Archive for July, 2010

Mountain Biking in Spain

One of my goals for the trip was to go mountain biking in the Pyrenees. Well, that didn’t happen for a lot of reasons, but during one of our last evenings in San Ignazio, we were discussing the trip with our adoptive family and I happened to mention that I would have liked to do some mountain biking while I was here.  Well, “J” (the leader of our now infamous hike of goats and vultures) perked up his ears and told me he was planning a “short, easy ride” on Saturday morning.  “Well, mostly easy, just one hard part—well two or three hard parts, then we’re at the top— only then we climb some more – but very nice!”  Our flight out was 7:15 Sunday morning, so a mountain bike ride on Saturday would leave my lovely wife with much of the packing and cleaning.  I was concerned that it was too much, but since she pointed out that I don’t know how to pack and that there’s not much to clean she insisted I go.

I had not spent much time with the bikes that went along with the apartment but on Friday I went down to the basement storage closet and looked to see what I had.  The only bike big enough to fit me was “A”s bike, which was basically a commuter (with 24 speeds). The tires were deep-tread commuter and were in good shape.  The saddle had a telescoping seatpost and the fork had a few inches of travel and seemed to have good dynamics.  I pumped up the tires, adjusted the seat, swapped a water bottle cage from one of the kids bikes (oops, that reminds me, I forgot to change it back, sorry ‘bout that) and I was ready.

At 9:45 the next morning (have I mentioned the these folks are extraordinarily prompt?) “J” was waiting as I was wrestling the bike up from the basement.

I thought he know what bikes his brother had, but apparently not. He looked at the bike, shook is head, tsked a couple times and noted the tires were narrow, the lowest gear wasn’t all that low and it was quite heavy (which I knew, since I just wrestled it up the steps.)  But, it is what it is, so we set off.  He had a nice Trek hardtail and his friend who we picked up at the local coffee bar also had a nice hardtail.  Both were in full cycling gear included shoes and clipless pedals.  Whereas, my cycling jersey was all I could bring to pack, so I was in cargo shorts and old sneakers (which was fine, since the bike I was riding has platform pedals).  Both “J” and his friend had clear misgivings about the bike but they were resolved to show me the ride.  While I was concerned, I was also secretly relieved.  Any shortcoming in my riding ability would be attributed to the bike!

Well, the first part was the toughest, similar to riding the “Council Springs” ride in East Boise.  Lose gravel, steep grades, but not too long.  The only time I was off the bike was to fix a fortuitously-timed chain mishap.  I was pushing the shifter (certainly there’s one  more gear, isn’t there?) and the chain jumped off the freewheel and into the space between the freewheel and the spokes.  It’s a tough thing to fix since the chain tends to jam up in there and you don’t want to damage the spokes.  As I said, the timing was fortuitous because it gave me a chance to catch my breath. There’s no way I would have completed that clime without a breather in there (again, I can blame the bike!).

In any event, we made it to the top of the ridge and stopped to enjoy the view.

“J” took a shot of me holding in my gut showing off the bike that made it up the hill

Hurry Up! I need to breathe!

Notice the carrier and fenders?  This was one heavy bike!

So, we were off to a good start.  My companions professed to be suitably impressed, but my guess is they were just relieved they didn’t have to wait for me to push the darn thing up the hill!  The rest of the ride was uneventful,  with the exception of some tire work on one of the other bikes.

Small pump, big tire

Which gave me a chance to catch my breath and enjoy the view

I enjoyed it, but it went a bit longer than my current condition would normally  support, and I really hit a wall on the way home.  I didn’t really realize this until we doubled back, but the next 10 km or so was a steady uphill climb, with a few little swoops down to break it up.

The final ride was about 32 km and I used my iPhone app to capture it, but since I had the data roaming turned off and I forgot to return to it after trying to contact my wife to update her on our whereabouts, the altitude isn’t very accurate and it missed the last 20 minutes or so, nonetheless, this link shows you approximately what we did.  If you zoom in on the river crossing to the right, and switch to satellite, you’ll see the most recognizable landmark in Bilbao.

We marked the end of a successful ride with a stop at their favorite watering hall, leaving me assured that, just like in Boise, the mountain bike trails in Bilbao end at a bar.

July 25, 2010 at 6:48 pm 1 comment

Study Abroad, What good is it?

We’re sitting in the main plaza in San Ignatzio (free Wi-Fi) and sifting through our emails.  In one of my news-feeds about higher education I came across a story about study abroad in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  It’s a worthwhile read, but I’ll try to sum it up as best I can.  It appears that many folks, including at times the students themselves, have a difficult time articulating (and hence accepting) the value of a study abroad experience.   Some universities are responding with programs (unspoken motto of higher ed: there’s no problem that a program can’t fix) to attempt to help students put their experience in perspective.   One of the points the article makes is that perspective employers don’t seem to care about the experience and the students are blamed for not being able to put it in words.

The article leaves open the more interesting question:  How is it that perspective employers could not be impressed with a study abroad stint?

Perhaps there are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that the gains of such an experience aren’t easily reflected in GPA’s or awards and accolades.

In another story I read recently, folks at the University of Georgia system have published a comprehensive study of “Academic Outcomes” from study abroad programs.  The study looked at over 19,000 students who had completed a study abroad stint and compared them to a carefully selected control group of 17,000 some students of similar background and preparation who stayed at closer to home.   I haven’t read the study itself, only the article that summarizes the study, so any observations here are to be taken with a grain of salt, but the study abroad students achieved a better graduation rate (both 4 and 6 years) but their GPA’s weren’t notably better.  Two really significant results stand out in my mind however.  First, students with lower SAT scores generally saw bigger improvements in their academic performance after going abroad.  This seems to poke at the conventional wisdom that “at-risk” students should not be encouraged to study abroad. Second (and this goes right to the heart of the Chronicle story I mentioned first) there was little evidence that “disciplinary learning outcomes” (God help me, I’m actually beginning to understand this education jargon) improved for the study abroad participants.

I don’t find this last result very surprising, nor do I find it disconcerting.  After 23 years of teaching engineering, I’ve come to the conclusion that what distinguishes a really successful graduate from a mediocre one isn’t GPA or how fast they made it through the program.  Many faculty member has been befuddled when their new graduate student, who had excellent GRE’s and a 4.0 undergraduate GPA foundered in the less structured environment of graduate school. I’ve heard similar stories from folks in industry.   GPA is but a slice through a much more complicated cloud of performance measures.  My wife likes to talk about a “spark” that you can notice with people.  We also note that some students are “awake” while others aren’t completely engaged.  While these attributed (sparky and awake) don’t lend themselves to peer-reviewed studies, I think most faculty members (who are sparky and awake themselves) will agree with me.  There’s something about successful students that just jumps out at you.

Here’s what I think is going on.  If for no other reason than the time in life when most students are working toward their degree, the process of maturing is reaching it’s conclusion, in spite of all we do in higher education. Some longitudinal studies using the Perry Scale for intellectual maturity suggests similar conclusions.

When a student opts to study abroad, they are making a choice to leave their comfort zone and do something that many people would choose to avoid.  To go to an environment where few people speak your native tongue and where cultural norms (from dress to how to order food in a restaurant) are different from the ones you grew up with, is to force some level of growth on even the most growth-resistant student.  In short, they’re choosing to do something difficult, perhaps for the first time in their lives, and they generally have no choice but to see it through to a logical conclusion.

To be sure, some students approach study abroad as a lark, a chance to have easy access to alcohol and to party their way through the semester, but I would argue that even these students will gain something in the process, if only a lasting regret for opportunities lost.

So this brings me back to my question: Why is it the perspective employers don’t seem to value the study abroad experience?  In this age of “performance metrics” and “outcomes assessment” where it seems nothing is of value unless you put a number to it (complete disclosure: I am a recovering department head and an accreditation evaluator…) The study abroad experience is in danger of being marginalized.

That said, employers who only using quantitative data to sort through their candidates and use numerical weighted averages in their hiring decisions, get what they deserve:  employees who know how to work the system, but may not have the creativity, drive and leadership that will make a real difference.

I, for one, will always root for the student with a 3.3 GPA but a rich life history, including some times overseas,  over the over-achieving graduate with a highly-polished resume.

July 25, 2010 at 10:24 am Leave a comment

5 Things we miss about Boise

1) Our friends.

2) The schedule (the windows rhythm of the Spanish day is just strange to us, we can’t seem to adapt)

3) The dryness (I forgot how much I hate humidity)

4) Our house and yard (I understand that high population density= sustainability, but…)

5) Squirrels (while we’ve seen sparrows galore, little furry guys are notably absent)

July 24, 2010 at 4:18 pm Leave a comment

5 Things we’ll miss about Bilbao

1) The marvelous and generous Santana Family

2) The metro

3) Siestas (although, I’ve heard a rumor you can export these)

4) An adventure around every corner

5) Bars/Taverns with pintxos (tapas)

July 24, 2010 at 12:55 pm Leave a comment

Images from a Resort Town

When we planned our trip to Spain, we knew we wanted to take more than the 3 weeks I’d be teaching, so we added a week to our plans, but left them open, correctly thinking that we’d have more information after we had spent some time in the country.  What we didn’t plan on was a bad case of travel fatigue.  After 3 1/2 weeks, we’re really ready to be back home. However, we were able to enjoy 3 days in the lovely town of San Sebastian (or Donostio as it is known here in the Basque Country).

We drove there Monday afternoon. The drive was uneventful, mostly thanks to an incredibly well-engineered highway that rivals the Pennsylvania Turnpike for its topographical challenges. If the roads in this part of the country are at all representative, I’d have to say that these folks really know how to build highways (and tunnels, and bridges…) These mountains are of similar scale to the Appalachians in size and distance between ridges, but share the drama (steep granite cliffs) with the Sawtooths or Tetons.

Once we were checked in to the Hotel Codina, we took a walk down the the extensive beach.  Seen from above, Donostia wraps around a very protected cove, with high hills on both corners.  There is a wide paved sidewalk along the seawall above the beach that wraps nearly 270 degrees of a circle around the cove.  Below the seawall is a pristine sandy beach filled with sunbathers, soccer players, volleyball, you name it.

As we approached the old quarter of town, we took a break on a park bench.

"..And he played real good/on his (clarinet) for free"

The scene reminded my wife of an old Joni Mitchell song.  Heck, when you’re our age, everything reminds you of a Joni Mitchell (or Simon & Garfunkle or James Taylor…) song.

To my unpracticed eye, it appears that the core of the towns along the coast were all built around the same time.  The old quarter of Biblao and Donostia looked much the same, with narrow streets running between high sandstone buildings with iron balconies and red tile roofs.

Old Town Donostio

Near as I can tell, the reason Donostio and Bilbao became something much bigger than a fishing village is that there was room to do it. Mundaka, Lekeitio, Bormeo, are all hemmed in by steep mountains.  There wasn’t any room to expand. On the other hand, there the relatively flat regions surrounding the old quarters must have looked empty at the time. My elder daughter (and my provost, for that matter) would be pleased to hear me repeat it:  “geography matters”.

Toward the end of the walk, we were headed back to the hotel and stopped to enjoy one last view of the beach in the waning light.

July 23, 2010 at 1:36 pm 1 comment

Why Can’t We Do That?

I know it’s kind of cliche for environmentalists and conservationists to visit Europe and come back with all sorts of arguments that we “should do they do” like make gasoline or electricity more expensive (often through large taxes) to force conservation.

There are a lot of reasons why we don’t do as the Europeans do, most notably being that we aren’t European.  But I’ve noticed something here that we could certainly adopt and would make a huge difference in energy efficiency of our buildings.

Every place I’ve visited in Spain, the buildings incorporated external shielding on the windows. In the old fishing villages, this often took the form of the standard slatted shutters.  In newer construction (last 40 years or so), nearly every building has external rollershades, as you can see in this picture.

External Shades

As you can see in this picture, the shades are incorporated into the building design, rolling up into the wall space above the window and forming a smooth line with the external walls when they’re down.  Having lived in an apartment equipped with these shades for the past 3 weeks, I feel have developed a reasonable basis to comment on them.

In short, these things rock!  If you’ve been following developments in building designs for the past 10 years, you’ll know that a huge amount of research and development has been invested in making windows more energy efficient.  We want the view and the natural light, but they allow too much heat gain during the summer and considerable heat loss on winter nights.  These shades accomplish much more than awnings or internal shades because they address the heat gain issue FROM THE OUTSIDE, where it can be dealt with before it even enters the house.  On a bright summer day, you roll the shades down.  You can have them at any level of opening, and even when they’re all the way down, there is some slack built into them so that you can have ventilation between the slats if you wish.

A bit over a year ago, I blogged about growing hops outside an eastern exposure on my house because the morning sun was too bright and warmed the room too much.  This accomplishes the same thing without the annual maintenance.

And there’s an additional benefit.  When these shades are deployed, they greatly reduce the noise level inside the room.  I’m writing this in a hotel room in San Sebastian, overlooking a very busy street.  Even with the windows closed, the street noise in considerable. With the shades down, however, the noise is reduced to a gentle rumble.

Another energy-saving measure that seem ubiquitous here are tankless water heaters.  The first time I ran across one of these was when we were visiting friends in Southern England around 1992.  I had never seen one before and it took me a while to figure out why you would heat water this way.  The answer is pretty obvious, though.  Leaving a 50 gallon tank of hot water on reserve in your basement (or worse yet, in your garage) is sure to waste energy.  The whole time it’s sitting there, it’s loosing heat to the room and the thermostat is cycling the electric heaters or gas burners on and off all the time.

Tankless water heaters have a larger heating element (or gas burner) than the big tanks, but they only heat the water you use.  Here’s a picture I took during our evening walks of an apartment building.

Tankless Gas Water Heaters

The white boxes look identical to the unit in the apartment where we’re staying.  They work best when they’re closes to the plumbing and that’s where smart home design comes in.  If the kitchen and bathrooms are arranged in such a way that there’s a short pipe run to them from one central location, than just one of these can take care of an entire house. That’s important, because they’re a bit more expensive than the tank-type heaters.

One final note on the water heater issue. Tankless heaters come in both gas and electric, but I’m not a fan of electric heaters of any kind.  First, a growing portion of the electricity in the US comes from natural gas.  Going from natural gas to an electric plant (where over half of the energy is lost in the conversion process, through the electric transmission system (loosing another 8%) to your electric water heater is much more wasteful than simply using natural gas if it’s available.  Second, the tankless electric heaters are very large power draws, cause big spikes in your electric usage.  You overall electricity consumption will go down, but there are periods of time (the morning showers, for example) when the rate at which you’re using electricity will be much higher than with the old style tanks.  These spikes are a big problem for our grid and much of the R&D surrounding the smart grid is focusing on ways to smooth out those spikes.

July 22, 2010 at 12:29 pm Leave a comment

Inland Basque Country

The coastline here is so stunning, it’s difficult to pull yourself away.  For example, the day after the class was completed, we took a walk on the peninsula that juts out of the Eastern mouth of the estuary of Bilbao.  It was breathtaking.

From Getxo Penninsula Looking East

But let’s face it, after a while, all these vistas look similar.  We were reminded of a 2-week camping trip we took soon after moving to Idaho.  We camped at trailheads and took ambitious day hikes into the winderness areas from there.  Upon returning, we were going through our photographs with friends and found ourselves saying over and over again: “… and here’s another alpine lake…”

So, in an effort to see more of the countryside, we finally accepted our gracious hosts’ offer of use of their car.

Perhaps this is a uniquely American view, but I don’t think so:  you haven’t really expereienced another country until you’ve driven in it.  We knew we were going to take the car to San Sebastian, so we thought we’d take a test run.  About a third of the way to San Sebastian is the tiny town of Elorrio, nestled in the granite mountainds that make up much of the Basque country.

Armed with a map provided by the Biblao tourists office, we were trying to find a hike along a trail set in the hills above the town.  We didn’t want to take the full 3 hours for the loop, so we decided to walk the trail in the opposite direction than the one suggested in the guide, and only got to the top, take some pictures and be back in town in time for the evening cervaza and pintxo.

OK, first mistake, while the trail guide was in English, it was, shall we say, loosely translated.  Finding the starting point of the trail (the endpoint in the guide) was a decided challenge.  People don’t seem to navigate here by street names and it was difficult to find ourselves on the map that was provided.

Second mistake: you can’t follow a set of directions backwards.  When the guide tells you to find a turn “100 meters past the homestead” and the hills are criss-crossed with trails, it simply can’t be done.  We found ourselves hopelessy — well, not lost, exactly, but befuddled.  Pulling out my trusty iPhone, I could tell us exactly where we were, we just couldn’t find the trail we wanted.

While milling round the woods above Elorria, we did enjoy some interesting sights. For example, we found an old barn in which the internal timbers could no longer support the massive weight of the red clay tiles:

Nothing lasts forever

Eventually, we found ourselves on the map and hiked along a trail that was actually a medieval road.  Many of the cobbles still in place, but the woods have done much to reclaim it.  Along that road, we came to a nice little chapel in the woods.  Actually, the signs called it an “ermita” which translates to hermitage, but the English language guidebook called it a chapel.  Considering where it was located, I’m thinking the former was a better translation.

La Ermita in the Woods

We were hot, and our water was running low and a cold drink at a nice table in a small town was sounding pretty good, so we headed back down the trail, confident of where we were going.  We soon re-joined our original route and were able to see the turn we missed. It was unmarked and overgrown with weeds. No way we could have ever seen it.

Just as we were coming out of the woods, we were treated to some beautiful views.

Las Tres Tieras

These three maginificent granite peaks frame the town of Elorrio, which can be seen here.

Finally, just before we returned to the town, our attention was drawn to a vine we saw growing on a fence along the road.  The flowers were amazing.

Passion Flower

As exotic as these look, I was reminded that one of these vines grew next to my back porch in the house I rented in Columbus, Ohio, back when I was in graduate school. Small world….

July 21, 2010 at 4:27 pm 1 comment

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