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Category: tech Page 1 of 9

so, about those more powerful bike lights…

One week ago, I talked about the problem of “bike ninjas.” And while I’m seeing more and more DC area cyclists starting to use lights, some of them could use something beyond the “bare minimum” lights: the low-power “be-seen” lights that are small and unobtrusive.

But it’s the same unobtrusiveness that makes them less capable for real utility. They have tiny beam patterns that don’t light up the tarmac – and, to be honest, they don’t make most cyclists truly visible to fellow road users.

Last year I graduated from a basic blinker to a more powerful bike light. That light (a CygoLite Pace 400, FYI) is small, self-contained, and has a powerful CREE LED to provide a maximum 400 lumens of light. It can blink, it has multiple brightness modes, has a long battery life, can be recharged via USB, and its electronics don’t interfere with my tiny Cateye Wireless bike computer.

This light has been quite good over the past year. Its battery life at maximum power is about 2 hours, but at lower intensity I’ve managed to get over 6 hours of constant burn. The lower power modes are good for urban cycling and areas where ambient light is somewhat plentiful. The high power lights up the road in an even pattern, showing all of the holes, debris, and other anomalies that could cause me trouble. The beam pattern also adheres to modern European standards – i.e. if set up properly, it won’t blind oncoming motorists.

It’s not without faults. The cover on the USB port isn’t easy to seat. The mount isn’t always stable without really wrenching down the thumbscrew. But that’s about it.

I like this light so much that I bought a CygoLite Urban 500 as a complementary light for my commutes. It is a simple light, with fewer modes and a non-changeable rechargeable battery, but it’s a little bit lighter in weight, has similar battery life, has a better USB port cover, and has a wonderful “steady-blink” setting that mixes a 400 lumen steady beam with an intermittent blink to make me more visible to motorists. I’ve only had this new light for a couple weeks, but I’m quite happy with it.

Note that I’ve tried neither of these lights as helmet-mounted units, though there is a helmet mount available for each. Right now, they mount on my handlebar. However, I’m exploring a helmet mount, as the increased utility of illuminating where you plan to ride is well worth consideration.

There are similar offerings from NiteRider, Light & Motion, Cateye, Lezyne, Serfas, and others. I love my CygoLites, but the others have their good points, too. The comprehensive comparison reviews from MTBR (2013 | 2014) are a good place to start, and the road.cc light guide has a wonderful side-by-side comparison tool.

So if you plan to ride a lot at night – especially where streetlights are scarce – invest in a high-quality headlight. And be sure to match it with a high-quality taillight, too. You can thank me later…

weekending (or how i didn’t ride long distance this week)

Two weekends ago, I went on two awesome bike rides – one in the Virginia hills, one closer to home. They were a ton of fun, but there was a pesky side effect: I strained my left Achilles tendon. My ankle was swollen, there was pain. Professionals advised me to curtail any high-intensity cycling. Commuting was fine, as were leisurely rides, but not anything close to my normal weekend riding.

But my weekend was chock full of good things:

  • Cooked a lovely Moraccan tagine for Friday dinner.
  • Watched an episode of Top Gear.
  • Discovered that Chuck is finally available on Netflix streaming (and added it to my instant queue).
  • Slept in on Saturday morning – it was luxurious!
  • Did a lovely coffeeneuring ride to Big Bear Café, a place new to sprite and me.
  • On that same ride, stopped by BicycleSpace, where sprite bought a lovely handlebar bag at a hefty discount, and I ogled cyclocross and cargo bikes.
  • Watched the CBS Sunday Morning reporters explain Twitter to the more senior audience that makes up a large percentage of said program’s viewership. (For the record, it was a good profile of Twitter and its founder, the weekend after the company’s IPO. But it still seemed like a “let’s explain the Tweetie to the old folk” story.)
  • Collected ballot qualification petition signatures for my good friend, Charles.
  • Went to the garden with sprite, where we picked all remaining tomato fruit, pulled the associated plants, and dug up quite a few potatoes (white and purple) and sweet potatoes.
  • Met the rest of the Liberty Mountain Race Team coaching staff at the first organizational meeting of the season. I’m coaching the U16 racers.
  • Watched an episode of Doctor Who (one of the last of the David Tennant episodes).
  • Followed that tense show with a more lighthearted episode of Psych.

For those counting: I only rode 14-or-so miles at a fairly mellow pace over the weekend, compared to my more typical 130-150 miles at a more intense pace. The ankle is healing, which is a wonderful thing.

Intrepid readers: how were your weekends? Post in the comments!

thanks, steve

Steve Jobs had a huge impact on my life.

My first computer was an Apple ][+.

And that was my first exposure to Apple. I learned to program in LOGO and BASIC on my Apple ][+, and played a lot of games of Gorgon and Zork on its black-and-white screen. I think I acquired my first copy of Gorgon from my friend, Matthew, who was in the same programming classes with me.

Good times.

The computers I used in college were all Macintoshes: a LC, a PowerBook 145, and a Performa 630 (of these, the PowerBook was the best). The printer I used with these was a StyleWriter (which was s-l-o-w). Two of these Macs went on to help friends with their computer needs. I still have the PowerBook, though I’m not sure it still runs.

Post-college, I’ve owned two Power Computing PowerCenters (a Mac clone), an iBook, a G3 iMac (royal blue), a G4 iMac, a PowerBook G4 (titanium case) and a Mac Mini (Intel-powered).

The PowerCenters were decent clones, if a bit ugly and with suspect power supplies, but they were affordable. The iBook was bought shortly before I left for a month-long stint volunteering at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, and it lasted a long time. The G3 iMac was a hand-me-down that served us well when we first moved to DC.

The G4 iMac, PowerBook G4 and Mini still chug along in The Burrow – hardy machines, these, given that the newest of the lot is from 2006.

I’ve owned three iPhones: the original, a 3G and a 4. The first two were lost – I’m trying to keep the latest one within sight for a while longer.

Apple mice from 2000 and 2010.

This could just be a rundown of “the Apples of Rudi’s life,” but there’s more to it than that.

I can thank Steve Jobs’ products for my job: I work with a Mac every day, and I support Macs (and Windows PCs) every day.

I can thank his focus on regular people as the ultimate users of his product for my preferences in user interface: one that works simply, is consistent, and lets me get work done. It’s programming for people, not programmers (and having worked in a Windows development company in the past, I’m keenly aware of what programming for programmers can bring: ugly UI and inconsistent operation, with nothing intuitive – a far cry from the Apple ethos).

I can thank his willingness to keep a focus on the long haul: following things to their conclusion, having a vision, ignoring the naysayers and throwing his all into his mission. It’s something I need to remind myself of fairly often these days.

I can thank him for making technology sexy. I had the good fortune to attend one of his keynote addresses (known to Mac geeks as “Stevenotes”) at Macworld NY in 2000 (the mouse on the left in the picture was the “party favor” from that speech). I queued up early with my friend, Sam, got a seat in the Javitz Center, and heard Steve talk about all of the new Apple wares. It’s said that he created a bit of a reality distortion field in these speeches, and a lot of times you’d leave feeling like the future is now, and wonder why, many months later, things wouldn’t be just as he said.

Little did I know, Steve was looking further down the road than any of us. It’s easy to see now – 20/20 hindsight is amazing.

Having Steve silenced at a young age is tough to fathom. He leaves behind a wife and kids. The halls of One Infinite Loop in Cupertino are likely far more somber these days. And fans like me, for whom Steve was a visionary and hero, are left with heavy hearts.

There are a number of appropriate quotes from Steve that ring true with me, and I’ll share them here:

“A computer is the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with. It’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.”

Given my affinity for the two-wheeled machine and the computer, this is fitting for me.

“Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”

Simple is good – something to remember, especially in chaotic times.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: ‘If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.’ It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

I need to keep these two in the forefront of my mind, I think, just to keep me moving in the right direction.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

So true, Steve – so true.

Cancer took you from us far too soon. Fuck cancer. But you’ve left one hell of a legacy.

And I’m very grateful for that. Thank you, Steve.

monday mixdown: teeth, dtv follies, and why bikes are cool

Here’s what’s been on my mind over the past week:

Had a root canal last Tuesday. It was amazingly low-pain and low-stress, all things being equal. The only thing is that I need to chew on one side of my mouth, as the rooted tooth only has a temporary crown on it right now. My appointment for filling and fitting of the permanent crown isn’t until February 3rd, unless there’s a cancellation and the doctor can work me in earlier. Until then, well, it’s a lot of careful, mindful chewing.

– – – – –

So are there any other folks having a tough time getting digital TV reception in their apartments – especially those living in basements or other locations with challenging exposure? It seems that the DTV standard, as ratified and endorsed by the FCC, doesn’t account for folks who can’t place a high-exposure outdoor antenna to draw in signal. Sure, they have suggestions for folks who only have indoor antennae (e.g. folks who rent), but the ultimate suggestion is to get an outdoor antenna.

So even though I’ve bought a DTV converter box and use an amplified antenna, I still get a fraction of the channels that are available on the still-extant analog transmission lines. Under the old (and still useful, at least until February 17th) analog system, we receive NBC, Fox, ABC, CBS, CW, MyTV, MHz, ION, Telemundo and three PBS stations – 12 stations in total. With our DTV converter and the antenna placed near our window (as suggested by many sources), we get NBC (with its two digital sub-stations), Fox (sans sub-station), CBS (with its weather sub-station), and Telemundo (sans sub-stations).

No ABC. No PBS. No CW, MyTV, ION or MHz.

And folks keep suggesting that I get cable to fix things. But I’m loathe to spend $15 per month ($180 per annum) on something I currently get for free. And while Hulu is a reasonable substitute for now, my guess is that The Powers That Be will begin charging users to view current programming.

Furthermore, there’s the “cliff effect,” where a digital signal goes from full clarity to zero signal very quickly. this is a marked difference from analog, where static may cause the picture to get fuzzy but still provides a watchable program stream. Not so with the digital replacement: it’s an all-or-nothing venture. And in an area where there are many interference variables, watching can be very frustrating. For example, there is a lot of low-flying helicopter traffic in northwest DC (thanks to the presence of government agencies, the VP’s residence, the White House, embassies, and three hospitals), and each time one of these silver birds flies overhead, the digital signal freaks out and drops.

So this isn’t really an improvement in quality, is it? Methinks that somebody will go class-action on this, and I hope it happens – this “new, improved TV” is anything but. Something fishy is afoot, and I think that the telecoms, cable providers and TV manufacturers were at the wheel of this change: looking for money at the expense of serving the public.

For shame, for shame.

– – – – –

Now back to better things:

I spent Sunday mid-day on a wonderful dirt road ride with Darren out in Loudoun County. Of the almost 35 miles we traversed, climbed and descended, only a handful were on paved roads. The dirt was damp and occasionally glue-like, but offered great traction. Also, it was a lot of fun to take out my old mountain bike on the kind of surface for which is was designed. Sure, Darren had a decided advantage with his cross bike (as well as the fact that he rides off-road far more often than I), but it was great fun on an otherwise mellow weekend.

The best part is that riding the dirt roads of Loudoun County provides a unique view of a very scenic part of Virginia. Sure, you could drive these roads, but the view wouldn’t be nearly as good or all-encompassing.

– – – – –

And another great thing about bikes? They’re one of the only vehicles that will be allowed across the Potomac bridges on Inauguration Day. So to all my Virginia-based readers (all, what, two of you?) who want to commute into the District and not take Metro: dust off those bikes and ride in! Plus, riding in will keep you warm with the workout (it’s forecast to be bitterly cold – or at least seasonably chilly – on the big day).

I hope this is just the beginning of the end of stupid, single-occupant car commuting from Northern Virginia (as well as nearby Maryland) into the District. We have plenty of easy ways into the city that don’t involve increasing traffic volume, spewing pollutants into the air, and otherwise driving locals nuts when you take all the zoned parking for hours at a spell: try Metro, try a bus, ride in on a bike, walk, or do a mix of these. It’s not difficult, and it’s better for all of us.

using wordpress? be careful with free themes

Folks who follow this blog know that the look has changed over the past week.

Part of the reason why this happened is because I wanted to change things up. I upgraded to WordPress 2.5 – no probs there. And I looked for a different theme to mark the change.

So I looked for a freebie to act as a stop-gap and found a theme that was GNU-licensed and open-source, which would allow me the flexibility to change things up. I found one at a free WP theme meta-site, which seemed fine, and I installed the theme.

Then I got around to looking at the PHP code to see where I could tweak things, and I noticed some strange, base-64 encoded strings in some of the files.

Commence mental alarm bells.

So I look at some of the WP developer blogs (those referenced in the default RSS feed on the WP admin page of almost every WordPress-driven site) and found this post from an open-source theme developer. It seems that some of his themes had been swallowed up by a free theme meta-site and doctored with this base-64 code. This developer did some snooping and asking around, and found that the inserted code was definitely not WP standard, and was very likely malicious:

I think the potential for abuse of this script is huge. I see it as a covert channel to setup Word Press enabled sites as thin zombies. The code being sent back to the server and eval’d could be a mailing script for spam or phishing.

So I decided to reverse-engineer the whole damn thing, stripping out all malicious code, and seeing how it turned out. It’s not bad – looks and acts the same, without all the scary eval calls and potential for hacks to my site.

So to anybody developing for WordPress (or Joomla, which is equally vulnerable to these exploits), the safe bet is to use the WordPress theme directory from WordPress.org.

Caveat emptor means more and more in the days of the internet.

gizmos for the bike

As I get ready to post a review of a cool, bike-oriented gadget, I point to this wonderful, does-it-all computer for the bike: the Cerevellum Bike Computer.

Sure, it costs as much as a laptop, but it has features: the usual speed, distance and time, as well as a GPS, elevation gain/loss, wattage produced, and rear-view video.

Yep: a USB-based rear-view camera is one of its possible accessories.

Note that the thing is still a prototype, and there are still other questions to be answered (namely battery life). But it’d raise Garmin’s game a notch, right?

a quick bike thought

It’s cool to see tech that was developed when you were first in college enter into the world of bicycle design. Too cool.

(Hat tip to Adam.)

tuesday quick quips

Some things that have crossed my mind today:

  • WAMU’s decision to relegate their bluegrass programming to the HD range is flat-out stupid. The powers-that-be at WAMU continue to prove that they know how to implode a local radio station, creating more of the same (political talk radio and over-syndicated NPR content) rather than provide a format that’s unique. If anybody from the “home of Kojo” is reading this: take a long, hard look at WFUV, KRCL or WXPN to see how independent public radio is done. Seriously: we don’t need rehash of stuff that every other NPR affiliate is doing.
  • The first public beta release of Eudora’s new mail client, code named “Penelope”, is a major letdown. Let me summarize: it’s essentially Thunderbird with Eudora’s icons and sounds. If I were a Eudora user, I’d be miffed that we’ve waited all this time for a version of Thunderbird with new curtains. Where are the features of the old program that made it a standout? Are they in some internal build that will see the light of day in 2012? Disappointing, Mr. Dorner and open-source dev crowd – simply disappointing.
  • It was refreshing to hear a Republican consultant on this past Sunday’s Meet The Press admit that Fox News is the official media outlet for the GOP. Finally: a theocon who says something that isn’t mealy-mouthed and half (if that) true!
  • I’m still not sold on any of the current crop of presidential candidates. However, there are some who continue to inch their way down in favor, including Bill Richardson (miffing the question on whether being gay is a choice or genetic, and doing an “I don’t know” on the $50 billion Iraq funding bill).

Now, off to a ball game….


Campagnolo Centaur rear derailleurThe latest part arrived for the new bike today: a Campagnolo Centaur rear derailleur, 2007 model.

Dig the carbon fiber outer plate – high bling factor there, plus a (somewhat trivial) weight saving over an all-metal unit.

And it should match well with the other parts in the works – especially the carbon fiber Chorus brake/shift levers.

If my patience can last until October, that’ll be something.

free at last – and it was a good ride

As of tonight, I’m no longer on the executive board of DC for Democracy.

The elections came and went. There was only one contested race – for chair – and the vote went in a predictable direction. Many of those who felt left out of the organization after the big schism surrounding the 2005 United For Peace/International ANSWER D.C. Anti-War Mobilization turned up. Looking at the crowd assembled at Ben’s Chili Bowl tonight, I saw a lot of faces who haven’t been active in DC4D since that voting night.

There were some nasty personal attacks delivered during the candidate speeches that were totally uncalled for. But they didn’t really matter to the crowd of “long-lost” members, who were there to see one of their own ascend to chair.

And I wish them well.

But it remains to be seen what my level of involvement will be.

Hopefully, DC for Democracy will continue to be a welcoming organization to people across the liberal and progressive political spectrum. The organization has typically taken many viewpoints into account when making decisions about policy and efforts. While this can alienate the more zealous and activist members, it also provided a breadth of opinions and input to the organization that allowed it to be involved in many disparate activities without losing group cohesion.

The new leadership is certainly more activist and blatantly progressive in its makeup, which can be good if dissenting opinions are taken into account with policy and activity decisions. I have my doubts about whether this will happen (some words said by the winning candidate attacked her predecessors and opponents in a passive-aggressive manner that was completely unwarranted), but I’m going to give the new leadership the benefit of the doubt for a little while.

But deep down, I worry that this swing of the political pendulum within the organization will create a flip-side schism between the driven activist crowd and the old guard. I hold DC for Democracy close to my heart – after all, I was there for its founding, helped draft its by-laws, and have seen it though triumphant highs and depressing lows. And I want to remain involved as a rank-and-file member, but not if it means compromising my own principles.

And it’s not like I don’t have other things on my plate that could use a bit more attention if I find that DC4D is no longer an organization with which I can identify.

So, like I said: we’ll see.

Going back to my former executive board involvement: the reins to the org’s website have been passed to a new steward. I wish him only the best in keeping things fresh and well-tended. One thing I do know is that the website is in capable hands.

So thank you, DC for Democracy. It’s been a helluva ride.

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