Pack test

I completed my pack test (to recertify for wildland firefighting) in 43 minutes, 38 seconds, a respectable time. Of course it’s strictly pass-fail: you have to walk three miles in 45 minutes carrying 45 pounds on your back. When I took it last January in Kentucky, I think I finished in just over 44 minutes. I checked to see if I had any of my previous times recorded, and I see that in July 2005 (in Mississippi), I finished in 38:29. Can that possibly be right? That’s very, very fast. I either wrote it down wrong, or I was in great shape, or they shorted the course. And if they shorted the course, with a time like that (and I wasn’t the fastest) I would venture to say they shorted it by a good quarter-mile. I would think someone would notice that, with all those fast times being turned in. I attributed my better times in Mississippi to being looser in the warm weather, but now I wonder.

Anyway, I passed it today on a legitimate track. We are at Preparedness Level 5, which means I’ll likely be called out to a fire.


We spent the night in Decorah, Iowa, known for its Norwegian heritage. The area’s big “Nordic Fest” starts later this week, but we saw part of the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. Tommy Thompson was there too; we saw him sitting in his campaign bus on a side street.

There’s a lot to do in the area, including paddling the Upper Iowa River, and a lot we didn’t do, but we spent a nice evening cooking hot dogs at our rented cabin outside of town before an all-night thunderstorm. On the way back we swung through the Amish country near Jesup.

The Mosquito Coast

We were talking about “The Mosquito Coast”–movie and book–at work the other day, so I picked up the book by Paul Theroux at the library. I’ve spent the last week tearing through it. I saw the film a long time ago and don’t remember much about it. The book is really good, though. The character Allie Fox is really over the top: he goes from eccentric to psychotic without changing much, and he gets a little annoying at times. He is exactly what he hates; the irony is that he’s completely in love with himself and his world view. A cautionary tale if I’ve ever read one.

Justinian’s flea

What I remember from history classes about the late Roman Empire a.k.a. the Byzantine Empire, was that it was just a footnote to Rome’s glorious history. My ignorance may come from my lack of interest in the late empire. Justinian’s flea by William Rosen chronicles the reign of the last great Roman Emperor, and the plagues that marked the beginning of the empire’s end.

Rosen details the achievements and turmoil of Justinian’s reign. I mean details literally. I can’t keep all the Germanic barbarian tribes and Christian factions straight. There are a lot of Johns and Theo-somethings. And he goes into unnecessary detail about the entire natural history of plague bacteria. It’s like listening to a nerdy thirteen year old tell you everything he knows.

Rosen links the outbreaks of bubonic plague and the decline of the empire to the very beginnings–or more like the conditions that allowed the beginnings–of modern European nation-states. His case is compelling and the book is a good read despite the excess of information. I’m sufficiently interested to follow up with a new book about the rise of Islam: The great Arab conquests.

Another tornado warning

Susan and I were having dinner at a restaurant when the tornado sirens went off again. In the process I noticed that there’s a siren right by the apartment I’ll be moving into later this month. I’ll have to make a note of those next time.

Word on the street is that the siren-sounders are a little quick on the trigger after last year’s tornado struck the city.

Seek shelter

Yesterday we had another tornado warning, though I don’t believe a tornado actually materialized. The sirens went off (a bizarre undulating sound that makes me think of UFOs) and the TV advised us to seek shelter. I was at Susan’s so we went down into the basement for a short while. They’re old hands at this by now. The kids were all ready to camp out down there all night.

Effigy Mounds

I took a day trip up to Effigy Mounds National Monument with some co-workers. We saw most of the major mounds groups. They’re a totally mystery and always will be. The bluffs over the river give the area a “someplace other than Iowa” feel, if you feel that Iowa is all flat land and corn farms. Northeastern Iowa is hilly and a little reminiscent of Pennsylvania or upstate New York. If I had a camera I’d post pictures, but not this time. I intend to go back to the area again and do some hiking and camping. There’s a state park, Pike’s Peak with a nice campground and a great view of the river, and a state forest, Yellow River, nearby with some backpacking opportunities.

Five days in August

I’m off to the library to return Five days in August by Michael D. Gordin, about the use of atomic weapons at the end of the Second World War. It’s a lot of academic hair-splitting over whether the A-bomb was “special” and used for “shock”. Most of his original research is about the assembly and delivery of the nukes on Tinian. He doesn’t really try to answer the questions he raises about whether the bombs ended the war or not, he just raises them. But these questions were raised decades ago. It’s pretty clear to me that most of what can be researched about the use of the atomic weapons has been researched, and that the weapons were indeed special and shocking. Precisely when they became to be seen as so is not so interesting to me, though Gordin believes this has implications as to the morality of using such weapons.

A moral failing is making any distinction between nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons and conventional weapons. They are all weapons and may be justified in some instances, but the notion there are good and bad weapons and good and bad wars only serves to justify our continued slaughter of each other. How we can be satisfied by an aerial firebombing in place of a mustard gas attack is beyond me.

Five days in August is short and scholarly and worth reading if you’re really interested in dissecting this subject.


So after work I joined Susan and her kids at her friend’s mother’s for a barbecue and to watch the fireworks. This house is right on the river across from the park where the fireworks were. Great vantage point. The fireworks were pretty good, except that they kept getting interrupted by technical difficulties. They’d stop abruptly, then start again. Everyone was wondering if they’d finished. It was hard to tell. There were still bursts as everyone was headed back home. Meanwhile we could hear the Coralville show going off like gangbusters a few miles upstream.

One thing drove me mad, though: one guy had some roman candles he was firing off and when he was finished he’d just throw the tube in the river. He did this at least half a dozen times. As it happens, the Iowa River is considered the country’s third most endangered river. Because people like that guy treat it like a sewer.

Lone Tree

I biked down to Lone Tree, stopping in Hills, for a total of about 35 miles round trip. This is easily the farthest I’ve biked so far. The roads are pretty quiet in southern Johnson County, though the stretch on State Highway 22 going toward Lone Tree was a little uncomfortable. A truck carrying cord wood passed within about 12 inches of me, so I rode on the dirt shoulder part of that leg, which was also uphill and had a headwind. That was the slowest four miles ever. The 16 mile return trip from Lone Tree went pretty fast and took me about 90 minutes. County Road F62 is a little bumpy–the pavement seams jolted me every couple of seconds for a while–but it’s really quiet.

The scenery was almost all farmland. The weather was pretty much perfect, but I need to start taking the sun more seriously. In Mississippi I used sunscreen religiously; here I often forget or use it sparingly when I do.

On my way back from Lone Tree I was attacked by some blackbirds. They followed me and chirped at me, but didn’t make actual contact though they came close. Good thing I was wearing a helmet…