Kiteboarding: Four Days Since Our Last Tiger Shark Attack

I am holding a bar while floating in a murky bay, slowly drifting towards a shipping channel. If I pull on the bar, 6 things can happen, only 1 of which is good. Not to mention the tiger shark. The tiger shark doesn’t care whether I pull the bar or not, but still. So 7 things. I pull the bar.

For the past decade, I’ve had a cocktail-party story about learning to kiteboard — or rather, not learning to kiteboard — with an obscenely overpowered two-line kite and a guy behind me on a JetSki shouting encouragement as I get pulled downwind, in 20-yard increments, across a mile of San Francisco Bay. “Kiteboarding — it’s like bull-riding, but with more drowning.” Subsequent to that lesson (in which I was literally pulled out of one of my wetsuit booties) I thought “Well, I guess I’m too old for it.” Too out-of-shape and too brittle.

But dammit, they make it look so easy.

My friend Florian, who is an expert in getting off his ass, finally convinced me that what we needed to do was take a long weekend, fly to Maui, and take 3 days of lessons. So, here I was, floating like a nerdy dumpling off the beach in Maui, staring up at 86 square feet (8M^2) of kite bucking in the Force 5 winds, a few degrees from the brilliant tropical sun. At the moment, the kite was flying in its most unpowered state, presenting only its thin, inflated lip to the wind. When I pulled the bar, the kite would turn, catch more wind, and accelerate, exponentially increasing in power, which would be transferred down 20M of finger-slicing line to the harness fastened around my waist. And then:

  • The force would pull me out of line and past the board, which would act like a sea anchor and torque my knees perilously before popping off; or
  • My tentativeness would generate so little force that the kite only moved me another 40 or 50 yards closer to the shipping channel; or
  • The kite would turn too sharply and fly directly downwind, launching me into the air before crashing (this was mostly what happened to me in San Francisco); or
  • The kite would lift my butt out of the water, which would be so astonishing that I’d promptly crash; or
  • The kite would lift my butt out of the water, and then launch me into the air; or
  • The kite would lift my butt out of the water, by which time I would have re-turned the kite not-quite towards the vertical, achieving the proper balance between “launch me into the air” power and “sink back on your butt” stalling.

And then there was the tiger shark. Which isn’t a metaphor or one of those “You swim with sharks every time you get in the water” bravados. Florian’s rental board was bitten by a tiger shark, at that very beach, earlier in the week. Marine Biologists measured the bite radius and say it was about 12′. (“Measured the bite radius”: You know, just like Jaws ).

this was no boating accident

I tried not to think about the shark too much.

So the only bad thing I have to say about the experience is that it’s ruined my story. The 4-line kites they have today are literally 180 degrees from what I experienced in San Francisco: my disastrous time in the early 2000s was with kites that, when they crashed, automatically relaunched and tried to fly downwind. So after you crashed you had 5 or 10 seconds to get things under control and if you didn’t, the kite would relaunch, jerk you another 20 yards, crash, and give you another window in which to recover. The modern kites I learned on in Maui were the opposite: they are engineered to skid upwind until they stall, still in the water, and give you all the time in the world to get your bearings.

Ultimately, the hardest thing about kiteboarding for me was that I wasn’t aggressive enough with the kites! They were easy to fly and forgiving, but I had such bad memories about what could go wrong that I was too tentative with the power. Only once did I fly so aggressively that I fell forward rather than backward.

Another hard thing is that when you’re learning, you spend a lot of time using the kite to drag you into position, which involves being pulled through the water by your harness. The force of the water on your chest and all your gear is exhausting and frustrating, because you’re thinking “Why am I panting for breath? I haven’t done anything!”

By the end of my second day, I was getting up and riding for a few seconds. The third day I took a step back because of equipment trouble, and frankly, I was a little worn down from the weekend’s other activities, which included crossing the channel to Molokai to dive with hammerheads (I like sharks just fine when I have a mask on) and shutting down a bar in Ma’alea.

I don’t really know what comes next. I think I have 20 more hours of instruction left before it’s likely I could start doing it myself: 3 more days just getting up and riding consistently and then some time learning beach launches and landings, which are the most dangerous moments in the sport. The Big Island is a poor place to learn to kiteboard — there are no instructors and the only reliable place to kiteboard has a beginner-hostile offshore wind. Flying to Maui for another long weekend of instruction is a possible, but expensive option, but probably not for a few more months, at least.

But on my longest ride, which probably lasted about 20 seconds, I felt like I was looking at an open window. With these kites, physically the sport is open to even old brittle guys like me, and it’s clearly a sport where, once you know what you’re doing you can keep things in balance and not expend a lot of energy. So if I could learn it, I could have a decade or more of a sport that is just perfectly tuned to my sensibilities. So, yeah, I guess I’ll try again.

Best 100% Kona Coffees: 2011 Holualoa Coffee Stroll

Not counting Geek Acres, the best 100% Kona coffees were available for tasting during the annual Coffee Stroll.

Tina and I both agreed on the top 3:

  1. Mr. Bean: Complex, bright, great mouthfeel, clean finish — everything you could want in a coffee.
  2. Sugai: Super mellow and round with a clean finish, but not quite as bright as Mr. Bean
  3. Jasminum: Very bright but smooth, nice finish. Not quite as much mouthfeel as other 2.

Honorable mentions to:

  • Aikane (Chocolate-y)
  • Buddha’s Cup — a previous favorite, seemed like the finish was a little more acid-y than previously
  • Grandmas Choice — only available in a dark roast, which is a pity. Would have been a finalist if a little more bean taste
  • Kona Coffee & Tea Company — very good, complex, bright. Cold-brew available: very sweet, almost like a flavored coffee

The Traveling Astronomer Problem

Apropos of something I’m not quite ready to talk about, here is an interesting challenge:

How do you optimize your time at the telescope if you have a set of objects that you’d like to observe?

For instance, if you want to see as many Messier objects as you can in a single night, a portion of your night might use this sequence, suggested in the book “Messier Marathon Observer’s Guide

screen-shot-2010-09-16-at-104738-am

On the other hand, it looks like there’s a wasteful jog near Serpens Cauda — near the label “18h30m” in the image. That jog is the recommended sequence “M24-M25-M23” but if minimizing the path were the only criterion, it looks like it would be quicker to visit M25 “on the way” between M7 in Scorpius and M11 in Scutum.

Now, by no means do I want to be so presumptuous to suggest that Machholz “made a mistake” in his recommended order. Minimizing the path is not the only or even overwhelmingly-dominant criterion — if you’re really doing the Messier marathon, it’s customary to do it without the help of a computerized “goto” system and using easy-to-find objects and straight line “star hops” is a big deal.

Similarly, in the real world you’re going to be battling light pollution, clouds, and terrestrial obstructions.

But this visualization that I made using Google Earth and some Ruby code does suggest that it might be worth using the power of a computer to help you plan your evening’s viewing.

The bad news is that there are lots of possible paths one can take between all 110 Messier objects — 1588245541522742940425370312709077287172441023447356320758174831844456\
7162948183030959960131517678520479243672638179990208521148623422266876\
757623911219200000000000000000000000000 paths. Most of those paths are impossible for an Earth-based scope (as a matter of fact, there are only brief windows during the year when all the Messier objects are visible at night from a given location). And most paths could be rejected very quickly. But still, no matter how quickly you evaluate a path, there’s no way to use a computer to find the absolute shortest path between this many cities… er … graph nodes … er … sky targets.

The good news is that there are all sorts of wicked cool ways to find “pretty good” paths.

100′ Club

‘Not feeling it. Lungs not as full as they should be — already feeling funky. Caught my fins at the surface for a sec. Bail out now and try again.’

These are my thoughts as I approach the first bleach bottle. I am upside down, pulling myself hand-by-hand down a rope clipped to a trio of bleach bottles that is floating in Honaunau Bay. I’d been to the bottles and a little beyond on my previous dive, but this was my “target dive” which I’d challenged myself to accomplish. I was holding my breath, wearing just a mask, long fins, and a weight belt to counteract the buoyancy of my wetsuit near the surface. I pull past the bottles and continue down.

On Sunday Tina and I did something that we’ve wanted to do forever and have been actively trying to coordinate for several months — a freediving clinic with Annabel Edwards, one of the world’s top freedivers. Since moving to the Big Island, Tina and I have switched from being SCUBA fanatics to being freedive fanatics — there’s much less gear and weight and fuss but even more importantly, freediving is incredibly addictive, as it combines a yoga-like focus on breathing and relaxation with the natural beauty of the underwater world. Staying underwater is all about relaxation, but of course that’s balanced by the most basic of human needs — the need to breathe.

And then there’s the mental game. Holding your breath as long as you can hurts and always ends the same way — an explosive exhale and gasping for air. Although if you really hold your breath long enough to pass out, you may actually “lock up” for several seconds before that happens — which is a good thing if you’re underwater. There’s no getting around the “underwater when you start breathing again” thing — if that happens, you aren’t going to have a good time. That reptile brain hanging around your basal ganglia is damn sure of it. It tells your subconscious mind to get to work and it obeys — popping the thoughts most likely to sway you into your conscious mind. Those perfectly rational reasons why you shouldn’t do the thing you’re scared of — “that bully’s too big to stand up to,” “she won’t go out with you,” or, in this case, “you screwed up and don’t have enough air in your lungs to do this.”

Now that I’m on the permanent mooring rope, I’m down far enough that my wetsuit and lungs have compressed and lost most of their buoyancy. At this point, the 8 pounds on my weight belt pull me down on their own and I’m sinking. Even if I were to drop the weights, at this point I’d probably continue down, getting more compressed, becoming less buoyant, and drop until I hit the bottom at 150’. The amazing thing is that Annabel would be able to get me: she’s gone as deep as the bottom here — by swimming down without a rope or fins, doing a breaststroke!

There’s a school of akule darting around in the light shafts that easily penetrate the clear water of Honaunau. The mooring is on a sand bottom, but gobies — thin little fish that usually cling to coral strands — have made it their home. Rather than disturb them I let my hand open and let the rope glide by. I’m coming up to another bleach bottle — if I make it to that I will have achieved my personal best.

We met Annabel at a coffee shop in Honaunau. She was wearing a t-shirt from the Japan “Freediving Championchips” [sic]. Over half-caf Kona coffee and scones we spent an hour talking about safety and the physiological shifts that occur as you stress your body by immersing it in water. Your heart slows down, your blood flow shifts, and as anyone who’s tried to get to the bottom of a swimming pool knows, your ears complain about the increasing pressure. As SCUBA divers, you learn about these mechanics and master some of them — equalizing your ears and becoming comfortable breathing even if your nose is open to the ocean or filled with water. But one of the really amazing things about SCUBA is that you don’t feel the pressure. Even at over 90’, when you have more than 42 pounds of pressure on every square inch of your body, when you are breathing off a tank, you breathe in air at the same pressure as the water and don’t feel the pressure. (You do, though, feel the density of the air increase so that it almost feels like you’re breathing water.) But when freediving, you are directly exposed to the pressure and because you are going down and up much quicker than you would diving, you experience the changes more acutely.

Because you’re mostly water and because water is relatively incompressible, it’s really just the air-spaces in your body that are stressed during diving — especially your sinuses and ears. You have to push air from your mouth, throat, and lungs into your sinuses and eustachian tubes in order to avoid acute pain and an eardrum rupture — air that you could otherwise used for holding your breath longer. In addition, your mask is squeezed onto your face and you have to exhale into it to stay comfortable and avoid rupturing the capillaries around your eyes.

If, for whatever reason, your sinuses are clogged and you can’t clear, you can’t freedive. Unfortunately, this happened to Tina. After a few dives, her sinuses clogged up and she “felt like I had an ice cream headache and that my teeth were going to get pushed out into my mouth.” That totally sucked — this dream-come-true experience and Tina was restricted to swimming around the surface trying every trick in the book to clear her sinuses.

As I approached the second bleach bottle, I can see a pink ribbon tied around the line below. It doesn’t seem that much further. So I move my hand away from the line, give a slow kick with my fins (unnecessarily, as I’m now dropping rapidly), squeeze my nose and push air into my sinuses, and exhale into my mask. I drop past the bottle. I’m deeper than I have ever been.

The two others with us in the clinic were Ramin and Lee, who were mostly interested in improving their techniques for spearfishing. Tina and I are more into it because it’s such a great way to experience the ocean — once you can hold your breath long enough to settle at the bottom and wait for a few seconds, the fish actually become curious about you and swim right up to your mask. We love SCUBA diving, but the bubbles scare away fish. You can stay longer with SCUBA, of course, but there’s gear — you have to get filled air tanks, you have to carry thirty or forty pounds of gear over the lava to the entry site, you have to scrupulously clean your regulators and make sure your dive computer’s batteries aren’t running low, etc. With freediving you can just throw mask, fins, snorkel, and towel into the car and head off to the beach (well, if you happen to live in Hawaii and there’s great freediving 5 minutes from your house…). Plus, the yoga-like challenge of doing better by relaxing in a stressful situation is incredibly addictive and is the best mind-clearing meditation I know.

The pink ribbon is still 10’ or so below me when my ears and mask once again tell me they need more air from my lungs. This time, though, my lungs make it clear they won’t cooperate — it’s not that they aren’t full nor even that they are exhale-deflated. They are empty, crushed, used up. I push the air in my throat and mouth into my sinuses and ears. My diaphragm contracts spasmodically, trying to retrieve the air. I grab the line just below the pink ribbon. My body swings around and I am upright in the water. I look up towards the surface — my favorite part of freediving. I expect to see tiny figures silhouetted against the sky, but I’m so deep that I can’t really see the surface well. I look at my dive watch, just to make sure…

I am 100’ underwater.

There are 5 parts of a freedive: preparation, descent, bottom time, ascent, and recovery. The ascent is the most dangerous. With your wetsuit compressed and your lungs compressed and having pushed a good deal of what little air they have into your sinuses and mask, you’re heavier than water. Which means that you have to spend energy ascending. But you don’t have a fresh lungful of air to give you oxygen and scrub away the carbon dioxide in your blood. So on your way back up, you know things are going to get uncomfortable.

What’s going to make you uncomfortable is the carbon dioxide. What triggers your desire to breathe is not the burning up of oxygen, but the build-up of carbon dioxide. But what knocks you out is lack of oxygen. There’s a correlation between oxygen (your fuel) and carbon dioxide (your exhaust), of course, but the “I don’t care what you want, I’m going to inhale now” increase in carbon dioxide level is different than the “eyes roll back sleepy-time” decrease in oxygen level.

On the surface, at a normal atmosphere’s pressure, it’s very difficult to hold out long enough against the carbon dioxide discomfort to get to the oxygen knockout point — I certainly cannot do it. However, if you happen to expose your body to rapidly decreasing ambient pressure (such as, by say, ascending towards the surface of the water after having swum down a long way), something called Dalton’s Law of Partial Pressure can make your oxygen level drop very rapidly. So if you’ve been holding your breath and exerting yourself (such as, by say, swimming underwater), you can have what’s called “shallow water blackout,” — an “eyes roll back sleepy time” oxygen problem that happens right as you’re about to get to the surface (because that’s when the pressure is dropping most rapidly) or even in the few minutes after you surface.

My diaphragm contracts spasmodically. If I wasn’t willfully keeping my throat shut, it would be a hiccup. I’m still below the second bleach bottle, which is at 75’. Hiccuping would be bad right now. What’s happening is that my carbon dioxide has reached a level where my body has decided to jumpstart my breathing, whether I like it or not. In a moment, when the first contraction fails to start my breathing, I’ll get another, stronger one. And after that, a little quicker, another. And another and another. With practice, you can learn to make the contractions come slower and be less powerful, so they are less distressing. But because of the danger, when Tina and I are freediving by ourselves, we generally surface before we get to the the contraction stage. And I haven’t been practicing on the couch much lately. So when the contractions come, they’re strong and they hurt. I look up and see a figure swimming down, not far above me. It’s Annabel and she’s swum down to the first set of bleach bottles to help me if I pass out. It’s still 50’ to the surface.

Annabel is in her 50s and, to look at her, “active world class competitive athlete” is probably not the first thing you’d think. She has that deceptive swimmer’s build that carries a little extra insulation and, let’s face it, most of us don’t expect middle-aged women to be very involved in competitive extreme sports. She’s a very friendly and laid-back instructor and while safety procedures and warnings probably take up at least half her briefing, she put us all at our ease.

In the water, she’s just amazing. Her breathing is relaxed and even her final inhale before diving only seems slightly deeper than her previous breaths. On her first dive, she ties the float to the bleach-bottle mooring at 50’. On her second dive, she ties the 100’ ribbon. And in both cases, when she surfaces she demonstrates the three recovery breaths she wants from us, says “I’m ok,” in the way she wants us to, and doesn’t seem winded in the least.

It was Sunday morning and there were two other groups of freedivers out practicing. We were at the shallowest of the moorings used by freedivers — the water was a mere 150’ deep where we were. The others were in, I suppose, 200’ or so — you know, good practice depth. It’s amazing to say it, but I am quite sure that I was safer out there than I am when I am freediving 20’ below most snorkelers.

I’m in the last seconds of the dive when I wonder if I’m going to pass out or do the “samba” that precedes an actual blackout. The contractions are continuous and so forceful that I’m making grunting noises. But at this point I’m positively buoyant, the air in my sinuses and mask is expanding and bubbling up around my head and I’m heading up so fast that, no matter what happens, I’m going to be on the top.

I explode out of the water, probably up to my belly button I’m moving so fast, blowing out the air in a single blast and immediately gasping in a lungful. I momentarily keep my lips closed to do the recovery “pressure breaths” but instead of the dictated three I do four or five before I can take a breath deep enough to say the magic words.

“I’m okay.”

You can read more about Annabel and sign up to take a class with her at http://freediveparadise.com/

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Idea: Solar Energy Test Kit

I wish that I could put something the size of, say, a briefcase on my roof, leave it there for a month, bring it down, plug in a USB cord, and read “A solar water heater would have generated X% of your hotwater needs. A PV installation of X panels would have generated Y KwH.”

Basically: a single solar cell plus a data logger. I see a market in Hawaii (small) and the Southwest mainland (big).

Make it cheap enough and sell it to the geek market even. I suppose for the geek market you’d have to add WiFi connectivity.

Aloha Airlines Shuts Down, Strands Passengers

Aloha Airlines, one of the more important carriers to Hawai’i, entered bankruptcy a few weeks ago and this morning announced the grounding of their passenger fleet effective tomorrow.

We have a friend in town who’s stranded. We love having her, but she appears a little stressed. She doesn’t drink, either, so I can’t ease her mind with a mai tai.

February: Best Month to Visit Hawai’i Island

The seas are filled with humpbacks, both breeding and nursing. If you go in the water, you can hear them a little if you’re on the surface, but if you can swim down 5′ or so, it can be unbelievable.

Yesterday, we were at Kekaha Kai and a whale swam by about 50 yards away (did I see it underwater? No, I did not. Darn.). They were breaching and slapping tails all over.

Plus, we get surf, but it’s very user-friendly (maybe 2-3′). So tall enough to ride, but small enough to swim through very safely. Kekaha Kai is a hot place to go boogie-boarding and I was actually swimming around inside the waves, watching people take off.

Which was cool until my camera flooded. It was just a cheap submersible disposable from Longs, but still, what a rip. Good thing that whale didn’t swim by!

HDTV: Made The Jump, Mixed Results

A year ago I said that HDTV didn’t make sense for me. But with the arrival of Tivo HD, the dollar weakening and making dramatic price drops less likely, and the Red Sox making the playoffs, I decided to make the jump and bought a Philips 42″.

The biggest problem is that once you see high-definition channels in your own home side-by-side with standard definition, the standard definition channels look horrible. We actually had the TV for a couple days before I got the HD cable package and we were like “OK, definitely more noticeable compression and blurriness on the bigger screen, but that’s fine.” And then I got the set-top box and saw how much better the pictures look.

Then, all the trouble started. I chose to stick with Oceanic Time-Warner Cable rather than satellites because to receive HD satellite programming in Hawaii, you have to place two 2.5m dishes in your yard! Our neighbors have them and they’re huge and ugly — a non-starter for us. Plus, my Tivo HD was winging its way island-ward. All I would do is order some CableCards and life would be good.

Well.

Oceanic TWC no longer provides CableCards for HD. You can get a CableCard for SD channels, but if you want HD, you have to use one of their set-top boxes or DVRs. I was a little stunned, but I figured “OK, Tivo had this figured out from the start. So I’ll take the set-top box, hook it into Tivo, and use Tivo’s magic IR blasters to control the set-top box.”

Well.

Turns out that Tivo HD has no facility for inputting HD other than CableCards. (And, just to make it complicated, some people are saying that Oceanic TWC can not legally convert-to-incompatible-form the HD streams of the networks, which provide the majority of the HD content I’d be looking to Tivo (at least until Battlestar Galactica restarts).) (If you thought that forbidding just this kind of practice was the whole point of CableCards, join the crowd.)

So I left my Tivo HD in the box and set up my old Tivo to control the set-top box with IR blasters. “If I need to watch HD, I’ll watch it live.” Which ticked me off no end. Not only is watching live TV unthinkable after you’ve gotten used to a DVR, watching live sports in Hawai’i is difficult due to the 3 hour time shift.

Even worse, the picture quality on shows recorded via the set-top box is noticeably worse than shows from the previous week, when they were recorded straight off our previous non-digital cable service. I suspect this has to do with double-compression: we had been recording analog and applying Tivo’s compression to it; now we have a digitally-compressed stream decoded by the set-top box, sent to the Tivo and recompressed, naturally resulting in many more artifacts and general degradation of quality.

So to summarize:

  • HD picture quality is mind-blowing, but we only get about a dozen channels in HD (networks, TBS and TNT, Discovery, and National Geographic, and then two showcase/movie channels).
  • If I want to time-shift HD, I have to use Oceanic’s DVR, which if it’s anything like their set-top box interface, will be hideous
  • I can use Tivo, but only on SD channels.
    • I can use Tivo HD, which will probably record SD channels better, but I’ll still have to keep the set-top box near the TV in case I want to watch HD. Plus, Tivo HD has a monthly fee.
    • I can use my old Tivo, in which case
      • Picture quality via the set-top box is hideous, or
      • I can go back to basic cable and never be able to see HD broadcasting
  • Oh, and then when I went to watch a rented HD DVD movie last night, I ran afoul of what smells tremendously like some form of DRM .

I’m definitely going to live with the status quo through the playoffs (or at least through the Red Sox run). Manny Ramirez’ homerun last night looked awesome in HD.

But after that, I have no idea what I’m going to do.