An 8-bit touring checklist

Got ambitions to go bicycling all around the world? Got fond memories of playing the Carmen Sandiego games on your old Apple II computer with the fuzzy color monitor? Well I sure do, on both counts!

I put these slide shows together from the original games, just following my sense of nostalgia for an afternoon, and when I was done I realized they could serve as hyper-ambitious checklists for bicycle touring.

“Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego” from 1985:

Currently I can only claim London, New York, and Reykjavik, and I feel pretty accomplished already.

“Where In Europe Is Carmen Sandiego” from 1988:

I built this slide show to run a little slower, so you stand a chance of reading the scattershot descriptions on the right. On this list I can claim Reykjavik (again), Amsterdam, Brussels, and Copenhagen.

Icelandic Security

In an emergency you can exit through the utility room.

I bet the key to the other door opens this one too.

Have people done this before?

It was even easier than it looks.

Just on the other side of the door. How handy!

The keys to the kingdom!

Graveyard antics

Today was one of those “this is what it’s all about” touring days, even though I had to put in six hours of work.

Actually it started on a strange note. I woke up to weird animal sounds, coming in through the screened window of my room. The window was over a central plaza, and as I scooted around in the bed I thought “This is a very urban place to be hearing animals. Actually… What kind of animals are these? There are no coyotes in Iceland. What else would be large enough?”

Eventually I realized I was hearing words, mixed in with the gibberish sounds, echoing around the walls of the plaza. What the heck? … And then the sound resolved to two middle-aged people having sex, in a room somewhere else high up with the windows open. It was a mixture of grunting and words, but I could only parse some of the words – which were all curse words in English – because the rest was in Icelandic and sounded like the babbling of a semi-human animal.

“That is hilarious,” I thought. “Also, dang, Icelanders are surprisingly kinky. I thought this was a more conservative realm, but perhaps I’m using a definition that doesn’t fit…”

I laughed for a while, then debated whether to make them aware they were being overheard. It would certainly embarrass them, but it would also be quite funny to the other people who could hear them too. I couldn’t be the only one. I wanted to lean out the window and shout, “THAT’S THE WAY TO DO IT, LAD! PUT YOUR BACK INTO IT! GET ‘ER WHERE SHE WANTS TO GO!”

But I changed my mind, and decided to roll out and start the day instead of spoiling theirs.

Some company's representation of how the city plumbing looks. I think it's pretty cool!

I’d done plenty of riding around the capital city before, and even with all my wanderlust I am a creature of habit, so I ended up going to the same coffee shop as yesterday. In fact I went there for almost an entire week, to work and write or just get a nice coffee to start the day.

This map is how I know I’m in a good place:

And this became one of my go-to meals. Swiss mocha, fresh bread, and a kind of tuna salad to spread on it. This got me through a lot of meetings and a lot of lines of code.

Tasty coffee shop fare.

Nice decorations here too. Not too loud, but still a bit playful.

This guy is everywhere.

After working into the afternoon, I shut the laptop and rode the bike over to a hardware store, where I purchased some velcro straps to do a minor bike repair. Then I took off, taking streets randomly for a while.

How tall does a building need to get before Vikings stop trying to raid it?

I wonder how many times that viking has tried to kill that spider...

Strangely, this statue has no explanatory plaque saying who is being depicted. Perhaps it's just J. Random Vikingson.

I found myself out on a spit of land bearing an art installation, known as Þúfa:

The word means “tussock” in Icelandic, but it can also mean “small mountain” or “hummock.” At the top of the mound is a shed used for drying fish.

There was plenty of other stuff to photograph around the marina as well:

If this isn't a company logo, it should be.

I dont know what this is supposed to represent, with the duck and all, but it sure looks tragic on the side of a half-demolished building.

What does this local art mean?

I went to a fish and chips shop I’d spotted earlier.  Ate fish and chips and did some code review, then got some soup to go. I also found a chocolatier, and made a memo to check it out the next day.

Around 5:30pm it started to rain lightly, so I put on my raincoat and waterproof socks and kept right on biking.

Two hours later, most of the way around the peninsula of Reykjavik, I blundered across the city cemetery.

The gate was open, so I walked in and started taking pictures.

My first glimpse of the shadowy graveyard cat.

Just around midnight I looked up from the camera and saw a black cat picking its way between the gravestones.

The classic Halloween cat pose!
Lookin' spooky!
Why not take a nap on a grave?
Perhaps the ghost of a mouse will wander by. Or perhaps a mouse that will soon be a ghost.
Posing for me on a grave.
Flash photography: Cats don't like it.

It walked right up to me as though it was keeping an appointment. I imagined it saying, “Hello, I’ve been stationed at this cemetery to complete the spooky picture for you tourists. Sorry I’m late. Where are we sitting?”

I pet it and sang it the “graveyard cat song”, making it up as I went:

Graveyard cat.
Grave Yaard  Cat!
Spooky at midnight, how about that!

Bein’ all fuzzy,
Pokin’ at the graves,
Lookin’ for a mouse to chomp today.

Cat cat, cat cat
Catcat cat!

Graveyard graveyard
Graveyard cat!

Does this picture just scream "Halloween" or what??

The cat sat down nearby, so I took the lid off my fish soup and set it next to the cat, and it licked the lid clean while I drank from the cup. A nice little shared meal.

I praised it for being spooky and photogenic, and did a round of language practice on my phone, and sent several people back home some cat photos.  It watched me patiently while I made weird human noises at it, blinked for a bit, then got up and wandered away.

I learned a while ago that the instinct to hunt is not tied very strongly to the desire for food in cats. That is, they’ll hunt for the heck of it even when they’re not hungry. That makes perfect sense because if cats only tried to hunt when they were hungry, they’d starve before they got good enough to catch anything.

It also explains why a cat who’s recently been fed will still pounce on a small creature and maul it. I assumed my cat friend was heading out to find some cemetery mice and ruin their evening.

20 minutes later while I was on the other side of the cemetery the cat walked up again, and jumped onto a gravestone and posed for me.  I give it a small piece of fish which it licked and then abandoned.

I tell ya: I don’t know where else in the world you would be able to get lighting this weird without some very expensive hardware and a few long extension cords.

The cathedral is visible from almost anywhere in the city. You can navigate by it.

Such wonderful textures in a cemetery.

I don’t fully understand my own contrarian nature sometimes. I really feel relaxed and comfortable when I’m sitting around in a place full of old bones and stone markers, commemorating death. If it’s midnight and I’m alone, all the better.

I didn’t used to be like this. When I was a kid I was scared very easily. I also had a stubborn desire to not be controlled, even by my own fear, so I’d go outside at night into the forest and stand there, letting myself freak out, then letting the fear ebb down to a flicker, then taking a few more steps until it flared up again, and so on. It got to the point where I was actively wishing for a ghost or demon to materialize before me, because the fact of it would open up a whole new universe of possibilities, and upend all kinds of things I’d learned about science and nature, which would be terribly exciting.

But it never happened, even once, and it still hasn’t happened, even with plenty of opportunity. Instead the practice of standing around in cemeteries and calming myself has conditioned me to relax in these places, perhaps too much, and I start thinking deep thoughts about nature and spirituality.

Also I think those cartoons about Halloween and “grim grinning ghosts” and the association of scares with candy may have contributed.

So deliciously spooky.
The "candles" are all LED-driven these days.

Eventually I left the cemetery, and went riding quietly around the city as the misty rain coated everything.

All creatures that weren’t asleep were hunkered down.

In the cold winter months Icelanders get an extra energy boost by chewing on infants. Fact!

Not a tribute to the diversity movement, but to Bilröst. It's a burning rainbow bridge that reaches between Earth and Asgard.

But let's just say it's a tribute to the diversity movement anyway.

It was way after midnight when I finally returned the bike to the basement of the AirBnB, and walked upstairs to my room. It had been a fine day.

Me And Some Big Boxes Take A Trip

I woke up in my van, stowed my bedsheets, and re-packed my toiletries bag. It was time to set in motion that long, weird collection of gears that would move me and three big chunks of luggage nearly four thousand miles across land and ocean in less than a day.

My friend Zog had plans to use the van while I was gone, so I gave him a brief tour and promised to write him an official guide later. While he helped me lug the suitcases and bicycle box into the cargo area, I chatted with his relatives, and they gave me some messages to send along to the Icelandic people, as follows:

Dear Iceland,

Lawrence A. Bell says he’s sorry about Mr Trump, but he takes responsibility.  Jeremy is sorry too, but does not take responsibility.

And then we were on our way to the Portland airport!

Zog is my co-pilot.

We chatted about work and groovy electronics projects, and listened to some throwback 90’s-era goth electronica by Gods Of Luxury. (Sooo deliciously pretentious and cheezy and well produced…) In short order I was hugging Zog at the terminal curb, and then I was alone with my giant pile of stuff and a couple of hours to get on a plane.

Two disposable suitcases, each right up at the 50 pound limit, and one oversize bike box, right up at the 70 pound limit.

A handcart was only a few feet away, so I stacked everything onto that. The little wheels that I’d roped onto the bottom of the bike box turned out to be redundant, which was great news.

Check in went easier than usual. I didn’t encounter any sarcastic resistance from airline agents who didn’t know their own luggage rules. They knew the box was legal, and they knew it could go up to 70 pounds as long as I paid the oversize fee. I was asked to haul it to a special roped area, and allowed to watch as they unbuckled the straps and poked through the equipment inside.

Inspecting the box in the open, where I could see. I like that.

I appreciated that a lot because it meant I could watch them reassemble the box as well, and make sure they got everything back inside and properly tightened the straps.

With that done, all I had to do was get a few labels attached, then check my other suitcases along with the giant box and wave goodbye to the whole set.

It was exactly 70 pounds, but the clerk approved it anyway.

In the trip through security, my hands tested positive for some chemical contaminant so they padded me down and then searched my backpack. No big deal; I’ve got lots of time. I wonder if it was something from the van?

They also said my second camera lens – the 50mm f1.2 – was a strange object on the scanner, so they asked me to take it out of the bag and show them. The woman looking it over said, “holy mackerel, that’s a serious lens!”

“Yeah it’s nice,” I said, “but my arm just about falls off after using it for a while.”

She laughed and waved it through. I was happy to stop talking about it, because I really didn’t like drawing attention to the fact that I was hauling around thousands of dollars of electronics in a sack. I have this probably incorrect assumption that if my luggage looks ratty and old, thieves will assume there’s nothing valuable inside and target someone else. And I don’t like breaking that illusion.

But I have to be paranoid about my carry-on, because I obviously can’t be putting all this fancy gear into a checked bag. Back home in Oakland, thieves will roll up in the arrivals lane using a stolen car, run inside, and yank unclaimed bags off the carousel. They go for classy monochrome bags with discreet labels that look like they could belong to several people, and once they’ve sped out of the airport, the quality of the bag makes only a few minutes’ difference in how long it takes for them to wedge it open, rifle the contents, and then shove the rest out the door and all over the sidewalk. Then it’s back for another round. Unless you’re checking luggage in a heavy steel trunk with a nasty built-in lock, the container you use is irrelevant.

(You may be wondering how I know what kinds of bags these criminals prefer. It’s because I see them scattered around Oakland, mostly on the fridge of the homeless encampments.)

At least three times, over the years, I’ve been biking around the city and discovered a heap of clothing and paperwork all over a sidewalk next to a suitcase, and used the paperwork or the label on the suitcase to contact the unlucky victim and tell them where their stuff is. One memorable time I reached the victim by getting their phone number off a receipt from a gun shop, and in the ensuing dialogue they told me that their luggage had contained several handguns in boxes, now in the possession of some random Oakland criminal. Freakin’ whoops.

Anyway, yeah. I digress. Laptop, camera, lenses… That’s gotta stay with me.

Boarding went smoothly. I couldn’t see the baggage handlers as they loaded the plane so I had no idea if my bicycle was on the same flight. Nothing I could do about it now. Distracted, I bumped my head on the overhead bins, and declared I should just wear my bike helmet all the time, even if it does make me look like a dangerous lunatic.  Airport security would get worried though…

Skirting Mt. Hood as we take off.

As the plane vaulted into the sky and Portland shrank below me, I felt like the journey was truly started. I thought about the next few months. A return to Iceland was something I never thought I’d make — because of time, logistics, and personal reasons. And why return to such a far away place when there are so many other places I haven’t seen at all?

Well, the past resolved itself various ways to lead me here, and I’d worked through that decision. But a question I hadn’t asked was: What do I want to accomplish?

What felt most important was including my father on this trip, more than I’d done in 2019. We share an enthusiasm for trekking out into strange places and then telling stories about what we learned and saw. He with his 35mm slide projector, and me with my digital camera and phone. Actually I suppose this isn’t a trait we share, so much as a trait I absorbed from him in bits and pieces as I grew up, and telling him all my stories is – among other things – a way of turning a line of inheritance into a circle. He’s too frail these days to join me on a bike, and the rough weather of Iceland would be too risky for him even if he could get there, but I can still send pictures and call him up and make sure he’s part of the journey as it happens.

Let me pause here and marvel yet again at the astonishing changes wrought by electronics, in his lifetime. He was born two years before the invention of the printed circuit. The first prototype electronic computer didn’t show up on the planet until he was eight years old. (It was built at Iowa State and weighed 750 pounds.) And now I can do a real-time video chat with him, standing on a street, in a time zone eight hours away, while he sits at his desk in Oregon.

And the location is remarkable as well: When he was born, Iceland was still a Kingdom, not yet a Republic, and was home to about 90 thousand people, almost all of them subsistence fishermen and ranchers. There was no international airport, no ring road, and the capital city was still burning imported coal to generate electricity. (The first hydroelectric power station didn’t take over there until 1937.) Now I can fly there on a plane, assemble a bicycle, ride it around the country eating fish in restaurants and camping as I go, and pay for everything with a credit card. My goodness, the changes…

Anyway, yes. That’s the number one goal: Make sure he’s part of the trip. I made plans to call him as soon as I got to the hotel.

My second goal was to try and get into the highlands this time. I’d seen a lot of amazing terrain along the northern coast in 2019, but I had to scrap my plan to cross the highlands after I found out how rough the roads were. Now I had a chance to use the “partially improved” roads in the southern half.

That was it, really. I cast around in my head for additional goals, but all I found was a general desire to explore, learn, and eat more fish. I had some residual angst about my recent dating life to mull over, but that wasn’t essential, and I knew it would happen organically. The rest was up to the road, my feelings each day, and my desire to improvise.

I knew I should lay back and sleep to combat the approaching jet-lag, but as I often do in planes, I glued myself to the window and watched the clouds scroll by instead. Being this far up in the air is an absolute wonder.  I had an audiobook about material science playing, and listened to the chapter about water and clouds.

We moved north up towards the latitude of Iceland, and passed over the sea. It was white — a solid blanket of ice and show. After a few hours the ice broke up into patches. It didn’t look thick enough to walk on, but it was definitely enough to endanger any ship without a specialized hull.

In time, the patches dispersed a little, and I could look down and see the forbidding coastline of the Nunavut territory of Canada.

Looks cold down there.

Somewhere around here, I did my best to take a nap. I would be losing most of a day upon landing in Iceland, and getting through the next one would be challenging.

Believe it or not, the Qikiqtarjuaq airport is down there.

As I dozed I imagined the freezing air streaming all around the plane, and the churning ocean far below, and how utterly impossible it would be for me to make this journey if I had to deal with the surface.

How many paths was I crossing over, from thousands of forgotten explorers in the near and distant past, who endured loneliness and desolation beyond anything I’ve felt, as they searched for a place to live?

I bet the Inuit people have some amazing history to share that has been almost entirely hidden from me by language and cultural barriers. If I was down there, perhaps I would encounter it organically. Plane travel is miraculous, but every time I use it, I am struck by how much I am missing from the spaces in between.

The chance to see those in-between places is why I love bicycle touring so much. Ironic that I’d start out a tour with a plane flight, yeah? If I had the time, I’d cycle all the way to the eastern-most chunk of the Canadian archipelago instead, then look for some way to cross the ocean.

Barring that, I’d go to the eastern-most airport. I already figured out where that is, of course, being the obsessive planner I am. It’s St. John’s International Airport on the Avalon Peninsula. At some point perhaps I’ll close this link by cycling across North America and ending up there. But not this time.

Life Advice From 1980’s Computer Magazines

30 years ago I saw this advice in the computing magazine that was delivered to our house each month:

I was already familiar with the game, and I knew it was right: When you’re playing Moebius: The Orb of Celestial Harmony and you enter a fortress, the guards are easier to fight hand-to-hand.

I was intrigued by the counterintuitive feel of the advice. If you have a long sharp sword, and you’re good with it, wouldn’t that always be the best choice? Then I imagined trying to swing a sword in a narrow hallway. Perhaps something more intimate, and easier to control, was right after all.

For years after I read that silly, unremarkable sentence in that gaming magazine, it bubbled up randomly in different situations. I generalized the idea: When you enter a confined space, don’t waste effort trying to keep everything at arm’s length — especially people. Switch to something more intimate even if it’s less powerful. The trick is recognizing when you need to switch modes.

Recently I got ahold of a bunch of ancient issues of a defunct magazine called Family Computing, and fed them into a sheet-fed automatic scanner. Flicking through the pages, I found more pieces of worthy life advice. May they guide you on your journeys!

Very important to know when you’re a young person at a party, or when some jerk decides to pick on you!