Thursday, December 03, 2009


I saw this guy at Washington Dulles airport, and felt compelled to make a sketch...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Google imitates life

It's interesting to note what Google's AdWords serves up on Joe Papp's blog post about what doping (or more precisely, getting caught) did to his cycling career and life:

Monday, September 21, 2009

Big Pants

Well, pretty much everyone in the Red States and quite a few of those in the Blue will loathe me for complaining about this, but: All my pants are now too big in the waist by at least an inch, and sometimes two. It's not like I ever had much weight to lose, mind you -- but all the riding this summer has melted off what little I had accumulated around the middle, leaving me (a) hungry, and (b) looking for belts. Time to clean out the closet, I suppose.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Bike design

According to the annals of cycling lore, a great bike should:

  • "disappear" beneath the rider
  • feel fast
  • not absorb the rider's energy
These are all highly subjective, qualitative descriptions... but anyone who has ridden a bike that can be described this way, remembers the experience. What are some of the contributing factors that make such a bike?

Fit. If the bike doesn't fit the rider well, the inconsistencies will constantly distract from the experience; even if at the edge of awareness, the (lack of) fit will prevent the rider from integrating fully with the bike.

Feel. Assuming the bike fits, it should have good "handling qualities." Desirable handling qualities may be different depending on the intended use of the bike -- a touring bike needs stability more than responsiveness; a criterium bike should respond instantaneously; a stage-race bike should be somewhere in between. How the bike responds when climbing, descending, cornering, accelerating and braking should all be in harmony. These characteristics are principally determined by frame and fork geometry, but also by handlebar width, stem length, rider size/weight, wheel and tire characteristics... and the list goes on. In addition to handling qualities, feel is determined by the ability of the bike to absorb road shock and vibration vertically, while not feeling like a wet noodle or allowing the front end to feel disconnected from the back. Modern frames have been able to make huge progress in this area through the use of big headset bearings (1.5" on the bottom now) and composites, which allow the stiffness of the frame to be distributed however the designer wants.

Energy transmission. Back in the day, high-quality steel could lend "spring" to a frame; energy put in by the rider might be absorbed in frame-flex, but could be returned when the frame rebounded. Shaping of tubes, selection of thickness, and such craftsmanship could all contribute to an efficient and spritely bike, while avoiding something so stiff and/or heavy that it was uncomfortable. With the advent of composite frames, the bottom end can be made extremely stiff and efficient, while maintaining compliance in the upper frame to give a comfortable ride. Either way, steel, titanium, aluminum, bamboo or carbon-fiber, the challenge is the same: deliver as much of the rider's energy to the wheels as possible, while keeping the bike comfortable (or tolerable, if a race machine) to ride on the road surface of choice.

I offer these observations because I've been riding what I think may be the perfect bike (or at least, by far the best I've ever ridden, and I've ridden a lot of bikes) which has made me think a lot about just what makes it so good.

That's not to say I don't think there's still room for improvement! Component manufacturers in particular have a lot of room to continue development of their products... but that's a thought that really deserves a separate post.

Monday, July 27, 2009


I received one of The Great Internet Migratory Boxes of Electronics Junk (TGIMBOEJ) not long ago. The concept behind TGIMBOEJ is simple: put a bunch of stuff, suitable for using in an electronics project, in a box. Mail said box off to an eager recipient. Recipient takes some stuff out, puts some stuff in, and sends the Box off to the next recipient. Hilarity ensues :-)

One additional requirement of participation in the TGIMBOEJ project is documentation -- hence this post, and future ones on what gets made out of the junk (search on keyword 'tgimboej' to find them all.)

As it turns out, Evil Mad Scientist Labs, the instigators of TGIMBOEJ, have located their lair conveniently down a bike path from my house. When the Mad Scientists contacted me to see if I wanted a box, I took a ride over there and brought it home strapped to the back of my bike.

Here's what was in it:

"What a great opportunity to get rid of some of your useless crap that's been cluttering up the house" said^H^H^H^H thought my lovely wife -- so the box will depart here containing more junk than it arrived with.

The box now goes to one John Foster -- who was selected for his appreciation of beer, spacecraft, and geekery. Have fun with it, John!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Antenna goes to 11!

The amplified "digital TV" antenna I bought last year has never performed very well in our house; the signal level varies a lot, and is often so low that the station is lost for minutes at a time. I tried an experiment quite a while back, and ran a cable up to the roof; I stood up there pointing the antenna around to see if altitude and a really clear line of sight helped any. The results weren't encouraging.

I finally decided to do something about the situation (e.g. basically unwatchable TV) when I came across this article from Make on an easy-to-build antenna design. I had most of the parts already lying around the garage, and a quick trip to OSH got me the rest for about $5.

Testing in the house showed that the home-brew antenna performed just about as well as the amplified antenna -- but that still wasn't what I was hoping for. Today, I took the new antenna up on the roof, and the results were very good. Channels that used to be at signal strengths of 5-6 are now pegged at 10, and the fluctuation I used to see is gone. Success!

My next step might be to cannibalize the old antenna to steal its amplifier...

Monday, June 22, 2009

The way I (sometimes) *wish* I worked

Matt Mullenweg, creator of the WordPress blogging platform, was recently featured in Inc. magazine's "The Way I Work" column... the compartmentalization he has set up between the different aspects of his work (and life) are pretty interesting. I'm not sure just anyone could achieve it, let alone command the freedom to even try half the things Mullenweg's done, but he has some insightful solutions.

Also -- one of the most interesting-looking websites I've seen in a long time. So many sites today are (rightly) all about the content, and re-use the same tired old formats as the wrapper. Mullenweg has put a really individual stamp on his envelope here!

A few things I gleaned from his post, paraphrased and/or recontextualized:
  • Real-time micro-blogging "conversation" tools (like Google's Wave, and WordPress' P2) may be the future of collaboration. OK, Wave has a lot more features built into it, but the basic ideas are pretty similar.
  • If you're crazy-busy and still want to be productive with the things you care about, offload the administrivia and get a personal assistant (or maybe two.)
  • If you need a lot of sleep to be creative/productive, arrange things to acommodate it.
  • One way to manage the cost of context-switching is to batch related tasks into larger time blocks (possibly a whole day.)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Fast Bikes

Riding home from work the other night, I tried to chase down someone I spotted a block ahead of me (not maliciously; it's useful to have a "rabbit" to get the heart rate up a bit!)

I wasn't making any progress, though.

Then I realized:

Electric bike.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Making Trees

I've been making trees this morning.

Some years ago, I bought an intriguing book: The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants, by Prusinkiewicz and Lindenmayer. I occasionally pick it up and read pieces, and always find it fascinating. The book does a great job describing the concept of L-systems, named for the second author, in which a few very simple rules can generate incredibly complex patterns. Studying how plants grow, the authors realized that the rules governing plant growth can be approximated with algorithms, producing very realistic-looking results.

I recently came across a piece of software that reminded me of the book, and led me back to re-examine it. Context Free Art allows you to write little recursive programs that output graphics, suitable for implementing some of the algorithms described in the book. (You can make all sorts of amazingly beautiful things with Context Free, plant-like things being but one example.)

Much to my delight, I found the Algorithmic Botany website on which the book is now available electronically!

There turn out to be several other programs that try to render L-systems and their kin. I found a few of them still lurking around on the web, but the Unix versions are old enough that getting them to compile on my Mac looks to be a chore and a half; I found a Java applet that is buggy, but works for the most part and I can still compile it. I'd most like to play with fractint -- I remember it fondly from the DOS days, and it turns out that someone put L-system interpretation into it -- but the last port to the Mac was for OS 9. I may have to revisit this, and see if I can get it to run under DOSBox... If so, I'll post the outcome here.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Fighting with FTP

Some things should just be easier than they are...

Anna has a bunch of GigaPan images she created, and wants to get them to the museum to be printed out giganto-size for the upcoming open house. Well, GigaPans are aptly named -- each one is 2-3GB in size! Putting 'em on a flash drive just isn't practical; only a couple will fit on a DVD; and I didn't have an extra USB hard drive ready to go.

No problem, I thought -- my nifty new network attached storage (NAS) has a FTP server built in to it! I can just fire that up, and we'll be off to the races. Yeah, right.

Step 1: turn on FTP server. This part *was* easy!

Step 2: check that it works. OK, slightly more complicated: the NAS sits on my local network, so the router has to be configured to direct incoming FTP requests to the NAS. Testing that it works means connecting to a remote server, then trying to connect back from there. No big deal, except it doesn't work -- until, after 30 min, it does. Grrr.

Step 3: put the gigapan files on the server. The files are on Anna's work laptop, which has wireless access -- yeah, it will take all night to transfer the files because I still only have 802.11b, but there's time. Oops, forgot we're dealing with a *windows* laptop here... it drops the connection after the 4th file. Doh! Yes, I should have plugged it in to the network, but all the ports on my switch are being used and this just seemed... easier.

Step 3a: find a HD to get the files off the laptop: Three of three that I have at home are formatted for Mac... only the third one has contents disposable enough to warrant re-formatting. But at least with the files copied off onto the HD, if this little FTP experiment fails utterly, there's a reasonable Plan B.

Step 3b: copy files from HD onto NAS: should be straightforward, but while doing this I notice that web browsers are having a hard time connecting to the FTP server. Much pondering and testing ensues... Using a browser (Firefox, Safari, Explorer) works fine on the internal network, but hangs ungracefully if the connection is from the outside. Regular 'ol FTP clients work fine, regardless. A clue is that Lynx (a text-only browser) works where the others fail.

Step 4: What is wrong with the browsers?!?! A digression, but it was a real stumper. Turns out all the failing browsers prefer "passive" FTP, which appears to be problematic in my particular configuration of routers and devices and FTP server. Explorer can be made to default to "active" FTP connections, but Firefox is just stuck unless a plug-in is installed. At least the problem is known/understood (if not readily fixable) so off to the next step...

Step 5: Write & test foolproof instructions for Windows command-line ftp. Annoying, but this just reinforces the superiority of the command line, as far as I'm concerned. I hope the folks on the other end are successful in retrieving the files!

This whole thing really should have taken 30min, tops... instead, I bet it took 6 hours -- 4 last night, and a couple more this morning -- before it was all done.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Yay, Me!

Woo hoo, I got the first, and right, answer to Cyclelicious' inaugural Tuesday Transit Quiz!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Bicycle Bumper Stickers

If bikes had bumpers on which to stick things, I would plaster mine with some of the following phrases, inspired by innumerable micro-moments I've experienced while commuting back and forth to work. The sub-title to this could be "Retorts to the (mostly unsaid) thoughts of car-drivers, as implied by their driving and/or emotive glares from behind the windshield."

1) "Thanks, but I *do* own a car; I choose to bike instead."
2) "I sure hope you weren't planning to apply for a job from me (yes, I'm hiring!)"
3) "Why no, I do not believe your [penis|breasts] appear larger when you [insert sophomoric car-driving action here]."
4) "Yes, thanks, I do like to think I own the road (at least the tiny piece I'm occupying, over here on the edge of it.)"
5) "I'm sorry, I didn't notice that your [Hummer|Porsche|BMW|PoS] is secretly an [emergency vehicle|tank|starship|jet fighter]."
6) "So exactly what part of my six blinking lights, bright yellow vest, and innumerable reflectors did you not see?"

Feel free to tack "you selfish pork-face" on the end of any of these!

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Bicycle Culture Wars

Some interesting intersections of life and commentary lately:

- Last week, whilst on a ride with Randy and Mike, we stopped for coffee in Boulder Creek, charming little hamlet in the Santa Cruz mountains. A fellow stopped by and asked if we rode on the local 2-lane road (the only one that goes through Boulder Creek) and then launched into an unprompted diatribe about how cyclists didn't belong on the road, as they got in his way and slowed him down.

- Later in the week I came across this article discussing the issues of how bike riders are perceived by different layers of the social strata; the working hypothesis being that spandex-clad roadies are thought of by their antagonists as frivolous road-cluttering impediments to those who work for a living, who ditched bikes as a mode of transportation as soon as they could afford to do so... Although this doesn't account for the behavior of the selfish pork-faces driving expensive SUVs around here, the article frames the issues of class and cycling nicely, and is a good starting point for further thought and discussion.

- And finally, John Murphy just posted his own insights on why being an apologist for other cyclists' poor behavior is a futile disservice to the community, in that it legitimizes the opinion that riding a bike (well or poorly) is somehow an abnormal fringe activity.

But I really, really liked how Murph summed it all up:

My tactic with anti-bike people is to put them on the defensive with the absurd. "These cyclists get in the way of traffic". Answer? "Well, do you run them over?". "No". "Why not? They got in your way, get them out of your way - run them over". 75% of the time the angry cretin starts to shift and look very uncomfortable, this was not the fight they were trying to pick.

So, what to make of all this?

Well, I try my best to ride carefully and responsibly, and not do anything to tick off the car drivers... and while I continue to be distressed on an all-too-regular basis by drivers who seem out to get me, I've decided that I'm going to try harder not to react to them. It's the same logic as dealing with bullies: react, and it only reinforces their bad behavior. Give that driver the finger after they willfully cut you off, and they'll only feel legitimized in having done it; arguing with them at the stoplight about the vehicle code won't convert them.

Thursday, February 12, 2009


All three of these parking spaces are labeled "compact" -- does driving a giganto-SUVs cause one to lose their ability to read?

Friday, February 06, 2009

More bicycle wetness

Fun ride this morning, with Anna -- plenty 'o rain, but pretty out, and not too cold. We took it easy, got a few small hills in on the way over to Alpine Road, then climbed up that to the end of the pavement. It was slippery on the climb; enough that I spun the rear wheel a few times even when seated! Made for a slow and careful descent, certainly the slowest I've ever come down that road.

I almost didn't ride. I don't really *like* being cold and wet... but I was desperate to get a real ride in. Going back and forth to work just doesn't count... "junk miles" is what Anna calls 'em. I'm glad I rode, though, even if it means a serious cleaning of the bikes is now required. They are completely grimed, despite using the clip-on fenders (which seem to keep the rider somewhat cleaner/drier, but do nuthin' for the bike!)

The only downside for the day: the swoopy new Perl Izumi booties I bought to keep my feeties warm and dry, do nothing of the sort. Oh, they'd be OK in a cold wind I guess, but they sure don't do much to slow down the water. Drat.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Buckets for Shoes

Went for a bike ride with my lovely wife this morning... we were determined to get a ride in together, despite the rain. I took my commute bike, since it was (a) already filthy from the rain earlier in the week, (b) it has bigger tires on it, nice when you can't actually see the road surface through all the water, and (c) it was already rigged with many lights and a rear fender (a front one won't fit with the big tires).

It was a really fun ride, just to be out and about -- but the lack of a front fender, when combined with a lot of water on the road, really turns the 'ol shoes into buckets! Gotta get me some new booties, pronto.

It hasn't been quite so wet going back and forth to work, earlier in the week; even when raining, the road puddles haven't been too bad.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Vintage 2-Buck Chuck

As an experiment some years back, I socked away a few bottles of Charles Shaw wine. This fine vintage, for those unaware, is sold by Trader Joe's, initially for $2.00/bottle -- hence the widely-used nickname, "2-Buck Chuck".

It's actually pretty good, for $2 wine... it costs a little more now, but it's still a good value, and perfectly drinkable on such occasions as camping trips, boat voyages, and such adventures where more delicate or costly bottles might not fare well.

So. Last week I came across a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from 1999, and, having run out of everything better, I figured now was as good a time as any to try it out. Expectations were low, but one never knows... And now: just how good *is* a 9-year-old bottle of 2-Buck Chuck?

Well, not very. It hadn't spoiled (e.g. wasn't vinegar, yet) but it was clearly past its prime -- which was, in all likelihood, in 1999. The bottle has been relegated to cooking tasks, and will make an excellent contribution to "Anna's wine sludge"!

The next experiment: a blind tasting perhaps, of my carefully-hoarded flight of Charles Shaw Merlot, 1997-2003!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Wal-Mart Plague

I saw this first on Gizmodo, but I think it should be mandatory viewing for everyone in the entire flippin' world:

Watch as the Green Plague of Mediocrity spreads from its roots in the heartland, slowly at first and then with exponential virulence...

On a broader, non-scary-as-hell note: this was my first visit to flowingdata, and it's full of interesting stuff with a design sense informed by Tufte. Here is a tidbit to whet your interest. I also liked his "5 Best Data Visualization Projects of the Year" article.