Friday, September 22, 2006

Moving to Vermont?

I guess I haven't posted much over the summer... But, there does appear to be some news to share. Everything appears to be going forward smoothly for a move to Vermont. The P&S was signed this week and I should know for certain after the inspection whether everything will move forward for a Nov 17 close. The new place is a 2-bedroom house on close to 20 acres in Moretown, VT - which is near Interstate 89 at about the mid-point between Sugarbush and Stowe. It will be quite a change from every other place I've lived - Barrington, Cambridge (college), Everett, Medford, Marblehead and Cambridge again. Not sure if I'll hate it or love it, but I definitely won't know unless I give it a try, so what the heck!

I should have an update with some pictures after the inspection on Monday, Oct 2nd.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Garden - update

The mutant strawberries are starting to appear.  I'm getting about 3-4 each day, but most are very small and/or oddly shaped.  However, the taste is incredible!  I just wish there were more/bigger berries produce each year!
Everything else that was planted seems to be doing (or recovering) ok.  The lettuce which was in the worst shape when planted seems to have recovered.  And the beans which I planted from seed have (mostly) sprouted.  The tomatoes, peppers and raspberries are all looking healthy as well (though much too early to tell how they will produce).
However, the lawn remains in rough shape with a number of weeds adding to the woes.  I think there is slightly more grass each week, but its really hard to tell.  We've certainly gotten enough rain so lack of water is not an issue!  I'll fertilize when Nuke goes on vacation in about a week or two just to make sure she doesn't get any in her tummy.

Kale and Avocados

The "challenge items" (a challenge item is something that I've never purchased or cooked before) in this weeks Boston Organics delivery are a bunch of kale and an avocado (among many other things, it also included cauliflower, but I think I've had that enough that I don't consider it a "challenge item" even though I've never purchased or cooked it before). 
Tonight I steamed the kale and served it with a bit of salt and a bit more pepper.  It was ok - certainly better than anything frozen, but not as good as some of the other things I've been making recently.  I think I'll try a stir fry next - adding a few more ingredients (garlic, soy, sesame) to make the taste a bit more interesting.
I also cooked (steamed) corn tonight in the asparagus pot and it came out pretty good for this early in the season (ie, its not native corn yet).  I also made it to 4 burners going the other night, though I think this was a bit too much as the combined portions were a bit too much for a single meal.

Procrastination - update

Making lists seems like a good way to overcome the procrastination.  Only problem is I keep putting off the making of the lists...  Oh well.  The way the stock market has been behaving its looking more and more like I'll have to return to work at the end of the summer (or at least much sooner than I originally thought - which was never).

Kitchen upgrade continues..

The upgrades in the kitchen continue.  Most importantly is the better food (with Boston Organics supplying a good portion of this each week).  This was followed by an upgrade to All-Clad for the pots and pans and almost a complete replacement for the spices.  So, what's left? 
Well, its time for a new set of knives.  After hours (and hours) of research, I came down to a choice between Wusthof (long shot), Global or Shun, with Shun being the favored choice.  But, just when I was about to head out to make a purchase, I found some additional information about some other Japanese knives and ended up getting a mix of knives from a number of makers - Tojiro (good value for the lesser used knives), Masamoto (Gyuto), Hattori (Santuko) and MAC (bread).  This of course required a number of other items as well - a new knife block (so I can keep a couple of the cheap knives or grow the collection in the future) and a sharpening stone.  I've also ordered a few new cooking books to add to the collection (mostly focused on technique and knowledge of ingredients - not recipes).
Hopefully I'll still have all my fingers the next time you see me.

The bike is back...

The bike repairs are done.  Only charges were for the parts - 2 spokes and the derailleur hanger.  They waived the tune & true fee ($50) which was nice.  I was kind of hoping they would as I suspect a bad initial tune could be a contributing factor.  Total for parts was about $30.  There are a few scratches to the rear frame, but nothing terrible.  It's just good to have the bike back (though it was good to get out running again for a couple of days).

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Quest for a decent cup of coffee...

The quest to make the perfect cup of coffee at home seems to be never ending.  I have purchased so many coffee makers over the years that it's comical.  Each time I go to Europe, I'm amazed at how good the espressos are and come back with renewed energy to try to replicate the same in my house.
The most recent addition was a $30 device called the Aeropress.  Given the low price and strength of reviews, I figured it was worth a try.  After a number of weeks, I'm not impressed.  I've tried a number of different coffee beans and the only thing that has come close to producing a decent cup of coffee are the Starbucks dark roast beans.  But even that was no where close to the best cups I've had.  I'll likely use it to finish off the various beans that I have on hand and then it will be relegated to the basement where it joins a number of others.
Once that happens, the Philips Senseo becomes the primary coffee maker.  The coffee it produces isn't great, but it isn't terrible and its extremely easy, it heats up very quickly and there is no cleanup which are all huge plusses.  As a bonus, the water is a good temperature for green teas (though I prefer a bit hotter) and the serving size is perfect for instant oatmeal (though the oatmeal still needs a minute or so in the microwave).  I purchased a number of pods for it, hoping that one or more would produce that elusive perfect cup.  But this hasn't happened yet.  So, when all the pods are used up (which will be a while), it will be time for another decision - do I buy more pods?  Do I bring the Rancilio Silvia espresso maker back up from the basement?  Do I use the Santos vacuum pot?  Or do I start the search all over and look for something new?

Garmin Edge GPS Annoyance

With the bike in the shop, I decided to go for a run yesterday and thought it would be fun to bring the GPS along to track elevation, speed, etc.  I waited until I was outside before turning the unit on and gave it a few seconds to get a fix.  After about 30-seconds, it didn't have a fix, but I was ready to go so I figured I'd start running and it would eventually get everything sorted out in a minute or two.  Wrong. 
Apparently, the Garmin Edge 305 needs to be stationary while it tries to get its initial satellite lock.  Even moving at jogging speed seemed to put it into an endless search where it could never get a lock on more than 3 satellites.  I'm guessing the situation was made worse by the unit being turned off where the bike broke and then turned back on again about 20 miles away (I think its optimized to re-acquire satellites when turned back on in the same location it was last turned off).  Even so, you would think it would be able to get a lock on a nice clear day while moving at such a slow pace.
So, now there are 2 things to remember with this device.  Don't start moving until it has a satellite lock and remember to hit the start button when you want it to start tracking your movement. 

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Soccer World Cup

I'm not sure why, but I'm starting to get excited about this years World Cup.  Maybe its getting a lot more press than usual.  Maybe its a result of spending a few nights in various bars and pubs in Europe watching the games with the locals.  But, whatever the reason, I'm looking forward to seeing some good matches in the coming weeks.  The US vs. Italy game at 3pm on Sat the 17th should be great fun!  Hopefully the US can survive the group they're in and make it to the next round.  If not, I'm sure there will be another underdog that will be fun to root for.


After a frenzied few days of eBay bidding a week or two back, I have pretty much replaced all my pots & pans with All-Clad stainless and have to say that all the rave reviews are true!  I love them!  They are incredibly easy to cook with and cleanup is a breeze.  Although the stainless is dishwasher safe, the cleanup is so easy that I haven't bothered with the dishwasher. 
I've been preparing all kinds of meals over the last few days - pastas, steamed vegetables, chicken and much more.  With last nights dinner I set a new high for number of simultaneous burners going for a solo meal (ie, the annual Easter dinners don't count) with 3 items going at once (pasta, chicken and steamed spinach).
And, with cooking becoming fun rather than being a chore, I also did a pretty much wholesale replacement on spices that I probably first purchased when I moved to either Medford or Marblehead - meaning they were many, many years old.  Many of the jars contents had discolored over time due to the sun.  So, with the discovery of Penzeys Spices down the street in Arlington, I headed off to get fresh jars of the spices I use and tossed most of the others away. 

Asparagus - Update

Kind of an interesting follow-on to my last post on asparagus.  Every time I entered the downstairs bathroom, I noticed an odd smell after a minute or two - kind of smelled like something rotting or spoiled.  But, every time I tried to locate the source of the odor, I failed.  I was beginning to think it might be coming in through the open window.
Then I noticed a similar smell in the upstairs bathroom.  Perhaps there's something in the water?  Maybe they flushed the hydrants recently?
But then a light bulb went off - maybe I was the source of the odor.  Maybe it came from my urine and that I could never locate the source as I would always flush the toilet before starting the search.  I also thought about what might be different in my diet over the last few days - asparagus!
So, off to google to investigate.  Sure enough, google turned up that this is a very common side effect of eating asparagus.  Who knew!

Monday, June 05, 2006

Bike Breakdown...

After a weekend of rain, today looked like it was going to be a nice day.  No rain, not to hot and only light winds.  Looked like a perfect day to attempt my first 100 mile ride.  So, after taking care of Nuke in the morning, I set out on the bike at about 9:30.  After a bit of reading over the weekend and analysis of my last ride, I planned to focus on cadence for this ride so I flipped the GPS to the view where the cadence RPM takes precedence.  The planned route is going to be similar to the 50 mile ride I did a few weeks back, except when I get to Concord, I'm going to head down route 62 towards Maynard for about an hour or so to add on the additional miles.
Everything is going great, but after I'm through Arlington, I happen to notice the calorie reading is still at 0.  Doh!  I forgot to hit start - even after telling myself over and over not to forget to hit start!  No worries, only about 3-4 miles of data lost.  I hit start and continue on - cadence target is 90 RPM which generally feels Ok, but its definitely putting me in gears a bit lower than I would naturally select to bring the RPMs up.
In Chelmsford (I think), I hit a top speed of 37.5 mph - definitely a lot of fun to be going this fast, but a bit scary as well as the bike seems to want to lift off the ground due to the wind.
I cross through West Concord center on 62, about 30 miles into the ride and feeling great.  But, as I pedal down after stopping at a stop light, the rear wheel locks up and the bike skids to a halt.  Luckily I either get my feet unclipped (or possibly never had time to clip them in) so I'm able to get my feet on the ground safely and take the bike onto the sidewalk.  I thought it was just the chain falling off.  Boy - was I wrong.  When I looked at the back wheel, it was pretty messed up.  Apparently the derailleur hangar snapped throwing the derailleur into the spokes and wedging the chain between the cog and the spokes.  A few of the chain links looked to be in pretty sad shape - one opened up completely.  Looks like it will be tough to fix given that I'm only carrying a few spare tubes and a multi-tool.  Good thing I decided to bring my wallet - it looks like I'll be in need of a taxi ride.
I ask a passing postman if there's a bikeshop nearby.  I doubt its a quick fix, but its worth a try.  He wasn't sure - but we agreed I should head back to West Concord and then Concord for my best shot at finding one.  I continue to struggle with the bike to free up the rear wheel so I'll at least be able to roll it.
As I'm doing this, another guy comes up and asks if I need help with the repairs.  When I show him what's wrong, he agreed its not something that he'd be able to help me with.  But, he then offered a ride.  Turns out he (Brian) runs a bike shop in Medford (JRA Cycles) and he was on his way there.  I took him up on the offer and tossed the bike into the back of his Honda Element (fun car, and perfect for hauling bikes around - his was in there as well).  In addition to running the bike shop, Brian is also an avid BMX racer and has also done various other forms of bike riding/racing in the past.  While I can't say the breakdown was good luck, I certainly was lucky to be seen by such an avid bike rider who was extremely gracious with his time and assistance.  I highly recommend you check out his shop in Medford.
Meanwhile, I bring mine back to Ace - although its probably a bit of a long shot, I've got to figure that either they or the manufacturers are partly responsible for such a major breakdown with less than 300 miles on the bike - either the part was faulty or the bike wasn't tuned properly when delivered.  We'll see what happens when I pick up the bike on Thursday.  For now, it looks like I'll be back on the trainer for the next few days...  And, my first 100 mile ride still eludes me. 

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Ride Analysis

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
I spent some time over the weekend playing with .Net and the GPS data captured by the Garmin Edge. The Training Center software that came with the unit is ok, but there were no options for dealing with the noisy data and it didn't offer the histogram support that Motion Based offers (which I thought was a useful way of slicing up the data).
Putting the pieces together was actually fairly easy. I found a charting control with some decent functionality and the data is exported as XML which .Net deals with quite readily. So, it was pretty much a matter of opening the XML document, reading the data, calculating derived data such as grade, speed and pace, applying whatever filters I wanted (I added options to change the sampling rate as well as applying a mean filter of various window sizes) and then binding the data to the graphs and tweaking the display options.
This resulted in the display pictured. Not too bad for a few hours of hacking. I'll probably try to get a sense if this is the type of thing that others would be interested in, and if yes, solicit feature ideas and turn it into a real application. Who knows, maybe I'll be back in the shareware business again...


Who knew?  After avoiding asparagus for most of my life, I'm realizing that it's actually very good.  I'm guessing the avoidance started simply based on the name that didn't sound appealing.  Plus, it looks different than other things I ate growing up.  But I'm guessing the most significant reason it's taken so long to like asparagus is that we never had it growing up.  It's funny how much you like / don't like (or think you don't like) is shaped by the influences when you're young.  I'm still impressed by how many coke/pepsi likes and dislikes are deeply rooted in what people drank growing up. 
In any case, I server asparagus at Easter simply because it was suggested on the menu I was basing the meal on.  I thought it tasted great.  And, there were no leftovers.  A few weeks later, I bought some more and cooked it in a similar fashion (saute with butter).  Again, very tasty.  Tonight I steamed some very fresh asparagus from Verrill Farm in Concord.  I added just a bit of salt and pepper and was amazed at how good it tasted.  So good that I finished it before the pasta was ready.  I've got another bunch ready for Sunday night.  If it's anything like tonight's, I'll be back at Verrill's to pick up more for the coming week.

Friday, June 02, 2006


One of the problems that I've found with not working is that its very easy to procrastinate.  Too easy.  There's never a rush to get anything done today as its always possible to do it tomorrow.  So, the projects that I hoped to be working on are still sitting idle.  My knowledge of Italian or Spanish has not increased.  The guitar has sat idle.  And I've yet to swing a golf club and attempt to re-train myself.
So, what have I been doing?  Well, I spend a lot more time preparing meals - nothing extravagant, but they definitely take more time than the prepared foods you toss in the microwave.  I've also moved my exercise time to during the day.  If the weather's nice, this means a bike ride in the morning or afternoon.  If its raining, then I'm on the trainer in the basement.  Shopping has filled a lot of the time as well.  Its not so much shopping at the traditional places, but going out to places that I've heard of or read about but have never been to before.  It takes a surprising amount of time to get around from place to place.  And, traffic starts getting bad as early as 3 or 4pm so I've ended up caught in traffic more than I'd like.  Reading the paper or the ever growing number of magazines that I receive also fills a good amount of time.  The remainder has been filled with informal consulting work for a few people - but nothing really time consuming or demanding at this point.  I'm happy to say that my TV viewing hasn't increased - the TV's never on during the day which is something I intend to stick with. 
I'm going to start creating a list of what I hope to accomplish each day and each week.  I'm hoping that adding a bit of structure will help ensure I spend time where I want to.  The conflict is that I still view myself as not having a job which means that I tend to treat everyday like Saturday.  So, I also need to convince myself that I do have a job - working for myself - and that I can't just wander from activity to activity - even when its really nice outside. 
We'll see what happens...

Four Vines 2003 Zinfandel

Four Vines was one of the exhibitors at the Nantucket Wine Festival.  The vendor (I believe he was the maker of the wines as well) was quite distinctive - he looked like he would be equally at home at a biker rally.  He actually fit the company image quite well.  They are doing things differently than others.  They make a "Naked" Chardonnay that never touches oak (quite good).  The blends are all given very distinctive names ("Anarchy", "Heretic").  They were passing out temporary tattoos.
In any case, one of the wines sampled was their Zinfandel.  This was one of very few that I looked for when I got back.  I've found it at a number of locations, but most recently spotted it at the Cambridge Trader Joe's for only $8.99/bottle (was as high as $11.99 at another location).  They had quite a few cases and were featuring it at the end of one of the aisles.  So run, don't walk, to Trader Joe's and pick up a bottle and give it try.  If you like it, head back and get several more! 

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Spelling Bee

So I just spent much of the last 2 hours watching the spelling bee - broadcast live for the first time.  Was fun to listen to the play by play announcers attempt to create drama and excitement.  But, somehow you found yourself rooting for one or another of the contestants for one reason or another.  Was a bit awkward having the parents on stage and then watching the reactions when there is a mistake.  At that age, I think those moments are best kept private (though most of the kids seemed to take the mistake in stride and the parents did seem supportive). 
All in all, it wasn't terrible - but I wouldn't go out of my way to watch again.  The documentaries that came out in the past few years were better able to develop the stories of those involved.  And the young age makes it uncomfortable to watch them fail (unlike Idol where it's Ok to laugh at the people making fun of themselves).

Pots & Pans

Not that the pots and pans I had were terrible, but the non-stick fry pans needed to be replaced and the Calphalon pots & pans were starting to tarnish or otherwise not look so great.  So, I first replaced all the fry pans with new Calphalon non-stick as it was on special.  I thought that would be the end of it.
But, All-Clad had a booth at the wine festival and I was talking with the rep.  I asked him to guide me through what seems to be an incredibly crowded world of pots and pans.  He asked one question.  Would I ever want to throw the pot/pan in the dishwasher.  The answer was definitely yes (had already done this with the Calphalon goods even though it was clearly stated that this was a mortal sin).  He said the All-Clad stainless line was the way to go - with a stainless interior and exterior (along with the aluminum core for even heat).  This line could be put in the dishwasher (though hand wash was still recommended). 
I stopped at a bunch of places, but the prices were high and the selection seemed limited.  Somehow I ended up on eBay - probably the result of a Google search.  Suddenly - the selection and prices seemed a lot better.  But could the eBay sellers be trusted?  I found a few that seemed to have a wide range of All-Clad for sale.  I then focused on the few that had extremely positive feedback. 
The first purchase was a chef's pan.  Bidding picked up at the tail end of the auction.  The competitive spirit often kicks in at this point - you want to beat the other bidders regardless of cost.  Kind of strategy/mind game thing.  In any case, I didn't get totally caught up in this, but did end up winning at a decent price. 
The pan arrived about 2 days later - sooner than I expected.  Everything appeared authentic - from the box, to the shrink wrap to the inspector tag and warranty card.  Visual inspection also looked good and authentic.  So, over the past week I added the 9-pc set and a 2-qt and 6-qt saute pans.  If nothing else, it definitely looks a lot better than what I had before.
Now I just need to figure out what to do with the old Calphalon.

Lawn Woes

I think this is my third spring in Cambridge, but this year the grass in the back yard decided to play dead.  Really dead.  It actually looks like someone intentionally killed it all.  Or the vast majority.  The "front yard" is still fine.  As is most of the side between the deck and the fence.  There's also one corner in the far back that is still growing (surprisingly, this is the spot that Nuke favored last year, all winter and all spring). 
I'm doing what I think I can to help encourage the green to come back.  So, I made the following changes for this year.  First, I changed fertilizers - the early spring was a Scott's crabgrass preventer blend that is made for this time of year.  If nothing else, I'll have less of the crabgrass that took over at the end of last year.  Today, I picked up a weed & feed at Mahoney's - this will likely go on tomorrow (weather permitting).  Second, I aerated the lawn using one of those manual aerators (does 2 plugs at a time).  In some spots it seemed like the soil was extremely compacted - I'm thinking this might be part of the problem as Nuke and I may have compressed the dirt too much for the grass to grow.  And, finally, I am now bagging the grass clippings instead of mulching.  This seems counter to all that I've read, but I figured I'd keep up with the fertilizer for this year so the bagging would eliminate any chance of the thatch being the cause of the problem.
There are a few scattered tufts of grass in what was once barren.  Hopefully I can coax them into filling out the remainder of the lawn.  If not, I'll likely take drastic measures in the fall (or spring) and attempt to reseed a big portion of the yard. 

Unicorn Magnum Plus Peppermill

Is it normal to get excited about a peppermill?  Since fresh foods are becoming a bigger part of my diet, pepper has also returned in force.  I've always had a peppermill around, but when used only once or twice a month, you can be quite forgiving on its performance.  Now, I'm using pepper pretty much every lunch and dinner and often on multiple dishes.  The inability of the mill to reliably produce pepper was a growing frustration.
While I was on Nantucket, I noticed big ads in the local paper for pepper mills - specifically, something called the Pepperstick.  I thought this was odd - big ads for pepper mills?  So, I ventured into the 2 gourmet shops on the island that sold them.  I looked and touched - but did see anything special so I left without purchasing.
When I got home, I did a bit of Internet research and wouldn't you know?  The company that makes Pepperstick (Unicorn) is based on Nantucket and they have a number of other pepper mills, some of which have gotten phenomenal reviews.  So, I placed an order for the Magnum salt mill and the Magnum Plus (larger capacity) pepper mill.  They arrived today and after loading them up and giving them a try, I can't believe I put up with lousy mills for as long as I did.
If you use a lot of fresh ground pepper, you should check this product out.

Mangoes and Fried Yam Recipe

As I mentioned earlier, one thing I love about the Boston Organics deliveries is that I'm getting stuff that I would have never bought otherwise.  This week the delivery included a mango and yams (among other things). 
I never bought a mango before and am fairly sure I've never had one growing up (unless it was at a restaurant).  This brings up a lot of questions.  Should you store it cold?  Or room temperature?  How do you know if its ripe?  And, how do you eat it?  For the answer to the last question I went online and believe it or not, found an eHow page that describes how to eat a mango.  Guess it's a bit tricky.  Actually - it's easy, but I never would have figured it out on my own.  And, guess what - the mango was great!  I've already purchased another today...
Yams look a lot like potatoes so I figured they would be prepared and served in a similar fashion.  But, looking up recipes turned up many where yams were only a part of a bigger recipe - not a side dish all there own.  A bit more searching and I did turn up a baked fry (oxymoron?) recipe which I made last night (fairly standard - olive oil plus a bunch of spices, place in the oven at 425 for about 20-30 minutes, turning over halfway through).  They turned out good enough.
Tonight I ventured out on my own with the remaining yam and figured I'd slice it into round chips and then fry/saute it in olive oil and garlic.  A fairly basic, Italian approach to most foods.  I had no idea how the flavors would mix and what it would taste like.  I hoped for the best.  After soaking the slices in water (have no idea if this is necessary, but the eggplant I cooked this way seemed to drink the olive oil so I figured having the yams drink some water first couldn't hurt), I put them in the pan with the garlic.  I stirred occasionally, but for the most part let them simmer on medium/low heat with the cover on.  After about 20 minutes - they were very tender and breaking apart when stirred.  I figured this meant done and I served with salt and pepper.  it wasn't bad!  I actually enjoyed it and would likely make the same thing again in the future.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Oatmeal in the rice cooker

I was told I should stop eating the highly processed, instant oatmeal and switch to real, steel cut oatmeal (such as McCann’s which you can get at Trader Joes). Not wanting to wake up to a complicated/lengthy cooking task, I recalled hearing something about rice makers being able to cook oatmeal. So, I dug out the rice maker and made a batch. I loaded the water and the oatmeal, changed to the “porridge” setting and about an hour later, a decent serving of oatmeal was ready.

The next day I thought I’d try the quick cook option to see how much faster it would be. Apparently that setting is only for rice as after a short while the oatmeal started bubbling out the steam vent, down the back of the rice maker and all over the counter. What a mess. Won’t try that setting again.

A few days pass and I give it another go. This time I either forget to choose porridge or I intentially tried one of the regular rice settings. Again, oatmeal out the vent and all over the place. I decide to stick to the instant oatmeal for a bit longer - I certainly purchased enough of it.

A few weeks passed and I’m finally starting to run low on the huge supply of instant oatmeal so I figure its time to start adding the real stuff back into the rotation. With the timer on the rice cooker, I can get everything ready to go before I jump in bed and wake up and have the oatmeal hot and ready to eat. The first night, everything went perfectly! I added some honey and cinnamon and enjoyed my breakfast. But, last night the machine ended up back on its default setting for rice (yes, I forget to double-check) and I woke up this morning to another wonderful mess. I’m hoping that writing this down will help me remember to check the setting every time!

So - if you are looking to use your rice cooker for oatmeal, it can and will work great - so long as you put it on the proper setting! Otherwise, look out...


I’m doing some work in ColdFusion. It’s amazing how many different ways there are to serve up a web page. So far, don’t see anything real compelling about CF - I’m guessing its existence today is a result of it being one of the only alternatives to Microsoft’s ASP back in the day. But, time has passed and CF seems to be stuck in time - a bit like playing an Atari 2600 while your friends are playing the Xbox 360. But - it does get the job done. Probably the biggest annoyance is debugging is back to using the equivalent of printf’s in various parts of the system to see what’s going on. Not terrible, but certainly not state of the art. There is a nice plugin for Eclipse that makes the Eclipse editor CF aware (just wish I had a bit more memory on my laptop to keep all these java based tools happy).

Garmin Edge 305

After reading many good reviews, I broke down and purchased the Garmin Edge 305. You can get it with a cadence monitor, heart monitor or both - I got the cadence monitor (I can always add the heart rate monitor later if I want). Purchase price was only $245 at NewEgg. Not sure why they’re selling it for $100-$150 less than everyone else, but they are (this is what also helped push me over the edge and buy it).

First thing that struck me on opening the box was how really small the unit is. I saw many pictures, yet somehow it seems smaller when its actually in front of you. But, even though its small (and light) - it has a nice large display screen. Setup was mostly straight forward. Plug the unit in to charge it, install some software on your computer and use some quick-ties to fasten a mount to the handlebar stem. The only slightly tricky part was getting the cadence/speed detector and the two magnets all lined up. First problem was that the spoke magnet doesn’t fit my spokes - so I ended up re-using the cateye magnet that did fit. The second problem is that there are supposed to be lights that flash on and off when everything is set properly, but I couldn’t see them - maybe it was too bright. In any case, it appears that cadence detector is working - not yet sure about the speed (as the speed is picked up from the GPS when you have a satellite lock).

The first thing I did was check the Garmin site and update the firmware to 2.40 (unit shipped with 2.30). Probably fine with the older version, but I figured its best to start with the latest. This was very easy to do using Garmin’s WebUpdater software - it auto-detected current installed version, latest available version, prompted to confirm install and then managed the download, update process.

Once you turn the unit on, there’s some basic setup that you do (enter some basic information about you and your bike) and then there’s a load of config/display options you can tweak to your liking. It tracks lots of information, each of which can be made to appear on one of several display screens in any location on that screen. This is really cool - not only the flexibility, but the fact that you can have so much displayed at once and still have it be readable/usable at a glance. Stepping out to the back deck, I was able to get a satellite lock very quickly. So, everything looks good for the first ride!

I head out for the standard Bedford and back ride (22mi). Only thing to get used to is hitting “start” when you want it to start recording and hitting “stop” when the ride is over. For the most part, the speed seemed accurate and responsive (ie, no huge lag in what it displayed). However, there were times when it seemed to be wrong (too low) - perhaps it lost satellite due to some trees and flipped to the magnet sensor? Will keep an eye on this on future rides. Distance seemed extremely accurate.

The fun really begins when the ride is over. This is when you get to download your data and re-live your ride as well as do all kinds of post ride analysis on the ride and the rider. How was your pace/speed? Was that hill as big as it seemed? What cadence did you ride at? And, of course, there’s the GPS data that you can superimpose on various maps or load into Google Earth. The accuracy of the ride when viewed in Google Earth was quite amazing - it was clear which side of the road I was riding on. Another interesting stat that it captured was how much time was spent not riding - very useful as the wait time at the street crossings can vary from ride to ride. In addition to the software that comes with the unit, you can also sign up for (for free) or try SportTracks. I’m sure there are others that I’ll find over time as well. These additional programs add plotting of ride statistics against each other vs. time or distance, often allowing altitude to be overlayed as well so you can get a sense of how the terrain is impacting the ride stats. Some of the charts are difficult to read as the speed data looks a bit noisy (even when “smoothed”), but they’re still good enough to give you a sense of how you did on the ride.

Here’s the link to the MotionBased analysis for this ride.

Things I haven’t yet tried are some of the training features - target cadence, virtual partner, courses, etc. I’m already pleased, so if these make it even more fun, all the better!

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Artichoke Dip Recipe

Over the weekend I made the artichoke dip that was such a hit on Easter. Once again, it turned out quite good. Here’s the recipe.

You’ll need 2 cans of artichoke hearts packed in water (not marinade), about 8 ounces of grated Paremesan cheese, a cup or so of mayonnaise and some jalepeno peppers (I used some that I grew last summer and pickled). Preperation is easy - grate the cheese, chop up the artichoke hearts, dice the peppers and mix them all together with the mayo. Add more mayo if the mixture seems a bit “dry”. Bake for about 25 minutes at 350 degrees. While baking, prepare a sour dough boule by slicing off the rounded top and then hollowing out the bottom to form a bowl for the dip. Slice the top into bite size pieces that can be used in the dip (no need to toast these as the crust gives them enough firmness for dipping). Slice and toast what was scooped from the boule. When the dip comes out of the oven, scoop/pour into the boule and serve with the bread slices, carrots, celery or anything you wish for dipping.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Orbea Onix

Orbea Onix
Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
A picture of the new bike - complete with the VBT water bottle!

Boston Organics

I signed up for a weekly food delivery from a company called Boston Organics.  The first delivery arrived last week and contained a mixture of fruits and vegetables (I signed up for the 50/50 option).  Each week the content changes based on what's in season so opening the box was fun (though you can see what's coming by looking on the website).  The first delivery had bananas, oranges, apples, strawberries, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes, potatoes, spinach, lettuce, eggplant, zucchini and carrots (and probably one or two other things I've forgotten).  The only downside was that I was away for several nights right after the delivery arrived so eating everything while it was still fresh was a problem for this week.  Other than that, getting things that I would probably never buy myself and then figuring out how to best prepare and cook them is turning out to be a lot of fun.  The customer service has also been very responsive to a few delivery changes that I needed to make (changing to weekly delivery of the smaller, $25 bin).  So, if you're looking for a steady supply of fresh, organically grown produce delivered direct to your door, you should definitely check them out!

Next year I may change to purchasing a share at a local farm, but most shares were already sold out for this year.  Though I did consider working 1 day a week at one of the farms in exchange for a share.  In addition to the food, I might actually learn things I could use in my own garden!

This year's garden...

With another spring comes another attempt at getting some food to grow in the backyard.  Last year I planted corn, 2 types of peppers and cherry tomatoes to go along with the strawberries and raspberries that return every year.  The corn yielded only 1 or 2 ears so I won't be trying that again.  The tomatoes were productive early in the season, but seemed to have trouble later in the year.  Of the two peppers, the hot peppers (I forget the specific type) did extremely well.  The strawberries are getting old and although the plants are green and sturdy, not much fruit is produced - I'm sure the bed is in need of a good thinning and fertilizing.  And, the raspberries did ok - only problem with them is that you don't get that many and they are ripe almost all at once.

So, this year the strawberries and raspberries will be joined by grape tomatoes, cayenne and jalapeno peppers, bush beans and red leaf lettuce.  Unfortunately I bought everything before the weekend but didn't get things planted and the watering setup until yesterday.  This definitely stressed the lettuce and tomatoes - though it looks like the tomatoes have recovered fully and the lettuce may make it as well.

I had hoped to get some herbs planted this year as well, but I might have to leave that until next year as there isn't any space left in the tiny garden.  Then again, I might be able to use planters.  Guess this still needs more thought.

Half Century Completed

I finished a half-century ride yesterday.  The route was down the bike trail to Bedford, down Rt 4 to Great Brook Farm, back to Concord, Rt 62 to Bedford (what a terrible road for riding - it needs to be repaved!), down 225 to Kimble Farm for some ice cream (still amazed at what they consider a small!) and then retrace the route down 225 to Bedford and the bike trail back home.  Total mileage was 50.08 miles.  Ride time was 2h40m (excludes ice cream time) with an average speed of about 18.7 and top speed of 35.5.  Unfortunately, I have no idea how this compares against the general biking population... 

Only issue during the ride was my lower back getting a bit sore near the end - need to figure out if this is just a result of getting used to the new riding position or whether there is some tweaking I can do to the seat & handlebar positions to eliminate this.  I also need to tune the shifting - its a bit flaky going in and out of the top gear.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Another ride

I was able to get another 22-mile ride to Bedford and back in today.  The winds were high again - though there was a bit of a tailwind on the ride back.  Overall time was 1h10m (18.9 mph avg).  I definitely think I'll ride my first (and maybe several?) centuries before I can finish this ride in under an hour...


Originally uploaded by pdbreen.

I know I've been to Nantucket at least once before - when I went flying with John O'Grady we briefly landed at the airport here. But, we never left the airport. At the time, that was kind of fun by itself since there was a sitcom on that focused on life at Tom Nevers Field. I don't recall if I ever sailed here with my family before that. If I did, it was before memory took hold and the stories must have been quite bad as they've never been retold.
So, I didn't know quite what to expect or what to do when I arrived (other than attend the wine festival which was the reason for the trip). In some way, I expected the island to be a bit like a bigger version of Block Island (where I spent many summers and remember well).
In retrospect, it is. The area around the harbor and ferry landing is quite built up - lots of stores, inns, B&Bs, restaurants and shops. Most are independent - but you do see a chain here and there (Polo, Grand Union, Blackdog).
Once you walk away from town (which doesn't take long), you enter the "countryside". What is different from Block Island is that Nantucket is much larger which means that you can't walk from one end of the island to the other in a few hours. However - there are many bike trails and bike rental shops to help out. But, since I was with Nuke, I didn't rent a bike and could only explore what was within walking distance.
Fortunately, this meant all of the downtown area, both ferry docks and the beach next to the Brant Point lighthouse. We also ventured out a few miles on Cliff Rd and discovered a wonderful open space that was very dog friendly. Nuke had a good time chasing sticks and tennis balls as well as just exploreing the paths and greeting the other dogs.
And, its definitely true that Nantucket is dog friendly. I don't think I've ever been on walks where people have stopped so often to great Nuke (who is always happy to accept attention). I also assumed that I was able to bring Nuke into the stores with me and was never told otherwise (though I did end up leaving her outside when I was shopping in the two dog stores - Cold Noses and Sandy Paws - as I couldn't hold her back and shop at the same time).
Nantucket is a truly wonderful, relaxing and friendly place with great shopping and restaurants. And, it does capture some of that European sense of a city where the people and the stores are what makes it come to life. But when I look at what it costs to live on the island (seems like everything is in the millions), the price seems much too high.


Nantucket Wine Festival

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
Nuke & I went to Nantucket this past weekend for their annual wine festival. A number of firsts - my first wine festival, Nuke's first time staying in a hotel, Nuke's first boat ride, my first time to Nantucket that I can recall (other than a brief stop at the airport when I went flying with John O'Grady). It also turned out to be the first time I had an oyster. I have always avoided them as they don't look that appealing. But, as I was waiting to board the bus to the afternoon tasting, people were comparing notes on the best food at the morning tasting and everyone agreed that the oysters shouldn't be missed. Having paid $50 to get in to the tasting - I certainly wasn't going to miss the one thing that people were talking about!
The minutes pass, but the shuttle bus never arrives so most of us end up walking the mile or so to the festival. Probably a good thing as I think the food at the festival is much more interesting and much more of a reason to go than the wine. But I'm sure those more educated than me would argue that there was a good selection of wines available for tasting.
As for the food, I was able to pretty much have dinner there both days (though it would be easy to argue I didn't eat healthy meals). I had lots (and lots) of cheese, smoked salmon, cookies, sushi, shrimp, bagels, brownies, chocolate... Basically, lots of finger food. The only thing that was meal-like was the end product of the cooking demonstrations (which were quite good).
And, I did have an oyster - actually several. They had selections from 5 different farms that varied in salinity and sweetness - so not only did I have my first oyster, I had several and now also know something about the differences in where they're raised. I preferred the sweeter ones over the salty.
Sampling the wines was actually difficult for me - knowing so little about wines, the conversation pretty much boiled down to the following:

PB: Can I try some of X?
Vendor: Here you go.
PB: Thank you. [Sniffs. Tastes.] Wow. That's good. Has X been turning out to be a good year?
Vendor: Yes.
PB: [Takes another sip.] Ok. [Pauses] Thank you! [Walks away]

It seemed neither I nor the vendor were much for small talk when the wine tasted was nothing special. What's the proper way to say there was nothing special about what I just tasted? There were a few execptions. The most notable in the show was Four Vines. The blends were amazing and the vendor/winemaker had somewhat of a punk demeanor which was refreshing.
There were 4 grand tastings - 2 each on Saturday and Sunday and each lasting 2 hours in total. I had tickets to the afternoon session on both Saturday and Sunday. The Saturday session passed quickly (other than food, I focused on red wines, especially those from Tuscany). On Sunday, I switched to whites, but got bore about an hour in - I had already tried much of the food on Saturday and the wine makers were definitely visibly tired and much less engaging as well. Some booths just left the bottles behind so you could pour your own.
Overall, going to one session is very enjoyable with lots to take in - in terms of wine, food, audience and cooking demonstrations. Another session seemed excessive. For those people that spent 2+ hours at all 4 sessions - more power to you! I don't think I could do it...

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

For your safety, stay behind the fence

Spent the weekend on Nantucket with Nuclear. We took the high speed ferry to the island (Hyannis to Nantucket in about an hour). Nuke was fine until the boat started moving - then she seemed to turn a little green - she wouldn't lie down, her tail wasn't wagging, her mouth was closed and her ears down. She seemed to be doing all she could to not get sick - though I may be reading too much into her body language. Once we got to the island she was fine and enjoyed numerous walks through town, around town, on the beachs and in some of the wonderful open spaces on the island (including the one pictured).
The return trip on Monday was a bit more interesting. The 9:30 high speed ferry was cancelled due to the high winds and seas. Uh oh - looks like the trip back will be worse than the trip over... The next high-speed ferry is at 12:30. Good thing I checked back a bit early as that one was cancelled as well. But, the regular ferry was leaving at noon for its 2-hour crossing. Now I'm really nervous - it sounds like the seas will be worse and we'll be on them for twice as long. Not much I can do but hope for the best and we get on board. I get a seat inside as close to the center of the boat as possible thinking that the rocking will be less and by being inside she might be more inclined to lie down. Turns out the trip back went fine - she did end up lying down for most of it and there wasn't much rocking either.
Details on the Wine Festival will follow.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Bike Ride - finally!

It finally stopped raining long enough so I could get a decent length ride in on my new bike.  I figured I'd start with the 22-mile ride to Bedford and back along the Minuteman trail as its a ride I've done many, many times on my previous bike.  What fun!  Even with what seemed to be a fairly strong cross-wind, I was able to complete the ride about 10 minutes faster than I've done in the past (just under 1h10m with an average speed of 19mph).  The "hills" also seemed to vanish completely.  In the stretch from Lexington to Bedford, I dropped to the lower hand position and was averaging just about 25mph.  On the return, I did the same on the stretch from Trader Joe's to Arlington.  At one point I exchanged drafts with another rider which was fun as the draft took away all effort required to maintain a 20+ mph speed.  The bike remained comfortable throughout - no hand or butt fatigue or pain during or after the ride.
The only downside is that now I have two goals - the first remains to complete a century ride (100 miles).  The new goal is to complete the Bedford round trip in under an hour.  This may be a bit of a stretch, but isn't that the point of having goals?

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Yelp - local reviews that actually work?

I think I heard about this site a while ago and probably thought it would be a great idea - but only if they can get enough people to actually take the time to submit reviews and reach a critical mass.  Recently, reviews on Yelp have started turning up in Google search results and I've found that there are now enough reviews for them to be very helpful when choosing where to eat or shop.  So, I signed up myself and found it quite easy to get addicted to submitting reviews for all the neighborhood places I frequent.  The mapping feature is quite handy - the review page gives a small Google map of the area, highlighting the place being reviewed along with 4 others in the area.  This makes it very easy to discover new places that you haven't been or remind you to rate those other nearby places that you have been.  They're also doing a decent job trying to build some community around the site. 
If nothing else, its a convenient place to store all my own reviews so I remember what I liked or didn't like.  If others get benefit from this, then all the better!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Create your own books with Blurb

Can't recall how I first heard of this company, but somewhere along the way I signed up for notification when Blurb would be available.  It sounded like an interesting idea - provide some simple template-based page layout software along with a backend fulfillment service that can create hard-cover books and keep the price low enough that it can actually compete with 4x6 prints either done at home or via one of the many service providers. 
The timing was such that I received notification that the beta version was available when I returned from Italy - it was the perfect time for a test as I had several hundred pictures that I wanted to share.  The book creation process had a hiccup or two, but the support staff was very responsive, helpful and seemed genuinely interested in making sure I succeeded.  Once past the minor problem I had, I was off and running.  I created an 80 page photo book with probably close to 300 pictures in total.  The process from start to finish probably took close to 2 hours - but I chose to layout each page individually rather than have the software "auto-flow" the photos.  So, much of the time was in the creative process of choosing which photos to use, which templates would work best for them and then minor touch ups on the photos themselves (mostly zoom/crop type edits).  The total price, including shipping was a little over $40 (for comparison, I would probably use about $40-60 in ink and paper costs to print a similar number of 4x6 prints).
Purchasing the book was easy, though lengthy.  I'm guessing it packaged up all my photo's and sent them on to Blurb for printing.  Given that the book contained approximately 300 pictures - each one 8 megapixels - it took some time to upload the entire book for printing. 
A few days later the book arrived - complete with shrink wrap.  I almost didn't want to open the shrink wrap as it was kind of cool to hold a professional looking book listing your name as the author!  The book itself was very nicely done - I'm sure the binding is not as high quality as some professional books and there is some very minor unevenness to the page edges - but these are extremely minor nits.  I'm now able to share my vacation with others very easily, highlighting the handful of really good photos on pages all their own while still keeping many of the others, but at smaller sizes. 
I will definitely be going back through some other photo collections and creating some additional books!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

New Bike

Many on the trip asked why I was riding a hybrid instead of a road bike.  I told them that's what I road at home, so its what I asked for on the trip.  I don't think I've ever done any serious riding on a road bike - I think I had a BMX style bike when I was young and got a mountain bike my first year of college (which I still have).  About 2 years ago, I bought the Trek 7200 hybrid - a "comfort bike" - as any riding I was doing at the time was always on paved bike trails or on the roads.  It was (and still is) a very decent bike for the money ($350) and its all I've ridden recently.  During my "training" for the trip, I took it on a few 45+ mile rides and felt good about covering this distance with growing ease and quick recovery when the ride was over.  I also did numerous shorter rides to Bedford and back along the bike trail (about 25 miles) trying to improve on my best time or not shift below certain gears to build strength.

Apparently, the training paid off as I was one of the stronger riders on the trip, was able to climb all of the hills that were offered to us and recovered well from day to day.  Seeing this, those that had more riding experience suggested that I should really look into a road bike when I get back.

So, on Saturday (having returned from Rome Friday night) I stopped by Ace Wheelworks to take a look at what they had to offer.  Given that my last bike cost $350, I was thinking I could probably get a decent bike for $1000 - and if there was truly a benefit to paying a bit more, was prepared to go a bit higher. 

Seeing my confusion, Jason (one of the store reps) starting guiding my selection process.  I'm sure he was telling me all kinds of useful information, but I didn't fully speak the lingo so much was lost.  In any case, he started selecting a few different bikes for test rides.  The first was an aluminum '05 Cannondale R1000 ($1800).  Wow!  I think the others were right.  The responsiveness and speed were much (much!) different than what I was used to.  At this point, I'm just about certain that I will get a bike - so the process is now fully deciding on which one and hopefully finding one that costs a bit less.  Next I ride a Specialized Roubaix.  It was closer to the price I had in mind ($1200), but the ride was boring compared to the Cannondale - it was like I was riding through molasses.  This one is out of the running.  Jason then pulls a fully carbon fiber '05 Orbea Onix out of the lineup.  I've never heard of this brand and he gives me some history of the company and some success they've had.  Riding this bike was simply incredible - it seemed all power when to moving you forward and it begged to be ridden at a sprint pace throughout - even up the hills.  After a few loops, I was actually quite winded.  I finished the day with another ride on the Cannondale.  I left with plans to come back during the week in more appropriate riding attire for some additional evaluation.

The break also allowed me to do some research.  Now armed with a little bit of info, I could hit the web and check out reviews of the various bikes and become educated on the pluses and minuses of each.  Who knew buying a bike would soon become so complicated!  I quickly found that which frame material made the best bikes was a highly opinionated topic.  Steel, aluminum, carbon fiber and titanium are all in use.  Given the price, I was leaning towards the Cannondale, but found there are many that say aluminum bikes are unforgiving and really beat up your body on long rides.  There are others that say the latest designs and addition of carbon forks and seat posts make this no longer true. 

Not knowing what to believe I check in with a former co-worker that is an avid rider.  He says to avoid aluminum and suggests that I take more bikes out for a test, making sure to include several steel frames.  So, I visit a few more bike stores, have a few more conversations and go for a few more test rides.  None of the bikes felt as good as the Cannondale or Orbea - and the service and friendliness at Ace was also far superior (I never felt like I was getting "sold" as I did at other stores).

I return to Ace in riding gear for some additional rides.  Based on the first set of rides, I thought the Cannondale was extremely twitchy when I was out of the saddle, but seemed to do very well at maintaining speed.  I was concerned that the Orbea required constant sprinting and would not be good for long rides.  First the Cannondale - twitchiness is definitely an odd feeling that I don't like and riding over some bricks, I got a sense of how much road was transmitted through the frame.  It's tough to tell on a short ride how uncomfortable it would become, but it was noticeable.  Next, the Orbea.  No twitchiness out of the saddle - that's a positive.  It also did a better job at dampening the ride over the bricks (very subjective of course).  On this ride, I was careful not to ride at full throttle the entire time and was pleased that I was able to hold speed as easily as the Cannondale.  So, it seems on all fronts this was a better ride.  Only one concern left - I read that the Ultegra 10 speed was a bit better designed/nicer than the 9 speed which the Orbea had.  Ace checked inventory and they had the same framesize/color available with the 10 speed for $100 more (~$2700).  We fill out the paperwork, bike will be ready the next day.  So much for the budget.

I return to pick up the bike and was pleased to find that in addition to the 10 speed build, the bike also had better rims and tires.  In looking up some of the component prices, it seems like a very good deal.  Here's how some of the major parts break down - Ultegra 10 speed build kit - $1350, Mavic rims - $750, tires - $100, FSA carbon crank - $250.  So, at this point I'm happy with the purchase - but it hasn't stopped raining so I haven't yet been able to ride it!!

If it rides as I expect it will, I should be doing my first century ride (100 miles) before the month is over.


'05 Orbea Onix

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

How I lost 70 pounds in 4 months...

Late last year I made some changes to my eating and exercise habits that resulted in going from 230 pounds and a 38" waist to 160 pounds and a 30" waist. When people hear this, they are curious how I did it.

Part of the success stems from having such terrible diet and exercise habits prior to making any changes. I paid little to no attention to what I ate or portion sizes, justifying the approach by saying the lack of stress caused by not caring more than makes up for the benefits of worrying about such things. A typical day would not include breakfast, a good sized lunch and either takeout or some kind of microwave meal for dinner - along with a beer or two. Regular exercise was non-existent. Living this way, my weight held at about 220 for a year or two, but seemed to start climbing again last summer.

The next key thing was having some form of motivation to make a change. For me, there were a couple of things that triggered the desire to do something. I went for a bike ride sometime in July and although I completed the ride, I felt extremely out of shape - especially on the hills. I was at my brothers house when my belly appeared from beneath my shirt - he took the opportunity to rub it and point out how large it had gotten. I attempted to play tennis and could not move well on the court and tired extremely easily. My 38" jeans were starting to feel tight and there was a psychological barrier crossing into the 40's. My reflection in the mirror was difficult to look at - was I starting to grow breasts?

So, in early August I decided to make some changes. On 8/8 I bought one of those scales that can measure body fat. I wish I wrote down the initial reading - I think it was something like 25 or 26% (definitely in the "fat" category). Even so, my initial goal was modest - just avoid the need to buy the 40" pants. The initial changes to my life were also modest - when I came home from work, I spent about 30-45 minutes on the stationary exercise bike rather than having a beer or two. In fact, I vowed not to have any beer during the week. On the weekends, I also made an effort to get out in the kayak or go for a bike ride.

Fairly quickly my weight stabilized and started to go down a bit so I stayed with it. After a week or two, I added some strength exercises using one of those inclined ramp and pulley systems that Chuck Norris was selling a few years back. The weight continued to drop and I started to notice my pants feeling a bit looser.

At this point, luck probably played a role as Shaws had a sale on yogurt and instant oatmeal. The lid of the yogurt happened to include information on how diets that included dairy products (such as yogurt) would help burn fat and reduce your waistline. The oatmeal touted all the health benefits that it offered. Intrigued, I did some digging on the Internet and found similar information - as well as tidbits such as never skip breakfast. So, breakfast of yogurt or oatmeal became part of my daily routine after being absent for many, many years. Somewhere along the way I also came across something touting the benefits of green tea, so I switched from drinking coffee in the mornings and at work, to drinking green tea.

After a few more weeks, I was surprised to find that my 38" pants no longer fit. Good thing I still had some of the 36" pants I had outgrown a few years earlier. I also extended the exercise a bit more to include sit-ups and even started running for the first time in something like 20 years. I signed up for a 4 mile run on Thanksgiving morning, so I had a goal to train to.

A few more weeks and I had to dig deeper through my old clothes to find some 34" pants. The success continued to inspire me to learn more about how to eat properly as well as take much more care when purchasing foods. I primarily shopped for foods with the lowest calories from fat. I also started buying fruits (primarily bananas and grapes) for snacking. Yogurt had now fully replaced ice-cream for my after dinner craving for something sweet. I found that adding different cereals to the yogurt gave it some texture and crunch and made it more fun to eat. Although I really like some of the GoLean cereals, my body doesn't do well with the soy proteins so I pretty much stick to adding Cheerio's now.

A few more weeks (late Oct/early Nov) and my 34" pants don't fit. So what started as a modest effort to avoid buying new clothes resulted in the need to buy new clothes anyway. Though, I didn't feel as bad buying the smaller sizes - first 32" and finally 30". My X-Large shirts also no longer fit - medium and even small were now much more appropriate. Around this time, my weight also stabilized at 160 and I started to receive some comments along the lines of "is everything alright?", "are you dying?", "you could stand to gain some weight".

Now came the part I feared. Having lost some weight in the past only to have gained it back (and then some), I was (and still am) extremely nervous about maintaining my weight. However, a big difference this time is that I'm not skipping meals and the meals I'm having are both enjoyable and filling. I'm also continuing to learn more about what types of foods to eat and how to enhance/improve my diet even further. And, so far, I'm continuing to get exercise on a regular basis. The good news is that after 2 trips to Europe where food, beer and wine was plentiful, I returned each time at the same weight at which I left!

Summary of what worked for me:
- its easier to lose a lot of weight when you have a lot to lose
- motivation or some kind of trigger was key for me
- eliminate beer during the week, light beer only on weekends (I now drink regular beer on occasion as well)
- change from coffee to green tea (I now drink some coffee again)
- yogurt instead of ice-cream or other sweets for desert
- snack on fresh fruit
- don't skip breakfast, oatmeal is my standard now
- look for foods lower in fat calories when shopping
- exercise - a mix of cardio and strength is best

Monday, May 08, 2006

Tuscan Coast - Final Thoughts

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
Here are some end of trip reflections, lessons and observations:
- VBT does a good job with the biking portion of the trip, but you're likely better off getting the land only option and making your own arrangements for before and after
- don't bring a computer on a bike trip through the countryside
- men don't where shorts in Italy (Europe?) so no need to bring any
- don't bring so many guidebooks, a local map, tourist info booth and the hotel concierge can provide all the information you need
- write down the names of wines and other products at the time you have them - don't trust that you'll remember the names later
- spend time learning as much of the local language before travelling as possible - it will make the trip all that more enjoyable.
- as I watched the news on a local station in Rome, I saw that someone had robbed the Pitti Palace and someone had attempted to rob the Bulgari store in front of the Spanish steps by driving a tow truck through the window. Was trouble following me?


Rome - Trip Home

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
I was picked up from the hotel on time (9am) and was once again amazed at the traffic in Rome. Even miles from the city the traffic was heavy. A minor car/motorbike accident only added to the delays at one stretch. However, once the driver was on the highway and past the accident, we were zipping along to the airport at over 100mph. Can't say that I've ever travelled that fast in a taxi before!
My plan to do last minute shopping and gift buying at the Rome airport was foiled by a lack of selection and limited time. The remainder of the trip home was uneventful - the flights were on time and I was at Logan aiport at about 5:30pm on Friday. In flight movies were King King which was much different than I expected and enjoyable and Fun with Dick & Jane which was pretty much what I expected, but also enjoyable.

Rome - Day 3, Afternoon

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
After St Peters, I returned to Compo Di Fiore and see the market. It was actually a bit smaller than I expected - with the market in Florence being more interesting both in size and variety in products offered.
From here, I headed back to the ruins hoping to find the way to get into the Palantino which I didn't come across when I first walked through. This time I found it and also found that the ticket that gets you in to the Palantino also gets you into the Colleseum. That was a nice surprise as I no longer had to debate whether it was worth paying money to enter.
It was nice to walk through the Palantino area as it offered some nice vistas looking out over some of the other ruins. It was also a great day and it was just nice being out for a walk.
Even though I claim no talent in this area, I tried to get a little creative with the picture taking - here's an interesting mix of geometries, colors and shade that I thought came out OK.
After the Palantino I headed to the Colleseum and realized that by buying the ticket at the Palantino ticket office, I was able to bypass the long lines at the Colleseum ticket office and walk right in. So, keep that in mind if you ever find yourself in Rome.
Nothing too impressive on the inside, though the building itself is impressive in its scale. I would imagine it was even more impressive in the age that it was in active use.
I have lunch at an upscale pizzeria chain called PizzaRe where I had the best pizza of the trip.
More wandering and shopping (though no buying) in the afternoon, before settling into a cafe for a very large beer (I think the glass held 1 liter). As the day was hot, it was nice to relax in the shade, read the paper and watch people go by.
Oh, I should also mention that at some point the day before I returned to the Trevi fountain and tossed two coins in over my shoulder as I had forgotten to do so on my first visit.

Rome - Day 3, St Peters (cont)

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
Next up was a climb to the top of the dome. A small line here, but was on the stairs on the way up in about 10 minutes. I opted to save 3 euro's and use the stairs for the entire climb. Only problem was the group in front of me was going very, very slow. About half way up, I was able to move past as they stopped to rest. As I reach the final part of the climb, I find myself once again behind a very large woman that is climbing the stairs every so slowly...
Finally, the top! It was a beautiful morning and the views of Rome were quite nice. On the way down, I stopped at the halfway point and took this picture of the statues that overlook St Peters sq. Kind of looks like a rock band waving to the crowd!

Rome - Day 3, St Peters

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
The last full day of the trip! Although I didn't want the bike riding to end, I did feel 2 1/2 days in Rome was enough to see highlights of the city.
Another early start today as I plan on heading back to St Peter's to get a look inside and climb to the top of the dome. I get to the square a little after 8am, stood on the magic location that causes all of the columns in the square to magically turn into a single column (I was actually standing on the wrong magic spot when someone spotted me and yelled out "It's the other one!") and was then able to get into the church with no wait at all.
My expectations were rather low as I've been in so many churches throughout Europe that they no longer fail to impress. St Peters was definitely an exception. The interior was truly magnificent and the scale was immense. It was also actively in use with probably have a dozen sermons taking place in various naves within the church - and there were still enough other locations for probably a dozen more!
The visit was further enhanced by the way the sun illuminated the interior from the windows above the entrance.

Rome - Day 2

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
I get up for an early breakfast (nothing special about this hotel's breakfast - primarily cereals and pastry) and set out for the Vatican - about a 20 minute walk from the hotel. As I get close, the sidewalks start to fill with others so I start following them, assuming we're all headed to the same place. As I get in line, I'm confused by the large number of groups in line and others carrying instruments. Seems a bit odd for a museum visit. I was also confused by the location - I was in St Peters Sq and I thought the museum entrance was somewhere else. A check of the guidebook and asking of others indicates that I'm in line for the weekly Wednesday mass with the Pope. While that would be fun as well, I leave and head around the corner looking for the museum line. A few turns away and I find it - growing very rapidly as people are coming in from all directions and getting in line. And, there's still close to an hour before the museum opens!
A little bit later, David spots me and he and Jennifer join me. Before leaving the hotel, I ran into one of the couples that went on the walking tour of Rome. They shared horror stories of how bad the guide was and how many people were leaving the tour very shortly after it started. As Jennifer had warned about this guide, I passed along the story about how right she truly was.
The museum opens right on schedule and they actually do a tremendous job getting people through the screening and ticket buying process so we are in the museum fairly quickly. And, given the size of the museum which is spread through many rooms in many buildings, its not that crowded.
The place is amazing. Each room or courtyard is filled with fresco's, paintings or statues. The scale is also impressive - the map room/corridor (pictured) seems to go on forever with a tremoundous ceiling and walls filled with paintings of various countries or regions, highlighting the locations of all the churches. It was fun to explore the map of Italy and re-trace where we rode our bikes as many of the towns were old enough to be on these maps.
We toured the first part of the museum at a good pace, wanting to get to the Sistene Chapel before it became too crowded (though not so fast that there wasn't time to stop for an espresso or cappucino at the museum cafe before entering).
Entering the chapel is truly amazing. The scale of the room and the paintings are hard to convey in pictures. We may have spent close to an hour in here looking at the various works that adorn the ceiling and walls. Our necks ached from merely looking at it - its hard to imagine actually creating the painting on a daily basis. Climbing up and down whatever scaffolding was used during its creation to check dimensions and perspective must have been a huge daily workout on its own.
And, in another chance meeting, while in the Sistine Chapel we run into the couple from the VBT tour that I was talking to earlier in the morning about the horrific walking tour. They shared more of how bad it was - though we had to be constantly reminded of keeping quiet in the chapel.
After the chapel, we view some of the other famous statues and paintings in the museum collection and backtrack a bit through some of the earlier rooms.
After about 4 hours, we had about all we could absorb and headed out. We walked around the corner hoping to get into St Peters, but the line was extremely long and didn't appear to be moving much. So, on to lunch.
We headed in the general direction of Campo De Fiori - a piazza that is supposed to have a wonderful open air fruite and produce market along with some interesting shopping streets nearby. On the way, David spots a small restaurant with some outdoor seating on a quiet side street, so we sit down to a nice leisurly lunch (mussels and salad for me).
After lunch and a brief exploration of a nearby supermarket (I still love going into local markets in all the cities I visit), we part ways and I continue exploration of Rome on my own.
On reaching Campo De Fiori, the markets had already been packed up and left the square, so I'll need to return earlier in the day tomorrow.
The remainder of the day is spent pretty much on random walks and exploration of various streets and stores of Rome. Since it was already quite late in the day, I figured getting in line for any other tourist activity would be wasted effort.
On return to the hotel, I tried one more time to get connected to the Internet from my room. I popped open the laptop and sat as close as I could to the window. Success! I found that if I was reasonably still, I could hook up to an unprotected WiFi for no fee. After quickly checking e-mail, I was able to get the majority of the photos posted to Flickr and some of the earlier notes I had typed posted to the Blog.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Rome - Day 1, Afternoon

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
With map in hand, I explored a number of the Piazza's, walked by or through a number of the ruins, walked by the colleseum and entered the Panthenon. I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting, but the walk and the sights were a bit of a let down. I probably should have done a bit of reading on Rome's history to get a bit more out of my exploration.
I continued to explore, ending up at the Trevi fountain where I hear someone call out my name. I turn and see David & Jennifer! Kind of random occurrence to be in the middle of a large, foreign city and cross paths with someone you know. As they opted to do the "land only" portion of the tour, they were staying in a different hotel than the rest of the group. We chatted briefly and made plans to meet in the morning in the line for the Vatican museums.
On to the Spanish steps where I enjoy an overpriced beer while watching the crowds go by (and up and down the steps). I had a light dinner tonight at a wine bar and decided to head back to the ruins after the sunset as they were supposed to be dramatically lit making Rome at night very different from Rome during the day.
I found the colleseum to be pretty much the only thing that was worth seeing at night - it seemed like the lights were either not on at the other ruins or the guide books overstated how wonderful the walk would be.
Time for bed.

Arrival in Rome

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
Its about a 3 hour bus ride to Rome. Actually, it's about 2 hours to Rome, with another hour spent in the traffic that seems to grow exponentially as we approach the city. There were also a large number of motorcycles and motorbikes zipping in and out of traffic using pretty much any open pavement they could find - even it meant riding into oncoming traffic for brief stretches. Navigating a full size bus through the busy, narrow streets of Rome was a bit of an adventure. At one point, we took the side mirror off of a car that tried to squeeze past on the left. At another point, we tried to back up on a narrow one way street with cars queued behind us and motorbikes trying to squeeze past. Lots of honking and people on the streets looking on in amusement (good thing the windows were slightly tinted!). After a few loops and detours, we finally stop in front of the hotel and are able to unload.
This part of the trip was not well organized. A hotel concierge and another gentleman were there, but it was only after a while that we realized the gentleman was the VBT rep and it was only after a bit more questioning that we found out that our luggage would be taken care of and that we should check in and then assemble for a brief orientation. As Ted was not staying for the Rome extension, they juggled rooms a bit which meant that I had a room to myself for the stay in Rome.
The first part of the orientation consisted of a map and some pre-printed information on the hotel and a few nearby restaurants. The accent and speed at which the rep talked made it a challenge to keep up, but he was pretty much just reading through what was on the handouts. About halfway through the orientation, Frank, the rep that was supposed to meet us arrived.
It turns out that this is the same rep that greated Jennifer on an earlier VBT trip in Italy that she took. She had nothing but terrible things to say about him.
Rather than orienting us, he spent time selling an optional walking tour that he hosted that cost 30 euro and telling us that the best way to get through the vatican is to pretend to limp with strained breathing. Although joining the tour was tempting (with many others deciding to take it), I opted to head out and explore on my own.

End of biking, on to Rome

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
After breakfast this morning, we reluctantly say our goodbyes to our guides - Franco, Claudio and Luigi - as we board a bus that will take us to Rome.
The guides did a wonderful job during the tour ensuring that any issues were dealt with (even small things like letting me borrow a pair of sunglasses for a few days until I could buy my own) and that the supply of water, fruit and cookies was always available when needed during the ride. With one of the guides in the van and the other 2 riding with the group, there was no need to worry about anything other than enjoying the ride. If a problem did occur, they were there to take care of it. On one of the rides, Ted got a flat and they quickly arrived with a complete replacement wheel in the time it took to take the flat tire off the rim. All of this will be missed on my rides in Cambridge!

Biking - Day 6, Evening

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
Dinner tonight was a barbeque which started with a wonderful buffet of appetizers - very similar to the Meditteranean lunch of the other day. The buffet included octopus once again, but this time it was sliced, mixed with a few other items and served as a salad. I took a bit to try and it was much better than expected - not as chewy as calamari.
Allesandro told us his parents opened the hotel with the philosophy that guests should feel like part of the family. This was accomplished - all of the staff was very friendly and engaging, his father gave David & Jennifer a ride when they got a little lost while exploring and the parents ate with the guests at the barbeque. Even their dogs joined us, but were well mannered enough to stay out of the dining area until after the main course was served.

The Oak Tree - "We will never understand why"

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
After the ride, there was time to explore the 300+ acres that the hotel was located on. It turns out that 300 acres is a lot of land, so I actually only explored a small portion of it.
The gently rolling land included horse stables & trails, grape vineyards, olive tree orchards, the beautiful owners house perched on the top of the hills and an old lone oak tree perched on the top of another. In his introduction to the hotel & property, Allesandro mentioned that this was a favorite spot for meditation and reflection and that there was a small sign beneath the tree that he encouraged us to find & read. It was a simple wooden sign with the following phrase chiseled in "We will never understand why". The sign was created after Sept 11, but placed in a setting like this it could just as easily refer to our existence and the natural world that surrounds us.
The tranquility of sitting there on a wonderfully warm evening with a 360 degree view of the landscape in all directions, the hills dotted with small towns, listening to the birds sing and reflecting on the wonderful rides of the past week was magical.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Biking - Day 6, Morning

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
The final day of riding. Has it been a week already?
Of course, finishing with an uphill yesterday means we start the day with a nice downhill. That's a good thing as many choose to do an optional ride to Vetulonia. This was a climb of a little over 1000 feet in 4km with no oportunity for rest on the way.
After some exploration of the town at top, we headed back down - but weren't able to fully enjoy the ride down as we had to stop several times for a bike race that was heading up the hill.
On reaching the bottom we learned that the restaurant wasn't going to hold the reservation and we had about 30 minutes to go about 20km (12.5 miles) to the seaside town of Castiglione della Pescaia.
Though we gave it our best, we didn't quite make it. The good news is that seats were still available at the pizzeria when we arrived. Another good pizza and I'm starting to really enjoy salads with oil & vinegar dressing.
After some exploration of the town after lunch followed by a gelato, we hopped on the bikes for the final ride of the trip. The ride ended with the same hill as yesterday, but it was a bit easier today - must have been more fatigued than I realized yesterday. When we reached the hotel, no one was happy as we turned the bikes over to Franco & Claudio for the last time - everyone wanted the rides to continue for at least a few more days.

Biking - Day 5, Evening

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
It was nice to be staying in the countryside again. The view from the hotel window compares with any you would find on a postcard!
Tonight we're greated by the son of the hotel owners who is in charge of the daily operations. He gives a history of the property and the many products that they make - including the various wines, one of which we sampled during the talk.
Can't remember everything we had for dinner, but the dining room was quite nice and I ordered a Brunello di Montalcino - one of the better wines of the trip. And, any dinner that ends with tiramisu is always a good (though I preferred the version served by the Elisabetta hotel earlier in the week).

Biking - Day 5

Originally uploaded by pdbreen.
Today is another transfer day - leaving the spa to arrive at another agritourismo by days end. It's also the longest ride of the trip at about 75km (about 47 miles). But, first a return to the wonderful breakfast buffet at the spa. No chocolate croissants! Jennifer keeps checking in with the kitchen and just minutes before we need to leave for the daily briefing, a waitress brings out several piping hot croissants fresh from the oven. Even better than yesterday!
A long gradual uphill in the early morning is rewarded by an incredible ride in the late morning - a long stretch of winding road that is mostly downhill. Traffic on all the roads throughout the trip has been very light (VBT did a good job scouting places to ride) which meant that it was possible to get moving pretty darn fast on this stretch of road for a good long while. This is another stretch of road it would be fun to do over and over again.
After some coffee in another Tuscan hill town, we continue on for a few more miles before stopping for lunch at the Tuscan equivalent of a "biker bar" - only all the bikes were pedal powered. Lunch was simple, but quite good (possibly enhanced by hnuger) and the wine was quite good - though none of us can recall the name.
All through lunch, the sky threatens rain, but it holds off and we all leave for gelato in a town a few miles away. Although each day is somewhat similar to the day before and each of the towns we visit somewhat similar to one we've been through before, the repetition is in no way boring or dull - its a routine that would be easy to follow for weeks on end!
Back on the bikes for the last bit of the ride to the hotel. The finish was tough - a bit of a headwind followed by an uphill just prior to the hotel entrance. Everyone was thoroughly exhausted when we reached the hotel.