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Gear Review: Alchemy Equipment luggage AEL005

Back in 2015 I discovered Alchemy Equipment in my search for clothes to take with me for 3 months backpacking in a European winter. I was impressed by their build quality, clever materials and understated styling—you can read my initial review here. Now, in 2019, I’m looking at returning to Europe and have had another look at Alchemy Equipment’s offerings. This time, however, it will be Europe’s spring, so the focus will not be heavy coats and thermal leggings but on versatile garments that can see me comfortable, stylish and unencumbered with a single daypack sized bag.

The bag: AEL005

I picked up the AEL005 on sale for NZD100; it has since been discontinued and replaced with a number of similar, stylish options in the 20-35L range. At 25L, the AEL005 is definitely a daypack rather than a hold-all duffel, and because of its design and configuration is more familiar than clamshell backpacks like the Osprey Porter 30L travel backpack that I reviewed here. It comes with a well protected laptop compartment for up to 15″ devices and is overall designed more for commuting than minimalist backpacking adventures.

First impressions

Wow, this bag is rigid. The AEL005 is solidly constructed from durable ballistic-weave nylon and retains it shape due to a lightweight, tough molded EVA back panel. At this size, it’s unlikely to cause any problems having a rigid backpack as it has a low profile and is not very large. However, don’t expect it to crush down much. Conversely, the rigidity provides extra protection to a laptop and valuables and ensures that its sleek profile won’t change much no matter how much or how little you put in it.

Quality

The build gives every impression of quality, which doesn’t surprise me from Alchemy Equipment. For its sale price, it was of course a bargain. The rest of Alchemy Equipment’s backpacks range from NZD160 to NZD500, pricing reflective of quality components (eg zips that are waterproof and durable and fabric that is water repellent) and a subtle but stylish design.

Design

I bought this bag to be a do-it-all. I needed a plain black bag for my commute and work, so for that reason I didn’t want anything too bulky. I also wanted a backpack that I could use for lightweight backpacking in Europe later this year. Back in 2015-6 I spent 3 months on my own with just a 30L bag and my take away was: not only is lightweight travel better, 30L was possibly too much. You can read more about that here. I already have a cheap 20L backpack that I bought for $8 at Target and, while everything I want to take on my next 3 week trip fits in it, the build quality didn’t inspire me with confidence.

I like the design. It looks good, although I prefer the waxed look on some of Alchemy’s other offerings. As far as practicality goes, the bag is limited primarily by its rigidity, which makes it a bit less adjustable comfort-wise, and the fact that, like most backpacks, the zips only go halfway down on either side. Ultimately, the clamshell design of the Osprey Porter, Arc’teryx Blade etc is more practical. But, if you don’t have much stuff, it isn’t much trouble rummaging through it.

Conclusion

The AEL005 isn’t really ideal for travel, unless you are travelling light. That’s precisely what I intend to do, so I’m sure it will work well—I’ll report back after my trip. Build quality, materials and style are all top-notch, so it’s definitely worth looking at Alchemy’s other luggage offerings to see what suits you.

Other options

Here are some other suggestions for travel backpacks.

Photo credits: Alchemy Equipment

Kormoran, Sydney & Strategy

The object of naval warfare must always be directly or indirectly either to secure command of the sea or to prevent the enemy from securing it.
Julian Corbett, 1911

The Royal Australian Navy suffered its largest loss on 19 November 1941, when HMAS Sydney was sunk by German auxiliary cruiser, HSK Kormoran. This fateful engagement cost 645 Australian (pictured above) and 82 German lives and has puzzled many as Sydney was the superior ship, a battle-hardened and modern cruiser in contrast to the merchant vessel-cum-raider, Kormoran. The enigma is only now being cracked since the discovery of both wrecks in 2008 and 2011.

November 1941 was the beginning of year of heavy losses for the RAN. The loss of Sydney deprived the RAN of warfighting capability against the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) when the IJN was superior to Allied forces in the Pacific, and was followed by the loss of sister-ship HMAS Perth in the Sunda Straight in March 1942. Strikingly, while Perth was sunk after sustained action against a large force of Japanese warships, Sydney succumbed to a single auxiliary cruiser. However, Sydney’s loss, while great, is only one impact of German commerce raiders.

Although the U-boats had a greater influence, Germany’s eleven auxiliary cruisers sank or captured 142 Allied ships with more than 872,000 Gross Registered Tonnage (GRT) (Muggenthaler, 1977). The auxiliary cruisers had greater independence and posed a threat to Allied sea lines of communication (SLOC) across the seven seas: Kormoran cruised for eleven months before it was finally sunk, while Altantis covered 160,000km in 602 days (Muggenthaler, 1977). This incredible endurance provided Germany with sea denial capabilities beyond the Atlantic. Their daring voyages through far-flung oceans and exotic ports captured the minds of the German public and their captains, men like Theodor Detmers and Bernhard Rogge, became national heroes. For a while, the mighty Royal Navy seemed entirely incapable of defending against the raiders, which roved freely—albeit, discreetly—through the Commonwealth’s backyard, off the coast of the Atlantic, South Africa and Australia.

Militarily, the raiders tied up Allied resources in pursuit and contributed to the need to adopt a convoy system. However, as the war progressed, the surface raiders became less effective (Cooper, 2001). Convoys, technology and better detection processes diminished the raiders to a nuisance until they were all sunk or removed from service.

So, what was the use and effect of Germany’s surface commerce raiders? The story of the Kormoran is the perfect way to explore this. But first, we must consider commerce raiding as part of a developing German maritime strategy. Then we will assess the use of commerce raiders, including the tactics of deception, targets and Allied responses. Finally, we will evaluate the strategic impact of commerce raiders, both materiel and economic, with particular focus on the loss of Sydney and the Australian war effort.

Continue reading Kormoran, Sydney & Strategy

Learning new skills

How much time does it actually take to learn a new skill? That depends on the skill – and, more importantly, how good you want to get. It is said that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. That’s 1,250 eight hour days, or more than five years of full time work – an intimidating number! Yet professional athletes, musicians, writers all have to do at least that much work to become good at their trade, and most, the truly brilliant, spend their entire lifetimes. It is therefore the acme of hubris or ignorance to think that any old Joe can just pick up a paintbrush and create a masterpiece – similarly, not just anyone can run a ten second 100m.

But most people don’t set out to become masters in everything they do. To do so would ensure a limited skillset and an unbalanced life. While not glamorous, there’s a lot to be gained by achieving a novice, mediocre level of skill. If nothing else, building a very basic level of skill across a range of activities can enrich one’s appreciation for actual masters. It can be difficult to work out why something is considered great without the perspective of how difficult that activity actually is. Learning new skills also opens up new worlds and sub-cultures, each with their own argot, heroes and mythos.

There’s a trope in fiction of the Competent Man. The Competent Man is an archetypal character who has an immense breadth of knowledge and skills. James Bond is one such arch-competent man, with knowledge and skill in obscure history, art, wine vintages, gambling, sports, piloting, driving, charming and fighting. Robert Heinlein summarises the skills of a Competent Man:

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialisation is for insects.”

Most characters in this mould are presented without explanation for how they gained their depth and breadth of knowledge and ability. This perhaps goes to the origin of the character, Homer’s Odysseus, who like others in that mythic age had at least a little divine blood. So is it folly to strive towards Heinlein’s standards? One may think so, but history provides numerous examples of competent men and women, who seem, like Odysseus, to possess great skill across disciplines.

At ten thousand hours per skill, it would certainly be quite a challenge to achieve mastery across several fields (although some, like Leonardo da Vinci, apparently managed). What if we set our sights lower? Heinlein’s sentiment that “specialisation is for insects” implies that our goal does not need to be mastery but simply competence. And that, fortunately, is a much more achievable goal.

How long does it take to learn a new skill? For a modest, novice level of competence, not all that long. In the past two years I’ve dabbled in several new skills: piano, (digital) painting, German, computer programming and running, among others. My results have varied, and I certainly haven’t achieved proficiency in any of these activities, but I believe that for my modest time commitment I’ve achieved quite a lot.

Continue reading Learning new skills

Shipshape

“Ah! The good old time—the good old time. Youth and the sea. Glamour and the sea! The good, strong sea, the salt, bitter sea, that could whisper to you and roar at you and knock your breath out of you…

But you here — you all had something out of life: money, love — whatever one gets on shore — and tell me, wasn’t that the best time, that time when we were young at sea; young and had nothing, on the sea that gives nothing, except hard knocks — and sometimes a chance to feel your strength?”
Joseph Conrad, Youth