Urban Adventures in Portland

Portland is a fantastic place with a wealth of fun, exciting, unique activities that require little planning, little money, and little time. The weather was absolutely gorgeous this past weekend so we embarked on a couple of these “urban” adventures.

On Saturday my wife and a friend joined me to take on the newly inaugurated 4T Trail (map). The loop weaves though southwest Portland by trail, tram, trolley, and train, revealing some of the most beautiful scenery and views in the city.

 

We hit the trail at Washington Park making a moderately steep, but relatively easy climb about 2 miles to Council Crest Park. The park is Portland’s highest point and on a clear day offers incredible views of the surrounding area to the southwest, and Portland International Airport to the north.

At the center of the park lies a great compass made of inlaid stone. The compass has a unique acoustic effect; while standing at the compass’ midpoint, even softly spoken words reverberate all around you.

 

After enjoying the views, we were off down the other side of the park, over trails through some of the prettiest forests and neighborhoods in Portland.

Completing the second half of the trail, we emerged at the northwest side of OHSU and made the short walk a couple blocks to catch the tram. The tram took just a few minutes to carry us down to the waterfront offering a little time to enjoy a view of the cityscape to the north, and surrounding areas in all directions.

 

 

At the bottom of the tram, we waited a short time to board a Portland Streetcar and make the 10 minute ride to SW Morrison and 10th.

We were pressed for time so we headed straight to the stop to catch our train back to our car; otherwise, this would have been a good time to grab lunch. After just a few minutes, our train arrived and we returned to the parking lot at the Oregon Zoo.

The 4T Loop was incredibly fun and made for a wonderful 3.5 hour adventure on a wonderfully sunny and warm afternoon. Total cost was a whopping $2.00 for the public transit segments.

Sunday evening the whole family visited Northwest Portland to watch the Vaux Swifts roost in the old brick chimney at Chapman School. Each year during the month of September, these little birds return to Portland on their way to the warmer climates of Central and South America.

We arrived about an hour before sunset, and found parking a few blocks away from the campus and neighboring Wallace Park. There was a huge crowd gathered on the field and grassy area at the southwest corner of the school, where there is a clear view of the chimney at the rear of the building. It’s really quite a spectacle with a couple food cart vendors and kids with cookie stands serving the lively crowd.

Within a few minutes of arriving the birds began to appear, resembling dark, moving clouds or swarms of bees. Every couple of minutes a group would approach flying erratically, dive toward the chimney, and then dart away as if testing whether it was time to go in.

 

The groups began to combine making larger, and larger swarms, circling the chimney like a tornado. A hawk appeared, swooping into the middle of the birds, trying to grab a small swift for dinner but was repelled and chased by a flock that by this time consisted of thousands of birds.

Just a few minutes after sunset the large flock swirling over head, as if cued by someone or something, began diving into the chimney like they were being poured from a pitcher. It is a truly incredible site. And the hawk? He found his opportunity, returning twice to pick off a little bird just at the top of the chimney.

Video featuring the few last minutes of the swifts pouring into the chimney including the hawk assault.

Fabulous weekend in the Rose City.

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Google Voice: Transcription Near Misses

https://i2.wp.com/www.google.com/voice/resources/4232368305-voice_logo_sm.gif?w=525 I love the idea behind Google Voice, and appreciate the rich set of features, but transcription frustrates me. Sometimes the transcription feature is relatively useful, but more often than not the resulting text can be very odd. Here’s a couple examples:

I work to get rid of the quest secret given some Democrats are out in Los Angeles… I just put in an extra character deflator so if it’s confidential that I have an extra C and then not all.

 
What ever you do, don’t let the Democrats in LA get the quest secret. Use a character deflator if you need to.

I am with Thomases old breast and Shauna said she’d been worked with you.

Sounds a little personal to me, and I never even met Shauna.

Both of these messages were left by people who spoke English, had no accent, and sounded clear when listening to message. In all fairness these are extreme examples, but much of the time the transcriptions are of little use.

What really frustrates me, is that one of the primary purposes of Google 411 was to harvest terabytes of voice data and improve voice recognition technology. In an Infoworld interview nearly 2 years ago Marissa Mayer, Google’s Vice President of Search Products & User Experience said (emphasis mine):

Whether or not free-411 is a profitable business unto itself is yet to be seen. I myself am somewhat skeptical. The reason we really did it is because we need to build a great speech-to-text model.

Presumably, this “great speech-to-text model” is behind the transcription feature.

Google Voice is a newer service, but Google acquired Grand Central two years ago, and this is the best they can do? Admittedly I am complaining about a free service, but come on! I am a huge fan of Google’s many services and frankly have become a little spoiled by some of their other offerings that are so very good.

Voice mail transcription done well would be an incredibly useful productivity tool, and hopefully Google improves transcription quality in the near future. In the mean time, Transcription useful? No!

I invite you to share some of your most useless Google Voice transcriptions in the comments.

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5 Tips to Improve Your Running Experience

Running is a great way to stay in shape, and can be an integral part of a healthy life style. Almost anyone can do it, it doesn't require much in the way of equipment, it is inexpensive, and it can be done just about anywhere. But if your approach to running is that it's just a way to stay in shape, that it's a means to an end, it can feel like a big chore. If this is the way you view running, you often have to mentally psych yourself out, just to drag yourself out the door.

Over the past few years, I have struggled to run with consistency and found many periods where running seemed unappealing and difficult. My runs during those times were some of the most difficult physical experiences of my life. I recently tried to evaluate why I felt this way, and developed some practices that have helped me improve my running experience. Some are simple, some take a little bit of work, but all have the potential to add to the enjoyment that can be found when you unbind your body and run for your life.

Disclaimer: Before we start let me say that I am a neutral runner, with negligible bio-mechanical deficiencies. I am 45, and in good health. I am not a medical professional, nor am I a professional athlete. Don't start any exercise program without first consulting with your physician. These tips work for me, but your mileage may vary.

Loosen up. I used to stretch for several minutes before every run; quads, hamstrings, calves, back. Since improving my overall running form, I have found that simply loosening up my joints is much more effective. Start by rolling your neck, making big loops with your head. Shake out your wrists, arms, and shoulders for a few minutes. Pretend you are doing a hula-hoop to loosen up you hips and knees. Finally, "draw" circles over the floor with toes pointed to loosen the ankles.

Set Time-based Goals
. Unless you are training for a race, decide how long you want to run for and do it! Don't worry about pace, don't worry about distance, just run for the amount of time that feels good. You always have time to improve your stats.

Eat Right and Rest. Common sense, right? I can't tell you how many times I have gone to bed at midnight over several consecutive nights, run at 6am in the morning, and had a thoroughly miserable experience. Then there are the times when I eat fast food, or ice cream, or load up on cookies and run the next day, all the time wondering why running is so hard. Surprise! The amount of rest you get, and the composition of your diet play a huge role in how you feel when you run. Limit food to whole grains, soy protein, lots of fruits and veggies, legumes, and nuts. Eat sensible portions at meal time and limit snacking. Oh, and no soda… it just bloats and dehydrates.

Run Because You Enjoy to Run. You may want to lose weight, you may want to improve you cardio-vascular health, you may want to increase your aerobic capacity, but if you don't enjoy running, it's work. Find a way to love to run and the rest will come. Find fun places to run, change up the scenery now and then. I have taken to trail running lately, spending lots of time in a local park on several dirt and bark dust trails. I have a renewed appreciation for the beauty that surrounds me, I can focus on my thoughts, and virtually eliminate the feeling that running is a chore.

Run Barefoot
. C'mon, you know you want to! It makes you feel like a kid, and kids are natural runners. There is some recent research that suggests that running shoes with all their padding, motion control, and stability features actually enforce inefficient bio-mechanics making running more difficult and may even increase your  chance of injury. I take a few short runs in my Vibram FiveFingers each week; they give me the feeling and control of running barefoot, with the protection of a thin rubber sole.

photo via flickr.com

Take it slow in the beginning, your feet and calves will take some time to adjust and strengthen… after all, they have been pampered by thick padding and cushioning for years! Running barefoot will go a long way toward improving your form even when you run wearing shoes.

Just remember, you were made to run. There is nothing like the feeling that comes from running a few miles. Go, have fun!

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Thank Goodness for Smart People

It's amazing what creative, smart people come up with. Learn how CAPTCHAs are being used to digitize books; if you don't know what a CAPTCHA is, the video explains (you probably have used them many times). This clip is a little long, but very interesting and actually kind of entertaining, in a geeky sort of way!

How important is this technology? Google recently acquired reCAPTCHA for an undisclosed amount.

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Podnah’s Pit – A Little Bit of BBQ Heaven

If you like good ol' Texas barbecue, Podnah's Pit Barbecue is the place for you. A friend suggested we give it a try, and after seeing the restaurant featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives I couldn't wait to go. Podnah's Pit is located in Northeast Portland at NE Prescott St. and 15th Ave. We caught the smell of smoked meat a block away, but pay attention or you might blow right past!

Rodney Muirhead opened Podnah's (named for his grandfather) in 2006, realizing his dream of serving up traditional Texas style barbecue in Portland. Creating authentic fare like this means starting the fire at 5am; using only oak hardwood (no charcoal or electricity), and only smoking as much meat as will fit in the smoker… when it's gone, it's gone!

We parked out back by the smoker, and walked around front. The interior is fairly small and narrow, with a dozen tables and benches along both sides. The lunch menu (pdf) is sparse, with just a couples sandwiches, a few baskets, and some sides. We landed on Tuesday which happens to be "all day Rib & Draft Happy Hour", when you can get a full rack of pork ribs for $20, or ala carte ribs for $1.75 each. I chose the Beef Brisket sandwich with Potato Salad, and a couple pork ribs; my lunch time acomplice ordered the Iceberg Wedge wtih homemade Bleu Cheese Dressing to accompany his pork ribs.

The pork ribs were tender, smoky, and seasoned to perfection. I was tempted at first to add some barbecue sauce, but dismissed the thought quickly; the meat was so good on it's own I just couldn't see any way to improve the taste. I was amazed at the size of the ribs, and in fact double checked the menu board to make sure they were pork, and not beef. Words can't describe the potato salad, but I'll try… simply the best I have ever had!

My take on the beef brisket sandwich was not as favorable. The bun was great, and the helping of brisket was generous, but I found the meat a bit dry and not so flavorful as the ribs. This time I quickly doused the meat in barbecue sauce (which was very good, by the way); this made the sandwich pretty good, but not great.

Over all, I liked Podnah's and would not hesitate to recommend it. Pleasant atmosphere, good people, great food. Tuesday seems like a good day to go for the ribs, but I think my next visit will be a Friday or Saturday night for smoked prime rib… Yum!

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Why I Love Trader Joe’s

There are so many, but the biggest reason I love Trader Joe's are the unique, tasty little goodies that I don't see anywhere else. My latest discovery is Sea Salt & Turbinado Sugar Dark Chocolate Almonds.

These little treats are "roasted almonds drenched in dark chocolate and sprinkled with sea salt and turbinado sugar", and make for a deliciously different taste sensation. When I first tried one, I was a little taken aback… the initial saltiness shocks your taste buds a bit before the turbinado sugar mellows things out. Once you start crunching, the flavors all blend together in an amazing taste that I can only describe as addictive… you have been warned!

Other Trader Joe's favorites: Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookies, Chocolate Covered Peanut Butter Pretzels, Peanut Butter Cups, Belgium "Pound Plus" Dark Chocolate

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