A Finish Forestalled

Corona Warn. It works.

After months of wondering whether or not Corona-Warn actually worked, I finally received proof positive confirmation that it does. The moment the strange new notification squeezed its way into the queue of never-to-be-opened Reddit suggested posts was a moment of strange emotions. First came the novelty—wow, this actually does something! And then came the concern. Of course, I would’ve rather went through this whole pandemic wondering whether or not Corona-Warn did something than ever have exposure to COVID.

Since I got my full vaccination, I’ve decided to start trying to carve normality back into my daily routine. I am still taking advantage of the work-from-home offer in our office but I started daring to do small things that were previously out of the question. That meant getting on a train to have coffee in Berlin. And popping up in various restaurants even without a reservation just so I can move them off my Trello list. And stepping inside a movie theater finally so that The Rise of Skywalker is not the last film I have ever watched inside a proper theater; and oh boy is Dune a big gun to break this duck.

Dune!

(Note: While I still think one of my gods, Christopher Nolan, is rather snobbish, if not outright mistaken, for insisting that his latest film Tenet is an experience that can only be realized inside a proper movie theater, I gotta give it to Denis Villeneuve. Dune is an experience for the big screen. Or, actually, it’s not so much the screen but the expensive acoustics of a movie theater. That film engulfs the audience and the sound—shout out to Hans Zimmer’s ever-impeccable work—is a huge part of its magic. In my pantheon of contemporary film makers, Christopher Nolan just had a companion.

But still, great films should have enough to stand on even if the sound is streamed through a ~30EUR Bluetooth speaker.)

I also decided to see buy tickets to Alanis Morissette’s concert in Hamburg. I’m not exactly a huge fan and I even came late to the party. I discovered her music just a few years ago alongside entrenching my fascination for dark and clear skies. My Spotify streamed Jagged Little Pill as I wrote TypeScript for Kalibrr. Nonetheless, I thought it would be such a strong “pandemic over” statement, being able to join a crowd in a live performance. Heck it was even booked in a football stadium not five minutes away from my apartment by bike. What’s not to like?

Unfortunately, for the time being, I would have to keep striking out my usage of the verb see when talking about this concert. It was canceled, due to the very thing I thought it made a statement against. Apparently, it’s still too cumbersome to bring a whole production on the road given the situation. Score one for the pandemic there.

Zanshin Dojo Outdoor Lessons

Another thing I have taken to is that, finally, I’ve set foot inside Zanshin Dojo’s premises for the first time since March 2020. In between the first and the second waves, Zanshin Dojo started to offer outdoor classes. Attending these sessions was actually the primary reason I bought my bike. Of course, as soon as they could, indoor classes were also offered at a limited capacity. But despite the withdrawal of outdoor offerings due to the unsuitable conditions of autumn, I opted not to take any indoor classes; I thought the risk was just not worth it. This decision will be vindicated as Germany went into a second lockdown just a few weeks after the outdoor sessions stopped.

And then, it happened.

Coming to my senses after an initial dismissiveness—I received the notification almost a week from the purported exposure date; never mind that the long incubation period is among what made this pandemic a smashing global phenomenon—I noticed that the exposure date fell on a Thursday. I could’ve only contracted it in my first ever indoor class since the pandemic began, not in the restaurant I visited that week, as I initially thought.

This suspicion would later be confirmed as I received a call from Zanshin Dojo itself, informing me that someone among the participants of the class I took on 14 Oct tested positive for COVID. The Global Pandemic 2, Chad 0.

(By the way, no worries at all. My quick test after the fact returned negative results. Unsurprising as I am fully vaccinated anyway. I even went in for my second indoor session that week.)

But still, I am rather put down by how the activities I am taking up precisely in a personal attempt to declare the pandemic over do nothing but keep reminding me that it is in fact not yet over. I don’t remember asking for a Damocles’ sword ever hanging above my plans.

I even thought my next blog post would be the first in a while to not bear the tag “coronatimes” and yet, here we are. Frustratingly, the pandemic finish seems forestalled until further notice.


I have already talked about the things I’ve been doing to keep myself occupied outside of work in this pandemic. A curious observation for me is how my focus shifted towards active pursuits, rather than passive. Creative rather than merely consumptive. I’ve planned to spend my days reading books and while I’ve had quite a success on that front during last year’s spring, my free time efforts have shifted drastically after I got my Wacom tablet.

I’ve been teasing a comparison of what a game changer Wacom is for me, as opposed to my previous workflow of drawing on paper and then scanning it (with my phone). After my injury, my spring has been spent recovering while my summer has been busy utilizing my rehabilitated left arm. But today, you are in luck. I have some season-appropriate drawing comparisons to make.

The manual workflow needs a lot of post-processing—time I could just spend making another piece and even then I haven’t really found a reliable post recipe. Not to mention, a very controlled lighting set-up that I simply didn’t have. Take for example, this portrait I drew of Death of The Endless from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, circa 2018.

Death from Sandman (colored pencils and sketch on Canson paper)

I want to say from the get-go that the actual sketch looks better. This is digitized from Google PhotoScan with a Google Pixel phone, the best of several attempts. Of course, I can’t really exhibit how the actual piece comes across to me but what I noticed here is how the colors are far less vibrant and how there’s a lot of detail lost in the shading and the line work.

I am actually really pleased with PhotoScan. It’s not its fault that it isn’t a scanner for artwork. It had to make algorithmic choices with the data presented to it. And this is where the choices lead to.

That said, how about straight from the camera app? Will it do any better?

Death from Sandman (colored pencils on Canson paper)

The midtones and shadows are immediately better at the expense of the highlights (i.e., Death’s pale skin). Better, and yet still leaves much to be desired.

Before we go any further, I think I should explain what I’m going for in this piece. I wanted it to be a rendition of that scene in The Kindly Ones where Morpheus talks to his sister for a final time. I have referred to this scene (and to this piece) as “It Always Rains on the Unloved”. There is also some intentional imagery behind the framing. Do you have any idea what that might be?

Back then, I didn’t really have a visual motif to go for. I just wanted to do a good drawing of Death.

Which leads us to today! I have decided to recreate this drawing using Wacom. The past year I have been really learning a lot about illustration and draftsmanship. You have seen me go for a visual style before, with varying levels of success. This time, let’s see. I wanted to go for a very early 90s comic book look, reminiscent of when Sandman first came out, as well as, to some extent, the jarring flat visual style of The Kindly Ones arc, where this scene heralds from.

death-portrait

I have to say, this went better than I expected. I am actually personally satisfied!

Back when I first mentioned my new digital painting hobby, I mused at the outcome of re-drawing Embrr, The World’s Most Dognified Dog, The Biggest Puppy I Know, etc. I noted how the illustration I made of him back when we still shared residence had a very soft boyish character to it whereas my newer attempt painted his features in a more compact bulk. I see a similar shift in this exercise with Death.

My 2018 attempt at Death had softer features; the digital version, in contrast, has an angular face and an almost diminutive framing, further emphasized by the additional space at the right side of the piece. In fact, the digital version reminds me of someone I have drawn previously though, unfortunately, it’s been a while since I last saw this reference in person.

death-comic

I really intended this to be a straight-up portrait, but the visual style I achieved just compelled me to make this comic-captioned version, like it’s straight from the stories. Though the portrait’s inspiration came from The Kindly Ones, this text is adapted from the haunting closing pages of the World’s End arc. How postmodern isn’t it?

The digital paintings I have posted in this blog is just the tip of the iceberg that is my oeuvre. What’s more is that, save for the pets, the portraits I’ve posted here have been exercises in implementing a specific visual style; they don’t really reflect the techniques that I’ve come to develop and rely on, in my free time learning digital art. So, I decided to do another piece that is in my own style.

Death: The Sound of Her Wings

Coming to comic book stores near you!

A few closing notes

  • While I am satisfied with my draftsmanship, I gotta admit I wanted this last one to look a bit more like the previous one. I mean, it is still recognizably Death of The Endless and The Endless take on different forms depending on the viewer but it seems the viewer has changed slightly in between portraits. My point is, I’m not yet good enough for consistent character designs.
  • In making these pieces, I actually broke a rule I’ve been practicing and that’s to never use the extremes of #FFFFFF (white) and #000000 (black). That is, once you go black you never go back you paint yourself into a corner, committing that this will be the darkest shadow (or lightest highlight, in case of white) of your picture. No one is ever ready to make that commitment, unless your are drawing Death of The Endless, I guess.
  • Maybe using the extremes of black and white is inevitable when you’re going for a 90s comics aesthetic but I couldn’t justify an extreme shadow in my personal style. Hence, I used a brush with opacity features in order to bring some variation and character into the darkest areas of the image, though it was loaded with #000000 black.
  • All that said, I am really pleased with how my color choices came together for the last one! It seems it really helps to know a thing or two about color theory.

P.S. This is a Part I. If I ever get around to it, and the subject matter coalesces into something coherent, we will have a Part II. Thank you for subscribing to my RSS feed.

The Frustrations of Bicycle Maintenance

Entrance to the Winterhude Stadtpark

Author’s Note: I desperately wanted the title of this post to make a reference to the famous Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig, one of the many books I have not yet read. But given the actual events I am going to relate, I felt it disingenuous to imply any relationship to the state of Zen. Hey, I may be a small blog, but this blogger has ethical standards!

A tranquil early morning sun, bright and warm as a fond memory, lit the grounds of the spacious Winterhude Stadtpark. Just less than a month ago I had my bike tires changed and it is with the accompanying Enthusiasm for New and Shiny Things that I set about exploring the sparsely-peopled grounds. A ride this early (and, frankly, even earlier) is something I have long since planned; unfortunately, given my predilections to staying up late, you will understand why I needed some extra motivation to even be riding here.

Again, I don’t really see myself as a cyclist—bikes are transport first, exercise second—but these new tires just improved my relationship to cycling. I immediately noticed that uphills are ever so slightly more bearable and I objectively became faster too. Just when I thought I would no longer get the satisfaction of breaking a personal record in Strava, I go ahead and improve my record in a particularly thrilling sector of my usual route by a stunning 10 seconds and that’s without even trying, on my very first ride with the new tires.

Of course, I might’ve also become fitter than last year. But I really want to think it’s the tires. After my elbow is well enough to ride my bike again, I wouldn’t even try to go fast in my stock tires as they were looking all the worse for wear.

Planetarium Hamburg

It did not matter to me that only my tires (and, well, pedals) were new; I rode around the Stadtpark, maneuvering my way around dirt paths with hardly any worry. There were barely any people in the park this early in a Saturday and I could do laps to my heart’s content. My new tires—Schwalbe Marathon Plus—had been nothing but a pleasure and, at the moment, I knew I had quite a budget of rubber to burn through. Not that I had any particular need or desire to do so. I decide to descend towards the pond, a central feature of the park, and ride along the edge because it’s a beautiful morning so why not?

My mind focused on navigating the short but rough downwards incline, I notice flecks of shiny green in the dust: shards of a broken bottle. I panic, knowing they could cut my tires but it’s too late to change lines. I ride over the broken shards, prepared to dismount immediately if my tires deflate. Thankfully, they don’t. I let the downhill momentum exhaust itself before finally dismounting to inspect my tires.

Visually, they look fine. I squeeze on them, time honored test of whether you have a flat or not, and they are as firm as when I picked them up from the bike shop. They even survive the trip home and have no issue at all in my usual Thursday rides to my Kickboxing classes at Zanshin Dojo.

One thing I’ve made a point of in the last two years is to never waste the sun. As a newcomer in these northern latitudes who arrived in the transitory months between spring and summer, I found it nice, cordial, but odd, when coworkers would end meetings with the pleasantry, “Enjoy the sun”. Having lived in a tropical climate until then, it never occurred to me that in other latitudes, fall and winter can be depressingly dark.

I mean, I’ve read books. I’m not an idiot. But it still hits differently when you live what you’ve only read about.

Admittedly, this simple pleasantry has become an imposition lately, underlined by the pandemic lockdowns as well as the fact that Hamburg’s weather does not exactly make for ideal and pleasant summers, the kind that would make bards wax lyrical about beauty. So when the sun is bright and shining outside, you go out, no two ways about it.

And so it was the case the Saturday following my Stadtpark excursion. I did not really have any plans but the sun was ripe for a ride. So I get dressed down and go down to my apartment’s bike cellar to get my bike. I notice that my rear tire is flat. Not worrying as I have an air pump, let me just go get it.

I notice that it is flat big time.

I notice a big gash at the edge of the tire.

And just like that, my pleasant weather Saturday nonplans turned into a couple of hours in my apartment’s basement trying to rescue a damaged tire without the proper tools. This was an eventuality I should’ve prepared for but did not. I regularly watch GCN but, for all the enthusiasm and good will they project about biking, all their daily drivers cost four-figures in Euros, at least. Their video about changing your bike tire, for instance, tells viewers to use the quick-release lever on the wheel. My wheels, do not have quick release, Si. It would also tell you to press a button on your breaks to open them and give your wheel clearance. Yup, another thing my venerable but humble bike, The Adventure Time, does not have.

Note: I like GCN. Their content and explainers are welcoming and not condescending to any skill/interest level but Park Tools’ library of content has been far more useful for me. Park Tools’ channel covers what GCN lacks for as a consequence of their fancy schmancy Pinarello frames and Shimano group sets.

I know that the DIY mindset has a certain association towards sustainable and frugal living but one thing I find often overlooked in this movement is the fact that you still need a certain amount of capital to get started doing repairs on your own. Before you can use whatever is just lying around, you first need to have a few things (or more) lying around. There’s no pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. Tools and spare parts don’t grow on trees.

If I may digress for a bit into the world of computers, this is what I found so puzzling about the design of the Raspberry Pi, especially the earlier editions. It featured solely an on-board HDMI display port which made it incompatible with any of the monitors I had access to in 2013, and I was already working in the industry by then. Sure you could use adaptors but, first, you need to find adaptors!

Maybe, the touted cost-efficiency of DIY repairs depends on the item you want to repair. A spool of thread and some needles to patch up a pair of jeans is very accessible, easy to learn/use, and, yes, leagues cheaper than buying a new pair of jeans but for basically anything beyond that, you’d need tools, spare parts, as well as some training, all of which have a considerable upfront cost. Not to mention, hurdling that barrier does not completely preclude the possibility of failure.

(Ironically, what I really like about Software Engineering is the relatively cheap cost of mistakes. You can’t CTRL+Z a Civil Engineering miscalculation.)

As such I have learned to repair things in the least invasive manner to begin with. The best fix in the world is the one that does not call for disassembly. Alternatively, why fix the hardware if you can compensate for it in software?

So imagine my dread at being faced with a repair task that is pure hardware and has no uninvasive option. That tire and inner tube would need to be replaced. Heck, the wheel itself needs to come off at least.

But first I needed tools.

I already had a small 15mm wrench that I tried to use on my pedals a while back, for unrelated reasons. I bought it because it was cheap but unfortunately, this taught me the hard way what makes good tools. Small and cheap meant little to no leverage. I was unable to remove my pedals with it.

So I needed a wrench with sufficient leverage.

And speaking of levers, apparently there’s a very special type of tool called tire levers that you use to unseat a bike tire from the rim. I also needed that and I managed to order this small item from a local bike shop online that very night. This provided me with some comfort in my distress because I don’t remember seeing this tool in any of the bike shops I occasionally visit.

Naturally, tools are useless without the spare parts. I needed to buy tires and inner tubes. Despite the premature failure of the Schwalbe Marathon Plus, I took the events to show that this particular tire managed almost 20km on borrowed time. That sounded like a nice feature so I decided to stick with it. Not to mention it would bother my meticulous self endlessly to run two different types of tire in my bike, let alone different brands.

The Sunday that followed was uneventful but for this exact reason I was annoyed. I have long since learned that there is no situation that I detest more than those in which I feel helpless. So long as I can struggle against something, I can find a certain peace, a certain satisfaction that my fate is not completely out of my hands.

Waiting is not a struggle.

Monday arrives. I visit this nearby bike shop for the first time because I am certain they have the exact tires I am looking for. I buy a pair of tires and a pair of inner tubes because I was certain I’m going to fuck up at least once. At this point, it also does not hurt to have spare supplies at hand.

Tuesday arrives. The tire levers I ordered online should arrive tomorrow. I visit BOC, perhaps the largest bike shop in Hamburg, and I finally get myself a pretty hefty wrench. If this does not remove the damn nut, I don’t know what will. I also see a set of tire levers and, despite having ordered a set already, I buy it anyway.

That turned out to be a good decision.

I return home and immediately my Feierabend is dedicated to replacing my rear tire.

Engineering

It was frustrating.

I’ve already related how much I value my self-sufficiency in living as a stranger in a strange land. I take a certain pride every time I complete a conversation in German, no matter how short, no matter how imperfect I sounded, because like Python, I learned German more or less completely on my own. But for the first time, as I was in the common garden of my apartment trying to swallow my frustrations at reinserting the damn tire, I dearly wished I had someone to teach me.

It started to rain and the tire is still not properly seated. I hurriedly gathered all the separated parts and brought them back inside the basement. I already feel like I failed to take care of my belongings when I saw the tire damage last Saturday but now I have to leave The Adventure Time broken and vulnerable and in the basement’s darkness, no less. Undeterred, I decided to bring the half-finished tire upstairs inside my unit and continue working on it; thankfully, I had the good sense to clean off all the gunk in the gears before I even removed the damaged tires.

So, in my apartment, over a small makeshift work area of newspapers I picked up for unrelated reasons several weeks back, I continued my thankless toil. I have no idea how it eventually came to pass but sections, arcs, of the tire started to seat firmly on the rim. I get the idea to use my tire levers to help me in the process; this will turn out to be a mistake. But at least, in this Tuesday night, I have an accomplishment.

Wheel

Behold, the first tire I ever attached myself. It’s the IKEA effect speaking, I am well aware, but what a beauty!

Inflated to a little over the minimum pressure required, I am satisfied with my handywork. I even still had time to go downstairs and reattach it properly to The Adventure Time. That night I slept with the peace of mind that I did not leave The Adventure Time in a vulnerable condition in a dark basement.

Now, English has this curious expression for disappointment, “to burst someone’s bubble” which sort of compares a person’s happiness to a bubble (or if you are J.K. Rowling, a balloon) the bursting of which is the equivalent of dismay.

The following morning, I go down to check on my bike on a whim. That Wednesday morning, my body still sore from yesterday’s exertions, the bubble was my bike’s rear inner tube and it burst overnight.

With the first stage of grief imposing itself on me in that cramped and dirty bike cellar, I tried to inflate it in vain. There is an audible exhaust of air; the tire would not even take form. I take a deep breath through my nose, the way we were taught to stay composed in Taekwondo. My lungs fill with air in a way my rear tire won’t. I exhale, my head clearing just a little bit. The faster I process my grief over this setback, the better it will be.

Wednesday is typically my grocery day for no particular reason than, well, it’s a pretty day to pay for things at the cashier. I would usually walk to the grocery at around 7PM (that’s 19:00 for you in European) be done in less than an hour and by around 8PM (or 20:00), I will be done sorting out my groceries, taking out my trash and I’ll be settling down to read a book or watch Netflix. But not today, no no no. Having done all my chores for the day, I pick up my orange toolbox and a LED lamp and proceeded to disassemble The Adventure Time once more.

This time I worked faster. I removed the inner tube and inspected the damage. The rupture wasn’t difficult to locate as it was exactly on the longitudinal fold of the tube, around a centimeter long deflated—a tell tale sign that I simply messed up my first attempt and pinched the tube between the tire and the rim. Knowledge from research suggests that this would commonly happen if you use tire levers to reseat the tire into the rim.

So this time, I perform this arduous task with a hard embargo on using my tire levers. It was still frustrating and took some time but, despite the restraint I exercised, I definitely accomplished the task faster this time around. I worked with the assurance that it can be done and I did not mess up the measurements of the spare parts I bought.

The rubber neatly attached, I proceeded to inflate it. I have no excuses for the decision that follows other than (a) I’m a software engineer, not a bike mechanic and (b) I am just tired at this point but I inflate my tire to just below the recommended pressure. I decided to attach it and leave it like so overnight, reasoning that if it does not burst until morning, there are no pinches and I will proceed to inflating it to the recommended pressure.

Thursday arrives, that one day in the week where I actually have a destination to bike to; it’s the usual day I attend Kickboxing lessons. Eager to see the results of my experiment, I go down to the bike cellar to see that the tire has, yet again, deflated.

At this point, replacing my rear tire has transformed from a challenging little DIY excursion into an imposing Sisyphean task. My body is weary and my mind is frustrated. Once more, as yesterday, I give in to the sweeping wave of denial, my mind even venturing as far as exploring the possibility that it is, after all, not my fault. Perhaps dictated more by desperate delusions than sound reason, I tried to inflate my tire, as I did yesterday.

And what do you know, this time it actually holds air! Unlike yesterday, the tire actually takes form at least for a few seconds. There was a distinct jet of air emanating from it—it was still not rideworthy—but this was definitely an improvement over yesterday. When you are desperate, you take your wins no matter what form they take.

Thus I found myself with a crucial decision to make: do I attempt another inner tube replacement and risk riding that to Zanshin Dojo that same day or should I go to Kickboxing class by other means, heck maybe even cancel for the week?

There is probably an Economics or a Game Theory textbook somewhere using this exact scenario as an example of risk evaluation. So far I have proven to be a shitty mechanic and it is unwise to take a 9km ride on a bike repaired by someone with my track record. This does not seem to be a hard choice to perform rationally.

Alas, you are reading my blog, not an Economics or a Game Theory textbook. I have so far outlined how a series of suboptimal decisions has lead me to this predicament, this holistic exhaustion, starting with choosing a travel line across a downward slope. What’s another suboptimal decision in this story?

This is how I ended up dedicating a portion of my lunch time that day buying inner tubes from that nearby bike shop I went to last Monday. I buy not one, not two, but four spare inner tubes. I disassemble my bike once more, this time setting it aside in a convenient nook in the basement as I take the wheel to my apartment.

Our tale nears its end and I don’t want to give the false impression that I facilitated the decisive turn of the plot by myself. Again, this blogger has ethical standards. Tutorials from GCN and Park Tools having failed me, I ask YouTube’s search as if it is human, “how to avoid pinching inner tube”, which, for all the clout this blog can give a link, has lead me to this video from a certain Tony Marchand which suggested that (a) I powder the inner tube before I place it in and (b) a check to perform before I inflate the tire to minimize the probability of a pinch flat.

This time, my body has already synthesized a technique for the nail-bleeding task of reseating the tire to the rim; the whole process took me maybe 40 minutes, an indisputable improvement over my first attempt last Tuesday. The tire neatly fitted, I performed the test Tony Marchand’s video suggested. Passing that, I then proceeded to inflate my tire, this time with no half measures.

Satisfied that it is already well within the recommended operating pressure, I proceed to test it even further. Through all the disappointments, I was just thankful my mistakes manifested while the bike was at rest and not while I was riding it; QA Testing could quite literally save me another accident. So I bounce the inflated tire off my floor several times. I squeeze it, hit it lightly with a knife-hand chop. I let it stand in a corner for a few hours before I finally re-attach it to The Adventure Time.

Back in high school, one of our teachers has remarked that our class had a tendency to perform a dry run test simultaneously with the first (and only) performance of a class production. In line with my belief that everything is practice until it isn’t, I pack my bags for my Kickboxing class as The Adventure Time waited in the basement.

With a little over half an hour to go, the lines distinguishing a dry run test and a first outing blur once more as it did all those times in high school. I lightly kick the rear tire for luck before I mounted The Adventure Time. The first few moments were nothing but tense. So far, it has held my weight. That is encouraging.

“I am not Lewis Hamilton,” I repeatedly tell myself as I pedal. It has become a sort of mantra which I believed would save me another inconvenient accident and especially so today. On red lights I try to glance at my rear tire, noting every bit of deformation, especially on the part where it made contact with the road.

Pressing my brakes for a terminal stop in front of Zanshin Dojo’s makeshift outdoor gym, the tire I replaced has just survived its first 4.5km. And it’s still looking great.

After the first 4.5KM

Coda

It is Friday. Yesterday’s Kickboxing went fine except that I could definitely feel my exertions even for the most basic of techniques (writing this in retrospect, this is definitely the exhaustion from the whole week showing itself). I could at least take pride that I pushed through even when I was gassing out; you don’t improve from easy sessions.

I am standing in front of a DHL Packetstation. I scan this small note I just retrieved from my mailbox. For some mysterious reason, DHL could not deliver the tire levers I ordered online to my doorstep. So here I am, trying to sign my name on a cheap unresponsive touchscreen interface.

Though tired and without a goal in mind, I decide to ride out. It’s what cyclists would call a recovery ride. I have another purpose in mind though: despite having survived the back-and-forth trip yesterday (and has even broken the record set by its predecessor by 2 seconds, again without me even trying), I am still not quite confident with my work’s reliability. I reason that it had better fail in a controlled environment, rather than be caught by surprise when I least expect it to.

I ride to that nearby park where, last year, I observed the Comet Neowise. It has gravelly paths, comparable to those at Winterhude Stadtpark. I do a couple of laps and notice that the rear brake feels different. I wouldn’t classify it a hazard—I still get to a complete stop—but the bite is weaker than I remember. I make a mental note to learn how rim brakes work.

Still tired but satisfied, I ride back home. It is cloudy, portentous, perhaps, of next week’s weather. But through the clouds, a beautiful sunset just couldn’t hide itself.

Sunset

Stars and Friends

DSC04363

The year is 2015. A handful of months fresh from a change of jobs that was, safe to say, not planned as thoroughly as I would have preferred, I (along with my sister who tagged along) joined a curious crew into the beautiful beach of Puerto Galera. This small vacation was both a temporary respite from the sweltering summer heat and an item of curiosity off a pipe dream bucket list. For as long as I’ve started taking an interest in photography I’ve always looked up at the night sky wanting to capture what my eyes saw and maybe even more.

Fast forward to 2018, a trip/adventure that I thought I would only make once has been a more-often-than-annual reason to take vacation leaves. I’ve met some very interesting people, some of them even became friends that I wanted to personally say goodbye to, given my then-looming departure for Germany. I have photographed the beautiful sight of a galactic core from the vantage point of a fringe planet several times—might as well be countless, considering that I thought I would only see this once, maybe twice.

Sci Fi

And to my friends and coworkers, I’ve become that guy with one eye always at the night sky, who can be excused from immediate replies if there’s a super moon on the horizon, and who, with a bulky telescope, prove the science schoolbooks correct. Mars is red. Venus is beautiful. Saturn has a ring. Jupiter has spots, streaks, and satellites.

Lumos!

I remember in January of 2018 when a rare and curious phenomenon graced the Philippines: not only was it a super moon, it was also a total lunar eclipse. It was, of course, something I would not ever miss. What I did not count on was my reputation preceding me at work. In a few Facebook messages, Abie has persuaded me to organize a viewing for anyone else interested in the office.

Despite my aversion to coordinating logistics for just almost anything1, from a heap of inputs and suggestions, I’ve managed to scrap together a workable plan and conveyed those spur-of-the-moment schemes into instructions people could follow.

The night of the eclipse, the taxi we booked was unfortunately stuck in traffic so we had to walk to where he was to save time. On the radio the news broadcast covered the eclipse as it started to take place. We finally arrived at the park about an hour or less away before totality. It was crowded and festive in the pleasant January evening air; we might as well be shooting a music video for Toploader’s Dancing in the Moonlight.

After finding the group of my coworkers who have arrived earlier I prepared to mount my binoculars to my tripod. I remember saying out loud to no one in particular, “I am not prepared for this”.

“For the eclipse?” asked Aser.

“Emotionally,” I clarified.

This will sound kitschy as a German garden gnome but seeing the moon in shades of red is like seeing your lover on your wedding day2. You already know she’s beautiful but seeing her made up and extra pretty just for this one day is sweet intoxicating infatuation all over again.

As I expected, a crowd of strangers queued up to have a look through my binoculars. I normally tend to introversion but I love sharing and talking about things that make me wonder and smile and even more so when my audience appreciates why I am in awe and wonder. Needless to say, I think this passion for the sights of dark and clear skies is something I managed to convey that night.

IMG_20180131_205743

Uncharacteristic of me, I did not get to take a lot of pictures that night. The reason being, this was still several months before I bought the compact A6000. By then I only had the A35; though already small for its time, it just doesn’t compare to the new generation.


Moving to Germany, I knew that I would leave more than just my astrocamping gear behind but also friends and this loose collection of acquaintances that’s become an astronomy family/club to me.

Team Stargazing

Still, you can strip a man of all his astrophotography gear but you can’t strip a man of his passion and resourcefulness. One of the first photos I took after arriving in Hamburg is, predictably, of a beautiful spring night sky.

DSC08350

That’s taken without a tripod and in the still-bitter cold of a Northern German June night. Not bad I would say. Not at all.

Hamburg, for all its virtues, is just not ideal for astronomical observations, unfortunately. In the spring/summer when the skies have slightly better odds of being clear, the days are long. In the autumn/winter, when the nights are an imposing presence even over people’s moods, the weather is cloudy at best.

Still, you make do with the circumstances. Experience so far suggests that spring is the best time for observations in Hamburg. For all the bad things that transpired last year, there were two astronomical events that I was able to observe.

The first is the conjunction of the lovely Venus with my favorite asterism, the Pleiades.

An Offering of Light

This was taken from my apartment’s window, blown up and post-processed from a 50mm f2.8 shot. I did not use a tripod and this would not have been possible if my unit’s heater was not directly under the window.

The second one was harder to observe and not only because of cloudy Hamburg nights. It was also fainter and the lines of sight from my apartment did not afford a direct view into this beauty. For what it’s worth it was visible for far longer as it was no mere coincidental conjunction of sky lights—though I only actively tracked it for almost a week . But for the whole time it was visible, it was also “moving” at least faster than usual for celestial objects.

I am talking, of course, about the Comet Neowise.

The Comet Neowise

Hunting Neowise in late July meant that I had to take some very late-night (or early-morning, depending on how you want to frame things) bike rides. And then staying out in the cold night alone in a dark Stadtpark Eimsbüttel, with only my hoodie jacket. I even feared that I might be mistaken as a vagrant, and would have to explain myself in German (“Herr Polizei…leider habe ich kein Deutsch genug für eine Erklärung.”) but then what vagrant has an interchangeable-lens mirrorless digital camera and a bike with a smartphone for GPS guidance?3

That Neowise moved across the skies4 also meant that each night I tried to shoot/observe it, I first had to track it, a task that ate into the precious little hours of darkness—not to mention the precious few minutes of cloud clearance—that I had. In the picture I took above, you can already see the clouds creeping up on my view. I planned to take proper long exposures of this—I even borrowed a tripod from work—but I just never had enough time. Thankfully, I can stabilize myself pretty well and the A6000’s sensor is fantastic at low light to say the least.5

It’s not the picture I envisioned I would take but it’s something. At least until Neowise returns after roughly 7000 years.


In the midst of perhaps my busiest spell so far in my current job, another lunar eclipse happened in the Philippines last Wednesday. I wasn’t even aware of it; the first time it was brought to my attention was while my family was attempting to set-up and use Koopman-Hevelius, the German Equatorial Mount Telescope that I left in the Philippines.

The Koopman-Hevelius

I was actually rather indifferent to missing an opportunity to witness a lunar eclipse. Perhaps to my mind I had bigger fish to fry in the form of the tasks queued up at me at work; the past couple of weeks hasn’t exactly been smooth-sailing and a timely long weekend has been my only opportunity to decompress.

Imagine my surprise upon seeing a message from a friend telling me they took a picture of the eclipse for me, because I wasn’t there, and sorry they only had a phone, none of the fancy gear I might be used to. A touching gesture as much as it was unexpected. In the crazy reality that’s started in 2020, it’s also quite a nostalgic reminder of times gone by.

I subscribe to the idea that people won’t remember you for what you said but for how you made them feel. That’s why I always try to acknowledge even the smallest gestures of kindness. From a random “Hi” while I’m queued up at the grocery cashier with a heavily-bandaged left arm pushing my grocery cart to taking a picture of an eclipse so that I can see it even if I wasn’t there. They are all very appreciated and I want you to know, you lifted up my mood.

Here’s to the kindness of friends and of strangers, who are just friends we haven’t made yet.

  1. And, as a matter of fact, it was Abie’s job to coordinate events. As usual I’m just your humble but well-paid software engineer. []
  2. Not that I have ever married. In this simile I am relying on Hollywood’s depictions of marriage. []
  3. A vagrant who just robbed a better-off citizen, that’s what! I apologize for my sense of humor. []
  4. Let’s not be physics-pedantic with the definition of movement here, okay? []
  5. And I never really updated the firmware so I don’t have to worry about the dreaded star-eater algorithm. []

Schnee und Schade

February 6. Universitätsklinikum Hamburg-Eppendorf.

UKE

For the first time in about a week, my left elbow felt stable and secure. True, the arm was bandaged firmly to a cast but for the first time since the anaesthesia from Thursday wore off, I can truly say I feel no pain.

I was even optimistic I could be discharged soon. Maybe even tomorrow. And I was eager about it too; due to a gross miscalculation of my independence and recovery capabilities, I haven’t taken a proper bath since I got here. Thank goodness face masks are in fashion.

Of course, I knew that I still have to be extremely careful. Getting myself in this situation was already inconvenient enough. Overexerting during the long recovery process would be an even bigger setback.

In my phone I scrolled through a Trello list of things I wanted to do in Europe, plans for travels that have, of course, been put on hold by a global pandemic. A handful of activities in Hamburg—Asian restaurants, mostly—has been tagged as “POST COVID19”. I estimated that Germany would’ve reopened by the time I’m fully recovered. By then I could ride my bike once more.

And so I looked forward to that. It was motivation to hit my recovery milestones.

January 30. Beautifallage, pun intended.

Snow in Hamburg

Carefully, I start pedaling, making sure to regulate my speed. It’s the cycling equivalent of watching your step over shaky ground, except, should your footing give on shaky ground, a clever shift of body weight could yet help you. On a bike I pretty much have no idea how to adapt should I slip other than to fall gracefully; while most of my martial arts training is focused on striking, I’m no stranger to the concept of break-fall.

Note: Even with the wisdom of hindsight, I’m not sure how advisable a break-fall over ice is. All I can say is, do not expect it to be as effective as performed in training over padded ground.

After a few meters covered, a few crossings without issue, I gained confidence in my ride. Though still riding slow, I considered the snow crushed by my bike wheels as my contribution to de-icing the sidewalks of Hamburg. I didn’t plan to cover such a long distance; I planned only to spend some outdoors winter time in that beautiful autumn park near my apartment.

Beautifallage

Of course, writing about it in retrospect, with a surgical scar for a souvenir across my left elbow, it just seems careless. But at the time I was really curious how it would feel to bike through snow. And it’s not as if it was a completely ignorant move from me either; I made sure to slightly deflate my tires for better grip, the one common advice in all the “biking on snow” articles I’ve read.

To anyone who somehow got here looking for advice on how to bike on snow, here’s mine:

Don’t.

Anyway, returning to my story, after spending a few hours enjoying snow like the first timer I am and slightly fearing frostbite, I decide one final glory lap around the beautiful park, a lap I’ve done numerous times already that day. Except this time, with the small bit of urgency on my mind, I forgot my embargo on speed.

I suddenly found myself flying from my bike. It wasn’t your usual fall; it all happened so fast. I rolled on the snow and somehow felt my left arm go wrong, for lack of a better term.

The only comparison I could come up with was an F1 driver misjudging the wet track on slick tires by a just an inch or two, sending them literally flying out of race contention. Or maybe I’m just making myself sound more heroic after the fact.

The first thing I realized, with a touch of irony, was the surge of adrenaline throughout my body, therefore taking care of my slight fear of frostbite.

So there I was, ass on the snow, perhaps three meters away from my bike. Though I wore a heavy winter coat, I could tell my left arm has rotated in a way left arms are not supposed to rotate. My brain went into a half-confused state. I remember being so sure that I must be bleeding, but the snow wasn’t red, ergo I wasn’t bleeding. Still I wanted to raise my left arm higher than my heart, except that I can’t move it. I must’ve broken a bone and maybe it even tore through my skin, and therefore I should be bleeding.

Thankfully, I wasn’t. It was merely a dislocation though I had to wait in the hospital to get properly patched-up and tested. Thankful as I am for a more-than-decent emergency response system as well as medical insurance, that day I realized why hospitals are such frustrating experiences.

If your case is not serious, they will not prioritize you and you will wait. And if they are prioritizing you…let’s just say it is not the best day of your life.

I have never been more thankful for being made to wait.


Which brings us back to present day. My arm is well but I still hugely over-estimated my recovery capabilities. I managed to keep my proudly-valued independence throughout but I still can’t completely extend my left arm. I can play the guitar though. And draw; I am right-handed.

With Germany currently battling a third wave of this global pandemic, it feels like playing a waiting game in multiple fronts. Waiting for my arm’s complete recovery as I perform my therapy exercises regularly. Waiting for my turn to get a vaccine. Waiting for everyone else to get a vaccine so life can return to normal.

In truth I have very contradicting feelings about the whole situation. On one hand the prospect is just bleak but on the other hand it gives me ample time to recover properly—I’m not missing out on anything. I’m not impatient in that respect.

It’s been quite a boon for my art too. Part of the circumstances why I bought a Wacom tablet is this “lockdown art project” I came up with where I’m basically illustrating stories I wrote. But having a concrete goal meant that I kept to a small collection of tools and techniques that achieves my goal, helps me produce the images I want, in more or less the style I envisioned. It didn’t leave much room for experimentation.

But thanks to having almost nothing else to do, I had time and enough ennui to actually learn the vast arsenal I had at my disposal, thanks to software. For example, with Krita I can add a dimension to my sketches I didn’t have previously. Not just that I am no longer constrained to grays of pencil lead, I can even emulate the texture of other media such as charcoals without making a huge mess.

Eyes and Smile

A couple of notes:

  • Yes, I have previously tried charcoal in real life. I didn’t like it. Too broad, couldn’t get details in. Not to mention too fragile and expensive—traits that are never complementary in a product. I’m pretty sure I was using it wrong but I have neither the time nor the teacher to teach me properly
  • I know I could’ve escaped the monotony of gray in real-life sketches by using—wait for it—colored pencils (genius!) but colored pencils are simply a different experience from your typical Steadtler 3B. They are harder to erase, and that’s just the start of it.

Another thing you have to consider in real life is the paper. When you draw you are basically applying a layer of medium on the paper; add too much and it’s heavy, the medium could seep, even tear the paper. And when you erase, you are basically scraping the medium off the paper, and sometimes you scrape off fibers of the paper too; you can only erase so much.

Not to mention that art materials—high-quality paper among them—are quite expensive. It’s not really threatening my savings but I consider it quite wasteful to just pour money into this hobby when I’m not getting any financial value back from it. I might as well buy a Hasselblad camera.

But with software, the only real cost is my time and my patience. I can study different styles and try to execute it in a piece.

I can try a Sumi-e-inspired gothic watercolor and get it wrong as many times as I need to get a satisfactory result.

Gothic

This wouldn’t have been possible with the small arsenal of brushes I’ve come to depend on. Simple as it looks, there was a lot of time spent on experimentation.

I can even feel daring and try out new palettes. Perhaps due to my extensive work with gray pencil, I noticed that my color choices tend to be dark. So, how about a vibrant portrait in false-chrome worthy of an ad campaign?

Not Gothic

I think avant-garde is French for “I have no idea what I’m doing”.

Which, just to bring this post to a close, kind of sums up my current situation. I really don’t have plans or an idea what to do next other than wait. One day at a time until my path crosses normal again.

Avant-garde. Au revoir. Bis dann.

Hopefully Not the Same Procedure as 2020

I’m not usually one to make grand new year’s resolutions. The past few years, my resolutions took the form of “read a difficult book this year”. Difficult being defined as (a) lengthy and (b) not my usual fare. With this “system” I’ve managed to read:

  • (2016) Gödel, Escher, and Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. I’ve wanted to read this since I heard about it in college. It’s an extremely unusual book with lots of eureka moments for me. Maybe Hofstadter’s enthusiasm is really just infectious. This is a book whose pronouncements on artificial intelligence was just way off but I would nonetheless still recommend for introductory insight and intuitive explainers for some pretty abstract math. And more! As Hofstadter will tell you, this isn’t a Math or a Computer Science book. He has a very specific topic in mind—which I think is a fair assessment of his own work—but this book is really just unusual in that it touches on a lot of things.
  • (2017) A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking. Fun fact: my copy is a volume combining the two books inside a single cover, in glossy color print. I got this from the Manila International Book Fair back in 2012 (yep the same book fair that triggered this post). Sat on my shelf for five years before I worked through it. Shows you the extent of my tsundoku.
  • (2018-2019) A History of the World in Twelve Maps by Jerry Brotton. I’ve always been fascinated with maps and always been fascinated with looking at history through unusual, maybe even mundane, objects. This book just called out to me. As you see around this time, I’ve failed to keep up with my goal of finishing a difficult book within the calendar year. Not sure what happened, but I could guess. I even brought this book with me to Germany.
  • (2019-2020) The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. My introduction to The Campbellian Hero’s Journey was from internet discussions about Po the Kung Fu Panda. This book is a dense treatise, and though frequently cited in literary analysis, I’ve found it to be more anthropological than literary. To be honest, I’m not too convinced with Campbell’s thesis here—as a matter of style he’s not as scientific as I’d want him to be; for example, he doesn’t try to address how his theory can be falsified. But I still recommend this not just because it will give you context in a lot of contemporary discussions about literature (including films, TV shows, etc., not just written stories), but also because I think Campbell is actually on to something, despite the lack of rigor on his methodology, and he offers an interesting insight into the human psyche. I finished this book this year while in social distancing mode.

So, I don’t really have a book this year that would qualify, unless maybe I start tackling German texts. And actually, I have! I’ve been reading Das Labyrinth des Fauns, Cornelia Funke’s adaptation of the acclaimed Guillermo del Toro movie. This story is just great, I don’t even notice it’s not in English, in either medium (recall: the del Toro movie was a Spanish production).

Oh, I’ve also made a few more traditional resolutions.

  • 2019, definitely influenced by my plans to leave for Germany, I started journaling. I even wished for a fancy journal notebook from our office exchange gift.
  • 2020, I resolved to be more focused. To be very honest, I didn’t do that well on this resolution. If it’s any consolation, the Wacom tablet kinda helped me make up for it, scored goals in the dying minutes, if you will. The past few days (if not the last few weeks of 2020, when I already had my Wacom) I’ve absolutely nerd sniped myself into digital painting. I’ve figured out that my learning style relies heavily on experimentation. That’s why I’ve so far had a hard time, experimenting with the art lessons I’ve been learning from Youtube (like, color theory, anatomy-grounded figures). Erasing is easy, yes, but not always clean, which sucks if you’re trying to get a lot of things right. Digital painting is still a lot of effort but it’s more convenient. I feel like I’m back in school. I’ve been doing a lot of things that apply the things I learn but I’m not really producing anything remotely portfolio-worthy—exactly how I felt during my Computer Science undergrad.

So what’s it for this year? I should definitely continue to be more focused but that also means I should really stick to a strict sleep cycle regimen, something I find hard to do during the gloriously long days of summer (there’s a lot more to this statement but it’s probably a blog post of its own).

Maybe be more creative, be more fearless in my creative endeavors. If you need to churn out a thousand crappy things to create one good thing, then let’s churn through one thousand crappy things with an indomitable spirit. In fact, I have an art project I’ve been working on lately, also what prompted me that I might need a Wacom tablet for this one. Maybe you can argue this project is a coping strategy for all the 2020 distancing, but also, it’s not surprising if you know me as well as I do. So whatever. I don’t care what people say, let’s just do it!

And oh, it’s new year. This Neil Gaiman quote definitely fits. Calligraphed by yours truly, circa 12/29/2018, Speedball with Higgins ink on Canson watercolor paper.

Neil Gaiman's New Year Wish