of captive capital in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

I’m wondering about the logic in this line of argument. There is too much absolutist terminology for my liking such as “If you don’t like Scrooge, you are against captive capital. If you are against captive capital, you think money should be free, not hoarded. ” It’s not either/or – there’s a balance. Saving does not equate to hoarding.
As one who does not have a pension (as is the case for most in our country) if I do not save (or “hoard” in your language) I become the grasshopper not the ant. My income is such that I can (and should) do that. At the same time I give and it has become a significant part of who I have become. Through this all I have been struck by two truisms: 1) the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil and 2) it is better to give than receive. I am by no means the poster child for these truths but when I have opportunity to encounter those (all too rare) “aha” moments I am always struck by them and would like to think that on some level this affects me at a deeper level to cause change and, perhaps, bring me more in alignment with God (or whatever you want to call that Transcendent Other).
This is what I think happened to Scrooge. When he gave he was having a profound encounter with a notion that moving away from a sense of “self and self alone” (which I think is really at the core of hoarding) and other narcissistic values brings surprising happiness and freedom. I think part of Dickens’ genius in his story (and in other bits of his extensive writing) is in communicating the serendipity of this action. If you read a biography of Dickens you will learn that he was a philanthropist at heart and found great joy in indulging in his giving.
I wish all readers the opportunity to experience that freedom and joy this Christmas and perhaps wonder where this comes from – is it some objectifiable neuronal endorphin-related phenomenon or is there something more consequential “out there” that our soul is responding to?

Captive capital is capital in the form of stocks and bonds which is no longer traded. It is held by hoarders (such as Scrooge), university endowments, pensions, and sovereign wealth funds. Once capital becomes captive, it desires to grow. It does not want to be disturbed. It does not want to be drawn down. It may make disbursements–such as when university endowments pay out scholarships–but the idea is for the principle to grow. The danger is that captive capital supports a class of consumers, who, owing to the fact they have an income stream, can now consume without producing. A second danger is that since captive capital grows faster than the GDP, at some point it will become the entire economy. The example I used was the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund. You can see the original post here.

Saving Does Not Equate to Hoarding

Saving does not equate to hoarding: that is the one of the points LH brings in his reply. It’s true. So, in terms of producers and consumers, the following options are possible:

  1. those who produce and consume in equal amounts (i.e. one who makes $10 and spends $10). These are the workers.
  2. those producers who invest a portion of their earnings. Their investments work for them, allowing them to consume more than they produce with their own hands (i.e. a saver who makes $8 with his own hands but, thanks to investment income, can spend $10). These are the savers.
  3. those producers who invest all (besides what is necessary to subsist) of their earnings. Their investments work for them, but they reinvest all the proceeds (i.e. one who can spend $100 but only spends $1). These are the hoarders.

Perfect! Saving does not equate to hoarding. It is a sliding scale. In the most efficient economy (the least captive capital), those who produce consume an equal amount. A less efficient scenario happens when investors begin ‘captivating’ capital: investing it for the purposes of spending the income it generates. But this is not all bad, since these savers are at least spending it. The capital is not entirely captive. The hoarders are the worst case scenario. They invest, but spend the bare minimum. If production and consumption is a cycle, by hoarding they bust the cycle.

The True Problem Isn’t Even the Hoarders

Even though the hoarders’ investments grow faster than the economy (because rates of return on stock market investments typically exceed a country’s GDP), the hoarders aren’t the true problem. Eventually their savings will be freed and will return into the economy. The reason? We all die in the end.

The bigger problem are pensions, endowments, and sovereign wealth funds: they have an indefinite lifespan. The bigger they get, the more privileged one class gets and the less privileged another class gets. To be sure, pensions, endowments, and sovereign wealth funds are beneficial, but at what point do they become too big? Anyone ponder that?

One solution that LH pointed out would be to give back to society. But would enough people do that to offset the damage of captivated capital?

And with that thought: Happy New Years! Party like it was 1999!

I’m Edwin Wong and I look forward to Doing Melpomene’s Work in 2016. See you there!

The Bicycling Big Book of Training – Kosecki

Did you know that lactic acid is not the cause muscle soreness after a long ride? That was based on studies on frog muscles done by Meyerhof in the 1920s. The conventional understanding was that lactic acid was a waste product of exercise, and once muscles were flooded with it, they would become sore. In the last ten years, the data suggests that lactic acid breaks down into lactate, which is another  source of energy. Muscles feel sore not from the lactic acid, but from being torn during the exercise process. You know you’ve been around for a long time when your basic ideas of training get thrown out the window. In The Bicycling Big Book of Training: Everything You Need to Know to Take Your Riding to the Next Level, Kosecki breaks down the myths and lays down the scoop on what it is to train in the twenty-first century.

Best of all, it’s available at your local public library!

Kosecki, Big Book of Training Cover Illustration

Kosecki, Big Book of Training Cover Illustration

Big Book of Training Back Blurb

Cycling is exploding in popularity, and you want in on the action. You’re itching to take up a different style, eager to start a new nutrition regimen, or jouncing to compete in one of the thousands of bike events across the country (or the world). But where to start? The Bicycling Big Book of Training is the ideal guide for any and all beginner and intermediate cyclists who are looking to advance their fitness and training while exploring all that cycling has to offer.

Veteran cyclist Danielle Kosecki covers all of the necessary components of a successful training plan, including:

-Nutrition

-Hydration

-Physiology and heart rate monitoring

She also goes into useful detail regarding:

-How the body becomes fit and how that fitness translates to on-the-bike performance

-How to maintain your ideal cycling weight

-Recovery and pain management tips used by beginners and pros alike to keep their bodies in peak condition

Once cyclists understand how to train and teach their bodies how to stay in the game, Kosecki gives a thorough breakdown of every type of cycling event, from fun and leisurely charity rides to hardcore and competitive cyclocross races–including a week-to-week training plan for each! The Bicycling Big Book of Training is an excellent guide for anyone who wants to learn more about the multifaceted sport of cycling and take their performance to the next level.

Kosecki Author Blurb

Danielle Kosecki is the health editor for Glamour magazine. Past writing gigs include More, Prevention, Atlanta Sports & Fitness, and Caribbean Travel & Life magazines and Fitbie.com. Kosecki is a category 2 road bike racer for CityMD Women’s Racing Team and has hopes of eventually tackling the track, trails, and velodrome. A lifelong athlete, she discovered bike racing while dabbling in triathlon after her collegiate soccer career. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

The Resurgence of Cycling

The book comes out at a good time as cycling is experiencing a renaissance. Why is that? It could be that cycling is one of those sports that you can keep doing forever. It’s not like running or basketball and other high impact sports where, after you hit a certain age, it’s time to hang up the sneakers. In fact, older cyclists seem to be able to maintain their speed quite well. I know this firsthand: having recently joined the Tripleshot Cycling Club, there’s quite a few older cyclists who bike laps around me. The surprising thing is that some of them are in the mid to late sixties, maybe even early seventies. I also run and can tell you that no seventy year old guy is passing me. But it’s different in the world of cycling. The secret to cycling’s success could be that it appeals to the baby boomer demographic. It’s the sport where you stay forever young.

Kosecki covers all the major disciplines of biking: road, centuries, racing, cyclocross, and mountain. Best of all, there’s training programs for each discipline. There’s chapters on exercise physiology. There’s chapters on diet. Strength training and flexibility are all about the core these days. Just like overthrowing the myth of lactic acid, the core training precepts of today seem to revolt against the strength training precepts of thirty or forty years ago. Back then, exercises were steady motions, make sure the back is supported. Now it’s all about balance and the core muscles.

There’s even a chapter on your ideal cycling weight. You plug in your height and do a measurement of your wrist to come up with a factor that takes into account bone size. I didn’t do so well here: my ideal cycling weight is 133 pounds. I’m at 155. There’s no way that’s right. The surprising thing is that it’s not even close! I can go between 145 (usually after deathly illness) to 160 (either working out lots or too many pork chops).

All in all, Kosecki’s book is a good read. I felt educated about the latest in exercise physiology: changing views on how the body works (e.g. lactic acid), changing views on strength training (core is everything), changing views on rest and relaxation (it’s as important as training: no more of the ‘no pain no gain’ credo), and changing views on nutrition (more protein, no more carbo loading). Times are changing and it’s nice to see what the latest thinking is. Of course in another thirty or forty years everything we know now will be upended again in an endless cycle. Reading this book makes you wonder how, with the primitive thinking thirty years ago, people were even able to ride bikes and run, let alone compete in races!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work riding a bike.

Tom Danielson’s Core Advantage – Danielson & Westfahl

It’s official: I’m a club cyclist! Joined up with Victoria’s Tripleshot Cycling Club. The deciding factor when choosing between clubs is that Tripleshot offers a lot of group rides. And the rides leave early in the morning (6AM!). One of my goals has been to get up earlier. The will to cycle seems more powerful than the languor of sleep, so might as well use cycling as motivation to get a jump on the day! It’s all psychological warfare.

On the longer rides (80+km)–even those done at a leisurely pace–the first thing to give out is not the legs or the lungs. It’s the lower back. It gets sore. Not a sharp pain. Rather a sort of a deep ache that takes the fun out of the ride. It’s sort of like having a headache: you’re not dysfunctional, but you’re not having a good time either.

Online searches suggested various solutions: get a bike fit, get cleats adjusted, or increase core strength. I’ve been experimenting with the bike fit (saddle height, fore-aft, handlebar height and angle). Raising the handlebar definitely helps, but at the cost of aerodynamics. I’d like to leave the handlebar where it is: just a little below the seat. I don’t think it’s the cleats. But the argument about core strength won me over. There were some basic tutorials online for various core exercises. And a book also turned up: Tom Danielson’s Core Advantage: Core Strength for Cycling’s Winning Edge by Danielson (a pro) and Allison Westfahl (a physiologist and fitness personality).

Tom Danielson's Core Advantage Cover Illustration

Tom Danielson’s Core Advantage Cover Illustration

The library didn’t have the book. But the library does have a wonderful interlibrary loan service. I’ve been using it quite a bit lately. Books seem to take two weeks to come in. The books come in from all sorts of public and academic libraries in BC. If you’re looking for a book and the local library doesn’t have it, chances are you can find it on the interlibrary loan search engine. It’s fast and it works. That’s how I got to read Core Advantage: through ILLO or interlibrary loan. Try it.

Tom Danielson’s Core Advantage Back Blurb

Tom Danielson’s Core Advantage offers a simple, highly effective core strength program for cyclists. This comprehensive approach shows the 50 essential core workout exercises that will build strength and endurance in the key core muscles for cycling―no gym membership required.

Professional cyclist Tom Danielson used to have a bad back. He shifted in the saddle, never comfortable, often riding in pain. Hearing that core strength could help his back, he started doing crunches, which made matters worse. He turned to personal trainer Allison Westfahl for a new approach. Danielson and Westfahl developed all-new core exercises to build core strength specifically for cycling, curing Danielson’s back problems. Better yet, Danielson found that stronger core muscles boosted his pedaling efficiency and climbing power.

Using Danielson’s core exercises, cyclists of all abilities will enjoy faster, pain-free riding. Cyclists will perform simple exercises using their own body weight to build strength in the low back, hips, abs, chest, and shoulders without adding unwanted bulk and without weights, machines, or a gym membership. Each Core Advantage exercise complements the motions of riding a bike so cyclists strengthen the right muscles that stabilize and support the body, improving efficiency and reducing the fatigue that can lead to overuse injuries and pain in the back, neck, and shoulders.

Beginner, intermediate, and advanced training plans will help bike racers, century riders, and weekend warriors to build core strength throughout the season. Each plan features warm-up stretches and 15 core exercises grouped into workouts for injury resistance, better posture, improved stability and bike handling, endurance, and power. Westfahl explains the goal for each exercise, which Danielson models in clear photographs.

Riding a bike takes more than leg strength. Now Tom Danielson’s Core Advantage lays out the core strengthening routines that enable longer, faster rides.

Review

The book is divided into lots of chapters but really it has two sections. The first half persuades you that core strength is the cat’s meow. It also explains the theory behind core training. In a nutshell, core strength is necessary because each time you press down on the pedal, your core (esp. lower back) has to counterbalance against the force of your foot pressing down on the pedal. So cycling uses the core but does nothing to strengthen the core. If your core strength is not up to the task, the back gets sore, your form goes to mud, and you lose power.

A good way to think of it is this: when you do a leg press on the machine at the gym, your back is supported by the backrest of the machine. So you’re using your legs and not so much the core, since the back is stationary. Well, you put out force when you cycle too. But when you’re cycling, you’re not leaning your back into anything. So the core has to keep the body stable as you press the pedal. That’s why the back gets sore. The back is actually doing quite a bit of work! Imagine how harder it would be to do the leg press without the backrest?

I like all the theory in the first half. Most of it is written by Westfahl. Every couple of pages there’s a Tommy’s Take, a few paragraphs by Danielson where he translates the theory portion into real world cycling experiences. It’s a good one-two combo. Westfahl perhaps goes a little overboard in stating the virtues of core training. She never claims that it solves world hunger and is a cure for cancer, but she comes pretty close. Undoubtedly, however, core strength is important. How many bodybuilders do you know who sweep the floor and put out their back? I know a few. It’s the weight machines: by supporting the core for you, it’s actually doing you a big disfavour as now your core strength is out of proportion with the strength or your arms, legs, and chest.

The second half are the exercises and the exercise regimens. The pictures are useful. Westfahl explains the exercises and which muscles they target. There are photos of Danielson doing the exercises to make it easy to follow along. Westfahl’s focus is on dynamic core strength. The plank is among the exercises, but she prefers ones where you are moving around exercises to static exercises: you’re also training your nervous system. This approach makes sense.

Results

I’ve been doing the core workout for three weeks now. After week two I could do some of the more advanced exercises. I’ve also been riding the bike more and more. The lower back is still a little sore after long rides, but it’s getting a LOT better. I’m not sure if it’s the exercises that are helping or just putting the time in the saddle. Probably a bit of both.

One thing that I really like are the exercises that improve posture. On long rides, it always strikes me that the bike riding posture is just very, very bad. It’s worse than sitting in front of a computer screen. A lot worse. Now, I love biking cycling, but the posture is just bad. There are exercises in the book to open up the chest and loosen up the back after it’s been hunched over for so long. I really appreciate those exercises.

So: I enjoy the exercises and plan on continuing to do them. This book is an in-depth look at core strength training and though it’s written for cyclists, really anyone can benefit from it.

Doping

One of the unfortunate things which I hope won’t tarnish the book is that Danielson was suspended for doping for six months in 2012-3 and was caught doping again in August 2015. It’s a great book but knowing about the doping makes it harder to read the Tommy’s Take sections. Those are the parts where he talks about how hard he trains and how core strength gives him the secret advantage over his peers. Reading those sections make you think: maybe it was the drugs?

But perhaps that’s harsh. I’m sure he trains hard, and that doing the core routine is an advantage. The drugs no doubt help as well. A comprehensive 2015 report costing three million Euros commissioned by the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) suggests that doping is still rampant. It is available here. According to the ‘respected cyclist professionals’ interviewed, anywhere from 30% to 90% of the peloton is still doping.

That must be a tough question all pro cyclists face: to dope or not to dope? If you don’t dope maybe you never make it to the top. Maybe you don’t even keep your job! But if you do dope, you lose your reputation. And you bring down the people around you too. I’m sure Westfahl must have had second thought teaming up with Danielson on Core Advantage. Now her name is *gasp* attached with the doper. I don’t mind so much. But some people will.

I’m reminded of an old fable. Death, Love, and Reputation used to be great friends, journeying together everywhere. One day, they decided to spit up. Death said: ‘Friends, if you desire to see me, I can be easily found: go to the site of any of the great battles and I’ll be there’. Love said: ‘I can be easily found as well: you can find me in the castles and the courts where the princes and the ladies hold their balls’. But Reputation said: ‘Think twice before we part, because it is my nature that once I leave someone, they will never see me again’.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m Doing Melpomene’s Work.

Cooking Soap

Last night was soap making night with assiduous first time soap-maker F! Good Planet on Fort Street sells soap making kits with everything you need. They go for $50 or so. There’s a discount on the kits if you’ve attended their soap making classes which I did last year with LH. Well, the kits have almost everything. They have all the raw materials. You supply: safety goggles, a medium pot, a thermometer that can go between 45-80C, and a whisk (or hand blender). The kit comes with the raw materials (lye, fat, essential oils, and organic colouring). They even have a pair of safety gloves. You can also add exfoliant. We picked up some poppy seeds from Market on Yates for exfoliant. Hemp hearts also work.

The first time I made soap, it was in the back studio of the Good Planet store. Tea tree oil. I’ve been using it since then. It lasts a long time. And my skin likes it much better. Commercial soaps (even the dermatologist recommended ones) leave me itchy. Writers have sensitive skin! Well no, I’ve got eczema so I’m always mindful of skin care. Did you know that some commercial soaps cannot even be labelled ‘soap’? They have so many weird ingredients that the bureau of people with nothing better to do makes the manufacturer’s call them ‘beauty bars’ instead. I’m not into hippy stuff, but I definitely am into home made soap.

How Do You Make Soap?

It’s easy as ABC. Allow about 1-1/2. Measure out water (tap water is fine) into a bowl. Whilst wearing gloves and goggles, slowly add lye to the water and whisk. It starts smoking a little bit as the water rises from room temperature to 70. It will take a little while to cool to 45, at which point you pour in the fat. When the lye/water gets close to 45, heat up the fat in the microwave until it’s at 45. While whisking, slowly pour the fat into the lye/water. Make sure not to get any on exposed skin!

It takes a while to whisk. Maybe 15 minutes. It might go faster with hand blender, but that’s just something else to clean up. And it’s good to give the forearms a workout too! As you whisk it, a chemical reaction takes place between the lye and the fat. It’s like gunpowder or cement: it forms a new substance. In this case, after the process of saponification, the lye is no longer lye and the fat is no longer fat. It’s become soap.

Soap after whisking 10 min

Soap after whisking 10 min

After a 15 minute whisking workout, the consistency (which started out like water) gets to the ‘trace’ stage. That’s when you can lift the whisk up, and the soap dripping off the whisk into the pot stays on the surface for a second before melting back into the solution. For example, you could spell out a letter (briefly) or something like that on the surface of the soap solution.

When it reaches trace stage, put the colouring, essential oils, and exfoliant into the mixture. Then pour it all into the wax lined mold:

Pouring soap into mold

Pouring soap into mold

Wrap it in a towel (to keep it warm to the chemical reaction continues) and in a day or two, you can chop it up into blocks. It’s still quite soft. Cures in three weeks. And gets better and harder with time. If you’ve used the right amount of lye and fat, no expiration date: too much fat and it will go rancid. Too much lye and you will burn your skin! As a safeguard, people usually err on the side of a little more fat than the chemical process demands. If you do this, it will last a long time. I’ve had my other soap for over a year and it looks and smells great.

After a day, voila:

Soap curing in mold

Soap curing in mold

Ready to be chopped into blocks!

Why Make Soap?

It’s good value. Good Planet sells the bars for $6. If you get 25 bars from the box, you save $100 from the individual cost (retail cost of individual bars = $150, kit = $50. If you sourced out the materials individually instead of getting the kit, you could probably gets costs down to $20.

It’s good to make things yourself. There’s a certain satisfaction. It’s going back to the roots of things. You’re in control. You feel like you’ve done something. It makes a good gift.

You learn something. Who knew making soap was this easy? And yes, now I know why Blind Willie Johnson and all those other blind blues players went blind: don’t get the lye in your eyes! Take the precautions and it’s 100% safe. Well 99% safe.

What I Learned Making Soap

Do not throw the pots and whisks right in the dishwasher. The dishwasher soap does not clean soap soap and makes more of a mess. Rinse off the soap before putting everything in the dishwasher.

The lye will discolour cutting boards. No biggie. Now I have a soap making memento!

So: if you haven’t done it, give it a whirl! You’ll be glad you did!

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I like to stay clean while Doing Melpomene’s Work.