Recommended reading

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  I’m not sure Amazon’s recommended items knows much about children’s lit.


Gear Review: $50 Rooftop Duffle

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Taking a prairie dog break under the big sky in Montana.

 Item: CargoLoc Rooftop Carrier
Size: 15 cubic feet
Price: about $50

This is basically a big duffle bag for your vehicle’s roof. We bought this after failing to find a hardshell rooftop carrier on short notice. It was about $50 at the local Farm and Fleet, which gets bonus points for actually stocking it. We lashed it to the roof of a rented Dodge Journey (don’t stop believing) for a trip from the Midwest to the West Coast in July. Eight states, 1,900 plus miles there and and another 1,900 back, interstate speeds legally reaching 80 mph. Loading and unloading during hotel stops each night.

I was very impressed with how this gear turned out. Only problem was the fixtures on the straps. The buckles held up, but I busted two of the four plastic cinching hardwear pieces during the initial load up. For a workaround, I knotted the straps at the buckle to hold the position. The roof cargo included four roller suitcases, a medium backpack, a soft swim gear bag and an extra pillow we brought along for some reason.

For weather, we encountered everything for 100-degree heat and blazing sun in the Badlands to light rain to short but intense showers in Wyoming to snow in Yellowstone and more snow in the mountainous Idaho/Montana border. No sub-zero temps, though. As an added precaution, we wrapped everything in contractor-grade trash bags before zipping it into the roof bag. Turned out everything stayed dry. The weather never got through to even dampen the trash bags.

The bag probably gave us more flexibility than a hard-case carrier when it came to arranging the cargo, and it was easy to store when we reached our destination. 

Bag worked great there and back, and it’s ready for more travels. Excellent value for the price.

Assorted notes:

Tie down the loose ends of the straps or they will bang around and annoy the crap out of you as you drive.

Crossbars on the roof rack help. Keeps the load from migrating back with the wind. We used a pair on one-size-fits-most bars we acquired at a big-box retailer. They have the added bonus of fitting on my wife’s Jeep after we removed them from the rental.

Driving with the empty bag on the roof sounds like a hailstorm and risks damaging the duffle bag — even at a slow 15 mph while driving from the hotel to the Cody, Wy., Wal-Mart to buy my son a belt that he forgot to pack.


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While free stuff is always good, you usually end up getting what you pay for.

That’s why I was delighted when my free Monster Energy backpack arrived in the mail last month. It wasn’t completely free — save up 100 pull tabs from Monster cans and send them in with a small amount (under $10) for shipping. As it was a free promotional item, I expected to wait forever to get something cheap with the Monster log screenprinted in flakey ink, but this arrived within a week and was a quality piece.

The day pack has two main comparments, a laptop/tablet pocket and several smaller internal and externals pouches, heavy-duty straps and a sternum buckle. The back has a mesh setup for ventilation; there is also a headphone cord hole. During the first few days I wore it (after letting it off gas), I got a lot of comments. Everyone noticed the clawed “M” logo and wanted to know where to get one. Note to self: Snag a stack of offer flyers from the store and bring them along.

I had noticed the backpack offer during last year’s promotion just a week before the cutoff date. Even though the pack was only going for only 70 tabs at that point, there was no way I could collect enough tabs, so I started saving and was glad to see the company renewed the offer.

How could it be better? A caribiner or snap ring loop would be a nice addition, and it wouldn’t hurt to a dd a port for a hydration bladder.

More info on the offer here.

Photo: Horned fruit

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The kids learned not to judge a fruit by its skin this week. The horned kiwano fruit looked cool, but they didn’t like the green seedy innards. I thought it tasted OK and liked the colors. Random fact: it’s part of the cucumber family.

Photo of the week: Masks

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Above are two specimens from a an exhibit on world masks at a local university museum. The one of the left is from Sierra Leone and is used in a Mende coming-of-age ceremony. The mask on the right is of a parrot from Mexico.

Kid on my back

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This week I’m saying goodbye to an old friend. After a few years strapped to my back (and a few more years stored in the basement) the Kelty Base camp child carrier is headed off to another home.

The backbpack, which seats child up to 45 pounds in the most organically way possible, was one of the first things we bought after the birth of our son. As soon as he was big enough to ride, we’d strike off on weekend mornings to explore parks, hike greenbelts and circumnavigate lakes. Halfway through the journey, I’d pop him out and let him climb around and play. Sometimes he’d opt for to walk back.

The carrier had a low-profile pouch for snacks and water bottles. And I’d hook up plastic teething chains (we called them “baby biners”) to keep him from dropping his sippy cup.

My son has long since grown to handle hikes under his own power. My daughter never liked the carrier (although she loved the jogging stroller) and is becoming a good walking buddy herself.

So the backpack is going off to my brother who has a) a baby, and b) much more interesting terrain to hike up in the Northwest.

Air Show

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Jet owned by the State of Iowa on display at the air show.

I don’t know how to fly a plane and don’t really have any intention of learning. But I’ve ridden on planes off and on since I was little, and the subject of aviation creeps into my work from time to time.


So when the air show popped up at the local airport last weekend, I decided to take a peek for nostalgia reasons. And because we had free tickets. Mostly because we had free tickets.


While the kids (did I mention ages 12 and under were free)  were drawn to the bouncy rides on the edge of the field and the half-hour long lines for lemonade, I decided to try out tail spotting.


Stay with me here. It’s not what one might think.


Airplanes have a license plate-like number, usually starting with the letter “N,”  on the back fin. You can jot down the tail numbers and later go online — to sites like FlightAware.com — to trade tips and post photos of the planes your spotted to share with other enthusiasts.


I snapped off about a half a dozen photos of aircraft that were on display on the tarmac with my daily carry camera. I didn’t bring by work camera with the more powerful lens to get the in-air shots, but I was happy with what I got. The trick is to be creative with what you have.


The good thing about shooting air shows: You can get up close to the aircraft. The biggest challenge: Lining up a good shot while dodging and cropping out the yahoos standing around.

Video: Hovercraft test

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Test footage of Israeli AirMule.

No, I didn’t shoot this myself. I found this video on Wired’s Danger Room showing a test flight … or test hover … of the AirMule made by Urban Aeronautics in Israel. It looked kind of interesting, so I thought I’d pass it along.

It’s not exactly AirWolf, but it looks like part of the answer to the age-old question: It’s the future, where is my flying car?

New Tent

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We bought a new tent last week and finally got around to setting it up yesterday.

We did a test run in the backyard next to the swing set. The tent isn’t anything too fancy, simple dome construction with good ventilation. It stows easily and fits six people, which means our family of four with gear.

It went up pretty easy. My 8 year old did most of it himself. Once the basic structure was up, he and his 4-year-old sister crawled in to check it out. My wife and I finished setting up the rain fly.

Now we have to find some time to go camping.

My daughter has been talking nonstop about camping ever since she got a Curious George book about the subject. She also has smores at pre-school

Photo of the Week: Classic Bug

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We were at a downtown carnival over the weekend, and while the kids were zipping around on rides, I spotted this rundown 1963 VW bug in a nearby parking lot.

I liked how the rust spots contrasted with the faded (but original, according to the for-sale notice) turquoise paint job. I loved the missing headlight chrome and the bracket for the absent bumper.

The technical challenge was getting good light. It was a bright, cloudless day with harsh sunlight. Half of the bug was in the shade under a tree. I took a few frames at different angles and returned for a few more when the sun had shifted and more was in the shadow.

Photo of the week: Tank

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A few weeks ago I traveled to Nashua, Iowa, to cover a Civil War reenactment in the rain. On the way to the historic site, I passed a veterans park next to the city dam. I snapped this shot of a M60A3 tank as the rain came down.


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I still remember my first pocketknife. It was first or second grade, and we lived outside an Army base in what was West Germany. After much discussion, my father took me to the PX on the base to pick one out.

With my own money and my dad’s blessing secured, I eyed the models in the glass case just inside the front of the store. There was a thick Swiss army knife packed with too many tools to remember. It was so thick that I had no idea how it would fit in my pocket, which wasn’t an issue because it was out of my price range.

My eyes (and wallet) settled on a smaller knife, one the a blue plastic scale handle. A price of about $7 seems to be what I remember. There was no sales tax. It was a basic pocketknife, one with a main blade, small blade, corkscrew and standard bottle and can opener.

That was in the early 1970s.

Last week I took my 8-year-old son out to buy his first pocketknife. He’s been in the Cub Scouts and worked on his knife care and safety lesson — how to sharpen, how to close it without losing a finger and so on.

We went to the hipper big box retailer and found a Victorinox Recruit — a good starter knife with the basics — for $15 plus tax.

I hold the knife and give it to him when he requests it for specific tasks. The first request came shortly after we arrived home. He whittled a stick that had fallen from one of the backyard trees. After he stripped off the bark and shaped one end into a fine point, he nicked himself on a finger. Nothing serious, but just enough to chalk it up as a safety lesson.

Over the years, I’ve acquired several other knives of all fashion and function. But I still have the blue handle pocketknife.

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