Friday, 28 June 2013

Cannonball Read #18: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

I had such high hopes for Robopocalypse. The story sounded pretty good: Robots get smart. They try to take over the world by annihilating humans. Humans resist. If it sounds familiar it's because it's been done before. Unfortunately, it's been done much, much better.

What a silly book this was. Right from the first pages of the book I understood that this was going to be the literary equivalent of a Michael Bay movie. Action, explosions, soldiers, tough talk. Characters who are shallower and more wooden than their robot enemies. While that might work on the big screen (at least if you're looking for some mindless entertainment), 350 pages of it get boring real fast.

The book is divided into chapters, each of which retells events as witnessed by one of the many characters. These accounts are based on CCTV footage, webcams and the like. The central character provides an introduction to each story, as well as a final note at the end of the chapter. This was a major fault of the book for me. It took me out of the story (not that I was lost in it, but still). He also kept hinting at the importance of these events for the future, which didn't leave any room for suspense or surprise.

I'm only giving this book two stars instead of one because Daniel H. Wilson obviously knows his subject matter: robot technology. Too bad he couldn't work in some more humanity.

I hear this is currently being made into a movie by Steven Spielberg. Will this be one of the few times the movie is better than the book?

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Cannonball read #17: When the devil holds the candle by Karin Fossum

This is the epitome of summer reading. A quick, light, unpretentious read that's easy to digest and just as easy to forget.

Andreas is an 18-year old that doesn't know what to do with his life. He spends all his time when he's not working with his best friend Zipp, hanging around town, managing to stay out of trouble despite their risky (and often outright criminal) behaviour. Then, one day, Andreas disappears. No one knows where he is. Or at least that's what the police believe until they talk to Zipp and they realise he is hiding something.

It is not a ground-breaking idea, but we know almost from the start who's responsible for Andreas' disappearance. The question is not so much who did it but why. Through the pages of the book, a portrait of a very disturbed person is slowly revealed.

Don't expect a deep psychological thriller or a complex mystery here. The portrayal of the disturbed person feels incomplete. Andreas' own implied psychological problems are only hinted at. It was like waiting for a punchline that never came.

This is not a fancy 7-course meal at a fancy restaurant. This is a light snack before going to bed. It might keep your stomach busy for a while, but by midnight you're hungry again.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Mineralleden, the Mineral trail

(Long story. Again. Grab a piece of pie to go with that coffee)
I had a plan. I was going to follow Mineralleden (the Mineral trail) to Varuträsk and then run back the same way. All in all, about 36 km. It all started so well. It was a beautiful day and the trail head, which I thought I'd have trouble finding, couldn't have been more visible if it had a blinking neon sign hanging over it. 

Off I went into the woods, with my Camelbak in my backpack and some flapjacks in the outside pockets. It didn't take long before I took a wrong turn. Although I didn't know it at the time and put the blame on lousy marking, I had run past the trail. I stood at a crossroads scratching my head. I knew that, further up the road, I would come across the trail again, so I took my chances and ran in that direction. 

The woods were peaceful, casting a much-needed shadow on this hot day. Stones and roots littered the path and kept me focused. It was a gorgeous single-track I was running on, the vegetation whipping my legs. I hoped there were no ticks hiding in the bushes, throwing themselves at me as I ran past.

After a while, I had to leave the woods and run on asphalt. The trail follows some less-trafficked roads, and cuts through a posh area with well-maintained red houses and tidy gardens. Not many people have gone on leave yet, so I didn't meet anyone except a woman tending to her flower beds and a boy playing on the grass. The little blue-and-white signs glued onto trees by the road told me I was still following the trail. And then my mind drifted off and I lost my concentration and suddenly there were no signs to be seen. I couldn't decide what to do. Keep running and hope that the trail was up ahead? Turn back and look for it? Ask someone? But there was no one around. I kept running, believing that the part of the trail that followed the road was pretty long.

I ran for about one kilometre without seeing any signs. I was almost convinced that I had missed a turn somewhere, so I made my way back towards town again, looking around carefully. And there it was. Hidden in the trees. Well, hidden - if you're blind. Not only was there a blue-and-white sign on a tree, there were orange markings showing the way on several other trees! I couldn't understand how I could have missed it. I almost threw myself at the trail, happy to finally leave the hard asphalt, and was met with mud. Lots of it.

That was just a taste of the things to come. Because later, after another short patch of asphalt, I ran through areas that were so wet, my feet almost sunk in to the ankle.

And speaking of ankle. A few months ago, I managed to do something with my right one while doing yoga. I suppose I overstretched it? And now, I landed on my foot in such an angle that it shot a flash of pain up the front of my calf. 

If a runner swears in the woods and no one is around to hear her, does she make a sound?

I started running again. The flat parts were fine. Problem was, there were almost no flat parts. The trail is like a roller-coaster, and did I mention the stones? And the roots? Second time I twisted my ankle followed, and then third not long after. It hurt like a son of a b-- female dog. Running two extra kilometres because I took a wrong turn hadn't crushed my spirit, but getting injured in the middle of the forest came dangerously close. Something big bulldozed its way through the bushes. I caught a glimpse of a moose calf just in time, and right after another brown shadow further ahead that might have been its mother. Crap. Moose can get aggressive if they have young. Good thing they seemed to be more afraid of me than I was of them. My incospicuous bright fuchsia T-shirt camouflage didn't seem to be doing its job. Looking out for the moose through the trees, I slowly walked away.

"What was it we said?" found on a tree in the middle of nowhere. I don't know what it was they said. I don't know who "they" are. But I'm very curious.

The trail got more and more treacherous, with overgrown grass and bushes making it hard for me to see where to put down my feet. I walked the most difficult parts. Then I was out of the woods once again, and I took a break to eat. This was the forest road I ran on with AIK last autumn, only now it was greener.

Right before I reached Vildmarksgruvan (”Wilderness mine”, and the end of the trail), I had to follow the trail into the forest. A strange group appeared before my eyes. Three men of, how shall I put it, very different shapes and sizes (think fellowship of the ring here), were standing in the middle of the path, with a folder in their hands, seemingly looking at nothing more spectacular than the stones on the ground. I was startled, finding other humans on the trail, but I think I managed to hide my surprise with a wave and a happy ”Hello!”. As if it was completely normal.

The mosquitoes attacked me as soon as I stopped at Vildmarksgruvan. I was parched. My throat was thick with what felt like wool. The wool was absorbing every drop of moisture from my mouth. A couple stood on a little mound, also staring at the ground. The woman was holding a rock in her hand, observing it.

- Do you know if I can get water anywhere around here? I asked. The excavation site was only a museum nowadays and was currently closed.
- The village is about one kilometre down the road, the man mumbled. Do you have your car nearby?
- No, I ran here, I replied.
- If you run to the village, there might be someone who could give you some water, the man said, completely disinterested in me, and kept looking at the ground.
- There might be a hose around here somewhere, said the woman in broken Swedish.

I'd had already had a look. There was no hose around, and the extra kilometre to the village, on asphalt, in desert-like conditions was the last place I wanted to be. I gave my situation some thought. Which way would I run back, the trail or the forest road? I still had some water left, but it was getting so warm I'd soon be able to boil an egg in it. Black backpacks, who thought they were a good idea? On the trail, the shadow cast by the trees combined with the breeze would keep me cool enough, but I really didn't like the idea of twisting my foot once again. I left the couple to their rock observations and aimed for the forest road.

This absurd day was about to get weirder. Finding my stride, I made good progress back towards town, trying to run in the shadow of the trees on either side of the road but the midday sun shrank the shadows to nothing. The heat-scorched dirt road smelled of pine needles and I was starting to foam at the mouth with thirst. I licked my lips, washed my mouth with a gulp of water before swallowing – it only gave temporary relief. Then a beat-up, dusty red car pulled up beside me. A family of four sat inside.

- Do you know the way to the bog? the bespectacled, kind-looking man asked in English.
- The what? I asked.
- Do you know where there is a bog around here? he repeated.
- A bog???

 I didn't get it. My tired mind was mixing up English and Swedish and the word he said sounded like something completely different in Swedish, something very inappropriate for him to ask for in front of his wife and children.

- Yes, a bog!
- Aha, do you mean a swamp? gratefully the penny finally dropped.
- Yes, a swamp! Do you know where a big swamp is?

I didn't. Baffled by this strange question, thinking it was all a dehydration-induced hallucination, I fished out my phone and started looking at the pictures of maps I had taken. None showed any bog. Or swamp.

- Where do you guys come from? I asked as I looked through the pictures.
- Germany, he said. They said in town that the swamp was Northwest of Skellefteå.

I explained that I wasn't from these parts. I asked if they knew what the swamp was called. They didn't. They said they'd ask someone else and drove off. 

My thirst becoming more and more like a stubborn child tugging at your sleeve for attention, I wished I'd asked the Germans for water. I kept wondering if I should ask one of the few people I saw gardening if I could bother them for some. I was prepared to beg, bribe or steal, but my shyness got the better of me and I made do with the little water I had left. I stopped at Klintforsån to rest and eat the last of my flapjacks, and rinsed my feet in the cool water of the brook. I wished I could swim in it. I wished I could drink all of it up. If I had slipped and fallen in, I would have drowned with a smile on my lips. I put my cap in the water and then put it back on, and I could almost hear the water evaporating with a hiss as my hot forehead turned it to steam. 

The rest of the run was uneventful. Well, almost. I did manage to twist my ankle one last time when I got back to Vitberget.

Did you know: I can swear in three languages! Four, if you count Finnish. Perkele!

Tick-free, I arrived back at the car with 32 km under my belt. It felt good to be able to run longer distances again and not be completely shattered or injured afterwards. The foot doesn't hurt, nor is it swollen, but I'm giving myself a couple of days' rest. Just in case.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Cannonball Read #16: No name by Wilkie Collins

This book was given to me as a gift by a friend. It is not the kind of book I would normally give a second look at a bookstore, let alone buy: I prefer modern literature, because I've always believed that finding common ground with the characters in books that are over a hundred years old would be hard for me. I was wrong.

Set in the 1860s, No name is the story of Magdalen, the youngest of two sisters, who become very poor indeed when their parents die without having taken the necessary steps to make sure the two young women inherit their fortune. The women deal with the loss of their parents, their name and this fortune in very different ways, and Magdalen's way is that of revenge against those she perceives as responsible for the injustice.

My fear that I would have trouble identifying with the characters was unfounded. Apart from the occasional fainting spell suffered by one woman or another, which seems so overly dramatic in this day and age, I could easily understand the emotions, motives and actions of the protagonists, despite the 150-year old gap between their experience and mine.

Although the language was more formal than I am used to, I didn't feel it was a problem while I was reading the book. Still, it took me two months to get through it, so I suppose that it does take longer to read if you're not used to this kind of language. It was a complex novel in a way, with many major (and minor) characters, and several parts to the story. Yet, it kept me interested throughout. I can't say I found Magdalen likeable – her actions make her seem like a derailed train, a catastrophe waiting to happen; but her struggle to do what she thought was right while simultaneously doing things that are so obviously wrong made for compelling reading.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Hemavan for Midsummer's Eve

(Grab a cup of coffee before you start reading. It's a long read)

A backpack that weighs 10 kg might seem quite light when you're testing the straps at home, but after hiking up and down the hills of Hemavan for 10 km don't be surprised if you get horns bumps on your shoulders of such horrible appearance people might think you're the spawn of Satan. At least if you have as crappy a backpack as the one I have. The hordes of mosquitoes occupying the woods around the lower areas are the least of your problems in that case. We were going camping and hiking in Hemavan. 4 days, 3 nights. 

Day 1

After driving for 4 hours (not including the stopover for pizza in Storuman), we parked right where Kungsleden begins. Kungsleden is pretty much just uphill the first few kilometers, and carrying as much weight as we did (J double as much as I did) we got breathless after a few hundred meters. We took small steps up the hills, our faces protected by the mosquito nets hanging from our hats. It was the day before Midsummer's Eve, and we didn't meet a single soul before we got to Viterskalsstugan, the first shelter on Kungsleden. 

Once we got there, the shelter host came out to greet us. He had just gotten there himself – the shelter wouldn't open until Midsummer's Day, and he invited us to come over and celebrate Midsummer's Eve with him, as he would most likely be spending it alone. After he gave us some tips on where we could put up the tent, we walked on until we found the perfect spot. Syterskalet opened up in front of us, a magnificent view to wake up to.

Not a bad place to put up a tent

We cooked some dehydrated food and rested our legs. One thing we learned was that, right after you put down your heavy backpack after a long walk, you will not be able to walk straight. Also, people might think you're drunk. Good thing there was no one around to think that. We have a reputation to uphold.

The weather was good, so we decided to try and climb up mountain Norra Sytertoppen. We crossed the wide stream running by our tent with our hiking boots hanging around our necks, the ice cold water making our naked feet ache. The hike after that was easy, climbing gently up the hill. It was all going very well, until we came up to a sort of chute consisting of loose earth and scree. It got steep pretty fast at this point, and it took a lot of courage from both J and me to climb up. Our courage did not pay off. A bit higher up, our way was blocked by a patch of snow that was too slippery and at an angle for us to try and walk over. Neither of us fancied falling to our deaths, so we turned back. We climbed down the chute sitting on our butts and appreciated life a little more than we did before. Especially each other's.

The view was worth the climb

We got back at one in the morning, almost too tired to sleep. Almost.

Day 2

Defeated by Norra Sytertoppen, we decided to try our luck in the opposite direction. The mountain top we aimed for was an easier one, one that J had climbed before. A corridor of grass would help us reach higher ground avoiding scree as much as possible. The hike was easy from a technical point of view, but steep enough to send our pulse racing with effort. As we got higher, the wind got stronger. It didn't take long before it was so strong that J, nearly two meters tall, had trouble staying upright. At that point, climbing even higher, where the wind was sure to be even stronger, didn't seem like a good idea. We turned back, once again defeated. 

Hard to believe that anything would grow in such harsh climate, but there were many sorts of flowers around.

Home-made flapjacks tasted great on the way down.
When we reached the shelter, the host came out again to greet us and offered us some coffee. We accepted gratefully and spent an hour or two in the shelter, chatting about mountain-related activities. I took this opportunity to ask him about running in the area, and got some great tips about possible excursions for our running trip in July.

After cooking and eating our dinner by the stream in the company of mosquitoes, the evening was still young. The weather seemed good enough for a hike to one of the glaciers in the area, right at the far end of Viterskalet. We started off around 18.30. The initial climb was gentle and it was followed by a patch of marshland. Already the view was spectacular. Brutally steep mountain walls surrounded the valley, dwarfing the clear blue snow-water lake at the bottom. The landscape was lunar, barren but for some short grass and alpine flowers, littered with rocks, some of which were enormous – a remnant of a much colder era, when the glacier we were hoping to visit reached all the way to Syterskalet.

We made good progress into the valley, crossing rivulets and snow fields. We kept thinking that the glacier was right around the corner, but it was much further than we thought. Then we came to a snow field that we couldn't cross. It covered a stream and we didn't know how deep the snow was, or if it would hold our weight. For the third time, we had to turn back. 

Just around that corner. Or so we thought.

Once again, the wind had picked up, so strong that we thought it would throw us off our feet. We sought shelter in as low ground as possible, making our way carefully over ridges and using our hiking staffs as support against the gusts. We wondered if our tent would still be there when we got back, or if it would have flown off to the land of Oz. It was great to see that it was, indeed, still standing when we got there. I rinsed my legs in cold stream water. Both J and I were getting very sore muscles at this point, having logged many kilometres within a short period of time, and the icy water brought much needed relief.

Day 3

We got very little sleep that last night. The wind was mercilessly whipping our tent with rain, threatening to rip it apart. I kept worrying in my half-asleep state about what we would do if that happened. Pack our things in the middle of the storm, head to the shelter and knock on the door? Being outside the tent was a daunting prospect. After a while I stopped worrying. There was nothing I could do. I couldn't control the weather or what it did to the tent. I fell into a restless sleep, twisting and turning, trying to find the position that hurt my muscles the least.

Morning brought anything but sunshine and blue skies. The wind had hardly eased down and some black clouds hung over all of Syterskalet. We called it quits. We would cut our trip a day short and head back. After a hearty breakfast and a hot cup of coffee, we packed our things (our tent, surprisingly, none the worse for wear except for a crooked pole) and left. 

Oatmeal, chocolate chips, coconut flakes and dried cranberries

J was plagued by some sort of inflammation in his ear and walking back with 20 kg on his back was taking a heavy toll on him. My backpack straps continued to rub against my shoulders. We took small breaks to catch our breath. We could see herds of reindeer on the hills across from us. Did I think to take out my camera then? No. Of course not. I thought it would burden my shoulders even more. And, as always, when you don't have the camera readily available, that's when amazing things happen. We surprised a small group of reindeer that were grazing leisurely not 30 meters from us. They looked at us, momentarily frozen in place as if we had caught them doing something bad. Then they trotted away with a ”harrumph”, their crowned heads in the air as if to say they had no time for the likes of us.

We came across even more reindeer after that, and this time the camera was hanging around my neck. But now they were (of course!) too far away to photograph.

The best I could do with my camera. Yep, those white dots are reindeer.

We started our drive home some time after 4 in the afternoon, many experiences richer and glad to get a load off our backs.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Never a dull moment

Life has been doing a Usain Bolt the last few weeks and sprinting by at world record speed. And by weeks, I mean months. When I'm not working, I'm training. When I'm not training, I'm probably doing something that can't be classified as wasting time or being lazy, like cleaning after the cats, or gardening, or going on weekend courses about running (ok, that last one was really enjoyable). Last weekend I spent a few hours volunteering as a photographer for Lidingöloppet on tour Skellefteå race. It was a fun, well-organised event. And a very different race experience when you're not actually running.

So there haven't really been any moments when I've had nothing to do. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Boredom is not a feeling I hold in high esteem or long for. But despite the fact that all these activities are voluntary and have been enormous fun (well, except the cleaning after the cats one), they have also entailed a certain rigidity in my schedule. So when I go on holiday on Wednesday, it will be nice to have nothing planned for a while. It will do me good to balance on the verge of boredom, and be able to spontaneously decide what I am going to do to land on the right side of the fence.

Yesterday, 7 runners from AIK and I drove to lake Göksjön, which lies about 50 km from Skellefteå, to participate in Allétrampet. Questions are placed around the 22 km that surround the lake, and prizes are given to those who somehow know the answer to which year the local school closed down and how a word in the local dialect translates to Swedish. Most people drive or cycle around the lake and stop at the aid stations where ice cream, sausage, Swiss rolls and waffles are served. But AIK consists of runners, and run we did.

The whole thing was like something out of Midsomer Murders, except, thankfully, in this episode no one died. The cute houses. The endless green fields. The friendly locals. The history. We logged kilometre after kilometre, hardly noticing thanks to the frequent stops and good conversation. The temperature was just right for a cone of strawberry-flavoured ice cream and the rain that was promised around 2 o'clock held off until we were sitting in the car on our way back. 

Prudently, I had taken a sandwich with me.

Highland cattle

You don't usually see such big butterflies around. And when you do, they don't usually sit and wait patiently for you to take their picture.

When we got back, I decided I'd run the remaining 3 km home too. I need to start logging some longer runs on the weekends again. My legs were tired but not overwhelmingly so, and I rolled down the hill comfortably. All in all, I ran 25 very kind kilometres yesterday. Today, we have to start packing for our Midsummer trip to Hemavan on Thursday. 3 nights camping in the valley among giants.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Geocaching + trailrunning = BFF

Have you tried geocaching? If not, you should. There is no better way to stumble across new, beautiful places than that. And, if you're like me and you like trail running, you can find some caches while out and about. I mean, what else would you do on Sweden's national day?

The mosquitoes were somewhat of a downer, though.