Training Day

August in Puget Sound is an idyllic time that fools Californians into moving here just before the start of the 10-month-long rainy season.  The forests are still green, The Mountain (Rainier) is “out” most days, visible from most of the populated areas where buildings have replaced trees, and you can even see Mount Baker, the northernmost of the major Cascade volcanoes, more than 100 miles away, from Hoodsport on clear mornings.

August, for the denizens of Chaos Central, the Unix Curmudgeon and the Nice Person, had been intended as intensive training time for our upcoming September bicycle tour.  Yes, training.  Most people planning a vacation prepare by buying traveling clothes, sporting goods, getting an overhaul or detailing the motor home, etc.  But, for bicycle tourists, planning to ride your bike long distances involves, ah, riding your bike long distances. Several times a week, for months, before riding every day for a week or two or more.

But, this being Chaos Central, August was a flurry of activity other than biking.  First, we finally sold our former domicile in Montana after a 25-month ordeal.  Then, because we are members of, the bicycle touring housing exchange, and this being middle of the not-so-rainy season in Puget Sound, we get a lot of bicycle tourists on the the Pacific Coast tour route through our fair city.  Some of them stop, which is sometimes good, because we can make excuses to ride with them for 20 or 25 miles before reversing course for home and other responsibilities.

Those other responsibilities include (since this is the Unix Curmudgeon’s Blog, after all) grinding code and tweaking remote client systems.  A lot.  As it turns out, the end of the government fiscal year brought a  surfeit of piled-up work, the result of hiring freezes and threats of shutdown, etc.  And, the Nice Person has a few quilts left to finish for snowbirds passing this way next week.  So, we work early mornings, evenings, and weekends to be able to ride during the week, when traffic is a bit lighter, during the mornings and early afternoons before the temperature shoots up into the high 70s and becomes unbearable for us web-footed rain forest dwellers.

We’ve been riding, and sometimes touring, together for 25 years as a tandem team, and the Unix Curmudgeon has been a bike commuter and accidental bike tourist for 35 years, racking up nearly 50,000 miles on two wheels, including the 10,000 or so tandem miles.  So, we should be at least used to the conditioning routine, and we are hopelessly behind, though in better shape for this tour than in some years.

The stable of bikes at Chaos Central: 1979 Fuji, 1986 Santana, 1996 Specialized, and 2011 Bike Friday. Over 40,000 accumulative miles.

During this month, we have managed to ride at least 10 miles on busy days, and have worked up to 20 miles, then 40 miles when we can spare the time, and ride at least twice a week.  On this, the next-to-last-day of the month, a little over two weeks from the start of our tour, and a bit over a week from our departure date, we matched our 40-mile distance from a couple weeks ago with a “commuter ride.” We had received an escrow refund check from our house sale earlier in the month. It wasn’t a lot, but nearly enough to pay for gasoline to drive to our bike tour starting point and return (5000-mile round trip). We decided to deposit the check by riding to our bank, which is in Olympia, 20 miles away.

After our Tuesday morning yoga session at the Senior Center downtown, we headed up Railroad Avenue to U.S. 101, which becomes a four-lane freeway south of town. We exited at the interchanges and crossed over to the on-ramp, to avoid merging with 100-Kph truck and car traffic. Conversation on the noisy highway is impossible, but the breakdown lane is at least wide enough to keep the juggernauts a safe distance away, though dodging chunks of bark dropped by logging trucks is a matter of constant vigilance. We got a brief and serene respite from the traffic by following a short loop of the Old Olympic Highway at Oyster Bay, then found ourselves back on the freeway for a long climb up yet another of the ridges that climb up 80 meters (i.e., equivalent to more than 22 flights of stairs) between the many inlets.  At the Steamboat Island Road, just inside Thurston County, we exit, stop for an early lunch at the small commercial strip, then dive steeply down to Madrona Beach Drive, which rolls gently several miles to Mud Bay Road, which crosses the muddy end of Eld Inlet, filled with water only at high tide.  A hard steep climb up to West Olympia, then onto Cooper Point Road, which has no bike lane and is constantly congested at Black Lake Boulevard.  We survive the intersection, conduct our business, then turn back left on Cooper Point out of the parking lot, a difficult maneuver in a car, and death-defying on a bike.  Other cyclists are on the sidewalk.  Later, when mapping the route, we find that Google will not let you map a bike route on this stretch of Cooper Point Road.  Not bikeable.  I believe that now, but years of commuting on Aquidneck Island (Rhode Island) and through Bremerton, Seattle, and Missoula have dangerously dulled my fear of traffic.

Fortified by a quick visit to Starbucks, we retrace our route home.  The sun burns through briefly, so we hunt for our sunscreen at Steamboat Island Road and visit with bike tourists from Oregon we overtake at Subway.  They step in for a late lunch, we continue on.  We do not see them again.  Approaching Shelton, we exit at WA 3, take a right, then U-turn on Arcadia to get left across a constant stream of uphill traffic and a left turn signal that won’t switch for bikes.  Zig-zag through the hillside above our house, and we are home.  Total time, 6.5 hours, total distance, 40 miles.  Not good, but probably not bad for old folks on Medicare, and we did conduct business, visit, have lunch, and answered email over coffee.  A good day. Are we ready for 55-mile days back to back three weeks from now? Maybe. We hear Michigan is flat, and the U.P. is relatively low-traffic. Later this week, we plan to reprise our trip to Hoodsport of a couple weeks ago, and maybe one more long ride before we pack the bike next week. Now, back to writing Perl code to deliver a beta test release before our trip east.

Here’s a link to a map of today’s route.

Tour 2011, continued: Best-laid Plans

When we set off on Tour 2011 Part 2 in early July, we had our summer and early fall fairly well planned out.  Well, life is what happens when you are making other plans.  The Tour turned out to be a frantic race, and Chaos Central became even more chaotic on our return.

We did combine business with pleasure, spending a week in Montana working before we continued on to Minnesota for the high-school reunion.  We even got in a couple of bike rides in the evenings.  The big news was, we got an offer on our Montana house while we were in residence.  This, of course, changed everything.  The Minnesota trip went mostly as planned: we camped, got rained on, dried out the next night in a motel, and continued on into the start of the mid-summer heat wave that discouraged biking and even site-seeing.  We got word during our travels that the house closing was to be moved up, so our plans began to change.

On our return from Minnesota, in a couple of long mileage-eating days, we stopped in Montana, dropped off our bike and camping gear. loaded up some of the belongings we had left in the house while it was still our “business lodging,” and raced home to Washington.  We unloaded the car, took care of appointments at home, then headed back to Montana to finish clearing out the house and sign papers.  Little time for work this time except for a short meeting with the client: trips to charity thrift shops, trips to the dump, a load to the cabin, a short bike ride, and then load up the car with bike, camp gear, and remaining belongings, leaving behind what wouldn’t fit as a “gift” to the new owners.  The financing bank, of course, fumbled, so the closing was delayed, almost to the original date.  Meanwhile, the debt limit crisis came and went, but the country didn’t collapse, so we got our payout, finally, down to one mortgage payment after two years.

Now, we thought, we will be able to focus on training for our September bicycle tour, a.k.a. our “real vacation,” for which we had scrimped and saved and bought a new bicycle (the Green Machine, see earlier posts) and paid our non-refundable full fee.  Ah, but life is what happens while you are making other plans:  the client workload suddenly increased; the sudden influx of funding from the house sale made possible scheduling long-delayed home repairs, hopefully before our trip or at least before the fall rainy season sets in.  Chaos Central truly is living up to its name.

We’re still hoping for a reasonable training schedule: we’ve made a few 20-mile fast runs, alternated with 12-mile dashes, but no day-long rides to get used to long days in the saddle coming up.  We’re members of, a bicycle tourist lodging exchange.  Since we’re on the coastal bike route between Vancouver, BC and San Francisco, we’re getting a lot of bike tourists through the area, and hope to tag along with some of them as incentive to get our riding in before we head east.

We’re also still finishing up the shakedown period on the new bike, even after a couple hundred miles.  My left pedal seems to have a flaw that only appears under load, an ominous “click-snap” at top and bottom of the stroke, so we have approached long rides with trepidation until we resolve the problem.  Hopefully, it is the pedal and not the bottom bracket or worse.  Fortunately, we have a stable of bikes from which to mine spare parts.  We’re also still collecting gear for our tour, deciding we need a different arrangement for day rides and supported touring than the expedition panniers we’ve used all these years.

And, the work projects pile up, with new clients on the East Coast, juggling time zones means early to work, missed lunches for mid-afternoon (EDT) meetings, and fitting in house and lawn projects with work time and finding time to ride the bicycle times and routes to avoid heavy traffic and allow plenty of time before the next appointment.   Now, to make sure the Netbook computer fits in the new panniers…

Market Correction: Surviving the Housing Bubble

In the late 20th Century, the get-rich-quick fad of choice involved investing in the fledgling Internet as companies with vague concepts and more vague business plans sprang up on the webscape frontier. All was speculation, of course, and the market correction took down established companies riding the stock price skyrocket as well as the newly minted companies with no revenue stream other than stock. With a modicum of reflection, the crash was as predictable as it was inevitable.

So, too, was a larger crisis looming ahead. Economists predicted the coming real estate crash, but were drowned out in the furor over the so-called dot-com bust. Toward the end of the 20th century, housing prices began to drift upward at a faster rate than the cost of construction, another sign of over-optimistic valuation with no basis other than the push to be the first on your block to be the first on your block. Older homes went on the block at ever-higher prices also, to fund the cost of upward mobility. Pasture land and orchards turned into house farms, with a single last crop, underwritten by developers in a feeding frenzy of expanding profit margins.

As the price of houses quickly outstripped inflation and the ability of the average buyer to make payments, banks extended inflated credit at lower rates to put people into houses they could not possible afford on a long-term basis, with interest-only loans and balloon payments guaranteed to encourage overextended home owners to sell at inflated prices and move on to an even higher-priced dwelling every few years. Even as automobile leasing moved into a second generation of drivers who never actually owned the evermore expensive cars they drove, home ownership—despite the lack of equity-building–continued to be considered the holy grail of financial stability.

As a typical geographically mobile technology worker, the Unix Curmudgeon had weathered the largely inflation-driven real estate bubble of the last quarter of the 20th century through a succession of houses across the country that alternated between inflation and stagflation, from double-your-money in five years to nearly flat values over the next five years, selling a house in 1994 for ten times the price of his first house, purchased in 1974. Across the span of 20 years, the children had grown up and moved on, which started a downsizing trend with the purchase a modest town house condominium for less than half the selling price of the last upwardly mobile edifice. This move realigned the monthly payments to a reasonable percentage of reliable income. No real profits ensued from all this house trading, as the cyclical housing market, coupled with maintenance costs, real-estate fees, moving costs, and taxes on moderate capital gains kept the equity at a fairly constant 20% of purchase price.

Another move and another city raised payments and reduced equity (along with a much-reduced income, the result of the danger of moving a two-income family to a one-income situation, and the perils of job-hunting in late middle age), followed by another right-sizing move to a better job and a smaller, cheaper house in the early 21st century, in the lull between the dot-com debacle and the out-of-control housing bubble—in fact, closing the deal the day before the terrorist attacks that so clearly demarcated the two centuries politically, socially, and economically.

Fast forward to the bursting of the housing bubble, beginning in 2008 with the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage ponzi scheme and the house-of-cards credit default swaps and hedge funds that propped it up. The 2001-2006 period was not the first five-year period in which housing prices doubled, but undoubtedly the first in which other investments stagnated and actually declined in value. First, retirement savings that had been flat for years despite steady deposits took a sudden dip. Then, the housing market began a long free-fall to, as predicted a decade earlier, align prices with costs. Unfortunately, the consequences of such a realignment essentially froze housing sales: over-extended homeowners–counting on trading up to forestall balloon payments–defaulted when they could not make the true payments. The cascade of unemployment as construction ground to a halt and supporting businesses failed resulted in more foreclosures. After a wave of bank failures, the remaining banks, gutted by loss of value in investments, had no money to lend, and would-be buyers were either no longer qualified for standard mortgages under reasonable rules or cautious of paying too much for a house that would lose value faster than they could pay off the loan.

With an unprecedented number of foreclosures and millions of other homeowners “stuck” in homes they no longer want or need but cannot sell, the American workforce has lost its mobility, and the economy continues to stagnate. Over the past three years, housing prices have continued to plummet, with no buyers. Into this environment, the Unix Curmudgeon and the Nice Person plunged headlong into a failed retirement plan that involved moving Chaos Central from the trackless wilderness of Montana to the bustling shores of Puget Sound, where we spent several decades before our dozen-year adventure in Montana. With promises of better Internet connectivity (not to mention proximity to grandchildren and a thriving fiber arts community equal to that found in western Montana), we got mobile, telecommuting to the old job while looking at local opportunities for consulting, collecting our “retirement pensions” to finance the bold move. Thus, we were able to–for the time being–support two houses, as the Montana house, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century gingerbread cottage, got lots of lookers, but no buyers.

The cute little cottage, a few blocks from the Bitterroot River in the shadow of the majestic Bitterroot Mountains, withstood its 95th and 96th Montana winters largely empty, absorbing huge amounts of money in maintenance, as the housing market continued in free-fall. Finally, it became the dream home of a young couple with small children and steady work. It joined the rare handful of properties with a “Sold” sign in front, sold at essentially the price we paid for it in 2001 plus the cost of paint, roofing, and other repairs done over the 25 months it was on the market.

And that, friends and neighbors, is the market correction: moving housing prices back to when the rest of the economy went flat, at the turn of the century. There isn’t a recovery in sight: all indications point to a permanent correction, where houses are priced at what they cost to build, period. No huge profits for developers. Fewer house farms springing up in former pastures and clearcut forests. More urban redevelopment, as it becomes cheaper to replace than to renovate dilapidated homes and affordable to renovate older but graceful homes when the properties are not overpriced compared with wages and materials. For many, the wait is not over. Life savings will be lost and credit ratings will be ruined, for those who bought in the bubble and can’t stay in place or who can’t afford their inflated payments or who have lost their jobs in the economic shift. For the rest of us, “retirement” in the 21st century looks like just another career phase with telecommuting and flexible hours, staying in our overpriced homes as long as possible.