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. []

Battles with Fate, Now with More Uncertainty

Even if you were living under a rock for the past eight to nine months, I’m pretty sure you would’ve heard about the pandemic ravaging the world right now, if only because you no longer need to avoid people; they socially distance themselves from you automatically. And you can treat those who, for some confidently-wrong belief or another, insist to invade your personal space anyway, as crazies. As a modern-day Diogenes you no longer need to invoke your view of the sun to insinuate someone is an idiot. A silver lining, what a relief.

Which makes me wonder if a modern-day Diogenes would read blogs because if not then my whole first paragraph has no audience. But I guess in an age of social media and walled content gardens the personal blog is the barrel in which a philosopher might dwell. Gasp. I was the Diogenes all along.

Anyway, back to the topic. I’m pleased to report that the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t affected me adversely despite living by myself, a stranger in a strange land. Selfishly I might even be thankful to find myself in Hamburg amidst all this. There are only a few ways I can be more comfortable right now.

Not that it hasn’t affected me at all. Whereas so far, thankfully, I’ve managed to stay healthy, the pandemic has got to my thoughts in all sorts of ways. From the usual negative stuff to more positive outcomes like bursts of productivity here and there, and things I wouldn’t have otherwise tried like finally buying a bike.

My key achievement so far is my proposal for a new economic indicator metric: the Toilet Paper Availability Index. It measures citizens’ general confidence in government proclamations at a highly localized level. Fair to say that this has failed spectacularly in many parts of the world during this pandemic, including, unfortunately, in Germany, long-clichéed to be world’s best at just following rules.

I guess, arguably, no formal rule was instituted, Merkel merely implored the German populace to not purchase like hamsters.

That said, it will be disingenous of me to imply that the scarcity I’ve witnessed is any cause for alarm. In fact, for reasons I would not expound in here, my apartment is currently home to an ungodly amount of REWE Double Chocolate American Cookies.

I hear your screams of “Wait, Chad. But. Why?!”. So okay. They are gosh-darned delicious okay? Addicting even. Won’t be surprised if REWE adds meth in these in secret. Okay moving on…

I noticed that my local REWE has stopped stocking these lately. I’m a bit worried as I don’t know why. I’d like to think they grew concerned that I, a loyal customer, will die of Diabetes but it’s probably either (a) they are trying to avoid liability from a loyal customer getting Diabetes or (b) they just stopped stocking it. I would like everyone to know that if I die of Diabetes, I would’ve died happy. But if I die of starvation in my apartment, you have my express permission to call me der Idiot.

(Editor’s Note: I have since discovered that my local REWE still stocks these cookies. They just moved the shelf somewhere else. I have very conflicted emotions regarding this.)

Speaking of worry, I have long since determined that my ultimate frustration is a situation which I can’t do anything about. Having no option but to wait for anything, for something to happen, is my idea of powerlessness. As long as I can struggle for a result, I can find a certain peace of mind.

Which might just be this pandemic’s greatest blow on me. To be honest, moving to Hamburg to work for Goodgame last year is quite a huge personal goal I’ve achieved, the downside of which is a very philosophical/poetic Loss of a Goal. I have, at the start of the year, just resolved to start poking around looking for a new goal. Then, history intervened: The Year In Which The World Changed A Decade. So much change that introverts tired of isolation.

And now I don’t know in the worst possible personal way. I do not want to give the impression that it is such a horrible thing. I just find myself on a plateau, quite a comfortable plateau, but a plateau nonetheless. I’d rather be scaling mountains, trying them just because they are there. The pandemic just made planning that so much harder. I have no idea what to expect when every expectation just goes out of the window more than usual.

I’m used to testing Fate. It’s just that doing that right now comes with so much more uncertainty.


I didn’t want this to end in such a downer so here’s a really pretty photo I took recently.

Dear Autumn,

Though I don’t like you for your tendency to remind me of my own mortality, I can’t deny you can be so pretty.

xoxo Chad

Dark and Clear Skies

Slowly, the Scorpion emerged from the horizon, into the heavens, just in everyone’s plain sight. It was gigantic, with burning orbs for pincers and armor; in the night’s darkness the Scorpion was unmistakeably recognizable. The Moon has long set and the Hunter has been gone even longer. The sky was for the Scorpion to crawl.

We lay on the white sands waiting for the Scorpion to reveal itself entirely. First came its pincers. Then its long body with its burning red heart. Then its tail, the stinger. But it was not really for the Scorpion that we waited hours for. Near its tail, as if stuck with its stinger dragged around as the Scorpion prowled, is a sight more beautiful, more majestic than a celestial scorpion—a sight I have made it my life goal to see. At the end of this particular Scorpion’s tail flowed forth not poison but milk.

Fun fact: Being that our Solar System is located in one of the arms of the Milky Way, we can view part of it from our outpost here at Planet Earth. As our night skies stand presently, the Milky Way is situated at the “tail” of constellation Scorpius; should you let the myths have their way, also known as Orion’s archenemy. As an additional marker, the Milky Way flows from the teapot asterism in the constellation of Sagittarius.

(So does the Teapot coat the Scorpion’s tail with Milk? Or is the Scorpion pouring Milk from its stinger into the Teapot? Is not the Teapot a Milkpot maybe? Is Sagittarius trying to avenge Orion? Reader, I leave you to decide.)

In case it is not yet obvious, I have been a fan of astronomy all my life. In fact, one of my main motivations when I got myself an expensive camera (the SLT A35) was to photograph the night sky. Much so that I christened my A35 “Getsurikai”—a BLEACH-inspired name which translates roughly to “moon grasp”.

Alas, contemporary life is not exactly friendly to night-sky shooting. Add the fact that, as a hobby, I only get a handful of chances throughout the year to try out my experiments. My progress in this interest has been slow.

I’ve experimented more than a few times just to learn how. I have tried it on the kit SAL 1855 lens when I bought a tripod. Needless to say, my attempts—done from our rooftop on the darkest nights our area will allow (which still isn’t that dark by the way)—ended with faint, out-of-focus traces of Orion. Else, you would’ve heard from me before now.

My luck proved better with the SAL55200. At 200mm focal length, shooting the moon became quite doable. That, combined with my XPeria Z and my Celestron 70AZ (codenamed “Lippershey”) produced some images I’m quite proud of.

A Hole in the Sky
Taken with the SLT A35 + SAL55200

The Sattelite Shooter
The Celestron 70AZ

The Subtle Lights of Our Sattelite
Taken with a combination of the Celestron 70AZ and the XPeria Z.

And suddenly, Getsurikai started to live up to its name.

But I wanted more! I wanted the stars. “Aim for the stars so if you miss at least you hit the moon” right? Well, I’ve somewhat hit the moon. I want my stars.

Enter the gorgeous SAL 1650. When I bought this lens, I did not really plan to use it for astrophotography. I have been laboring under the (wrong) impression that what makes astrophotography is a kick-ass telephoto lens (reasoning that you need a telescope to do astronomy so to do astrophotography, you need a telephoto lens. Seriously.)

What gave me the idea to use the 1650 was this shot, taken last summer.

DSC02650

 

Compared to the other shots in this post, I know this one does not offer much merit. But look: it got a few stars and one planet, sharper than I ever got them. And that is with all the light pollution from where I stood and with a shining moon to boot, not to mention the exposure time of a mere 5.7s. If that does not win any photographer’s faith I don’t know what will.

But still, the opportunity for dark and clear skies has yet to present itself.

Until a few weeks ago.

Say what you want about the Philippines but we have a friggin’ Philippine Astronomical Society (PAS). I’ve been lurking in their group for some time now but I never really got the opportunity to join one of their events. That is, as I’ve said, until a few weeks ago.

In PAS’ 2015 stargazing event at Puerto Galera, I finally got this shot. What it lacks for in exposure, it makes up for in photography lessons learned and sentimental value. I dipped my toes in the hot sands of Puerto Galera not expecting that I’d have an appointment with the lovely Milky Way, wearing stars for jewelry.

The Light in Dark Skies
The Light in Dark Skies

In a moment of trial-and-error, I realized what I have been doing wrong all this time. Ironically, what got my ass is the fact that I tinker with my camera’s settings far too much. I should have left my white-balance at Auto. Color-correction is really no help here.

And of course, repetition is what builds skill. Fortunately, PAS held another stargazing event barely a month after the one at Puerto Galera, this time at Big Handy’s Grounds at Tanay, Rizal. And I got this shot which will now always keep me in awe and wonder about things way larger than myself.

Delight in Dark Skies
Delight in Dark Skies

(Mandatory disclosure: I almost did not get this shot because, again, I tinkered with my camera’s settings too much! This time around, the culprit is my aperture setting.)

Of course, these adventures have more stories than what I have just related. I’ve met some interesting people along the way but they don’t make it into this story as that risks making the narrative incoherent. Maybe, someday, I get to write about that and them.

Isn’t astronomy a nice reason to travel?

You Know What’s at Mountain View?

I stepped down from the plane into American soil a bit weary but completely awake. The flight was fully booked and, despite having more leg room than I expected, sitting for a flight of around twelve hours still took its toll. My legs felt odd from all that sitting. The whole flight I tried to minimize my trips to the toilet as I did not want to irritate/inconvenience the couple sitting beside me; I should not have taken a window seat. But given the circumstances of my trip, I don’t think I’d have a choice other than the window seat. After all, this flight was only booked around a week back.

(Author’s travel note: When taking flights, the window seat is cool if the flight isn’t too long and the cruising altitude isn’t too high. Otherwise, there won’t be much sight-seeing and you’re better off taking an aisle seat. For toilet breaks.)

Clouded Underneath
But don’t you think all that seating in an uncomfortable window seat is still so totally worth it just to see something like this? 😉

This story actually starts last October, during a particularly tiring week though not one completely devoid of fun. That was the week our office held its Halloween celebrations. Tired from leading our area’s decorations for the event, I ended that Friday sleeping on a sala sofa. I woke up at around dawn feeling a bit refreshed and took a bath. Afterwards, I checked my email and found an unread item from an “@google.com” email address. I shouted my surprise/amusement and caused my mother to panic.

By now, I’ve told the story countless of times already. Long story short, Google flew me to Mountain View for a job interview during the last week of February. I did not get in but I remember making a new year’s resolution last year and I’m amused to find out that I managed to eke out something akin to what I expected within a year.

I went alone, which is more or less my idea of travel, in contrast to tourism. I’ve experienced the kindness of strangers and talked to some really smart people. This experience is definitely one for gratitude.

During my first night, I happened to ride a taxi driven by a Vietnamese guy. We had a little chat wherein he learned why I’m in America. He was very thrilled for me in the same manner the people back home were very thrilled. He kept wishing me good luck while reminding me what privilege this is. I have not traveled much but I can’t help but think that had I been with a large group, the conversation would not have taken place.

My first order of business upon arriving at the hotel was to procure some dinner. I wanted to eat American food until I realized that America’s common foods are items I can easily buy back home: pizza, hamburger, fries. I loaded up Google Maps1 and decided on a Mexican place seemingly a walking distance away from my hotel.

(Author’s note: America’s foods did not come from America. Pizza is Italian. Hamburger is German. Fries is French. Totally a melting pot, America is.)

At this point I need to backtrack a bit in this woolgathering. I took my undergraduate degree in UP-Diliman, which has a campus larger than The Vatican. During my undergrad, I used to walk the distance from our department to the University’s exit. According to Google Maps, the shortest path from those two points, is 1.8km, roughly 1.12 miles. This should tell you what distances do I consider walking distances.

I started walking towards that Mexican place. I was wearing city shorts and sandals, which is what I’d wear for any hike in the Philippines, which is also mistake number one. California, you see, is biting cold. I’m aware that it is that part of North America closest to the equator but it remains way colder than the Philippines. Thankfully, I had the sense to keep my hoodie jacket on my person.

A few street crossings2 passed and I noticed that the Mexican place I intend to eat in is still nowhere in sight. At this point, every bit of exposed skin I had was numb and I started to marvel at how I took the number of food stops in the Philippines for granted; in the Philippines, you’d be hard pressed to find an urban stretch of several meters where there isn’t even a single stop selling any kind of food. I consulted Google Maps again, to make sure that my bearing is correct (it is) and that’s when I realized that the Mexican place I am trying to get to is 0.9 miles from the hotel.

I’m pretty sure my body language was shouting “TOURIST” during my first night, a body language expression that did not change for the length of my stay. With the cold biting at my skin, I began to wander in open establishments for some warmth and to maybe decide on alternatives to the Mexican place I’ve set as my destination. I happened into an amusing cross between a convenience store and a wine cellar clerked by an Indian man, judging by his turban. I did not stay long inside but, as I left the premises, the clerk followed me outside just to ask if I’m okay, not lost or what. After assuring him that all is fine (without, of course, conceding that I am a wondering wanderer), I finally decided to skip the Mexican place and just dine on pizza for my first night.

(Author’s note: Google Maps lists an establishment’s operating hours. If you are planning to visit any place at unsure hours, this is worth a check.)

The duration of my stay was only around four days. I did not go that far since I do not know how to estimate transportation costs. And yet, I’ve explored quite a lot. Did you know that Mountain View has a cozy public library? It’s been my dream of sorts to visit libraries in different places and Mountain View’s is a nice bonus first.

There’s this place in Mountain View—Castro Street—which earned my fondness the first time I went there. That small strip of space felt so me. In the ubiquity of American food even in Philippine soil, I began looking for Asian food and it was there3. It had two book stores, Books Inc. and BookBuyers, which both looked so cozy it’s a shame we’ve had so short a time together. It had a Taekwondo gym, and is near Mountain View’s Center for Performing Arts as well as the public library I’ve been raving about.

When my recruiting coordinator at Google informed me (via phone call) that I did not make it, she was apologizing that I bothered to take so long a trip for nothing. I wanted to tell her that it was fine, I enjoyed, and that the opportunity itself is a rewarding experience in so many ways. And it is. Until next time, I guess.

Thrilled and grateful as ever, as usual. ~Chad

Only in America.... Ramen!
BookBuyers

Castro Street

Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts

Wonderlust
  1. I do not find Google Maps very accurate in the Philippines yet though I expect it to get better as Google now has operations here. But if there is anywhere in the world where Google Maps is supposed to provide good info, it’s at Mountain View, California. []
  2. Where I can count the number of other people I met with just the fingers of one hand. One. Hand. []
  3. Nothing Filipino though; all that’s in Castro Street is a Japanese and a Chinese place. []