Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Finding An Ounce of Sense in the Metric System

I grew up with mountain bikes with their 26" tires. I own a recumbent with a 16” front wheel and a 27” rear wheel. But now that I have a Bike Friday I am slowly infiltrating roadbike society. Like Diane Fossey with the gorillas.

In addition to drop style handlebars and those horrible things called Presta valves, roadbiking has exposed me to the metric system a lot more. I had to deal with that...system when I had to buy a pump for the Bike Friday's tool kit. So I went to Danny's Cycles in Stamford and found a white Blackburn Airstik SL pump.

But I noticed a costlier pump nearby that looked almost identical, and asked the clerk why the other pump cost $20 more. He said it was because the pricier pump had a carbon fiber shaft and weighed several – wait for it - grams less.

I bought the almost imperceptibly heavier pump, and later I couldn't shake the feeling that the only people who seem to care about grams were obsessed cyclists and drug dealers. In fact, when I began typing “how much does a gram weigh?” into Google, by the time I typed the word “gram” Google's algorithm started to finish the sentence, so the finished query would read: “how much does a gram of marijuana cost?”

Google does not seem to know me very well.

Eventually, I found my answer: a gram weighs 0.035 ounces. A post-1982 penny weighs about 2.5 grams. And like pennies, grams are too small to be of much use and all we do with either is convert them into larger units. I don't tell anyone I weigh 74,388 grams. I also don't visit a McDonald's to ask for a 114.4 gram with cheese (though I challenge any DIYBIKING.COM reader to do so).

Even though I wasn't going to use grams, I did find myself in the obsessed cyclist position of wanting to shed as much weight as possible. For instance, the 2012 Five Boro Bike Tour is coming up, and I have been using the recumbent for that every year since 2005. But after a 2011 season of faithful service the 30+ year old bicycle was out of shape. The rear wheel I had scrounged from the old Fuji was still working but it was slightly bent and the bike just felt like it was moving slower no matter how much I was cleaning the chain. Seven years in a row I've done that tour and seven years in a row I haven't had a flat tire, an accident or a mechanical defect of any kind, so you may see why I'm reluctant to break the Five Boro Bike Tour/Turner Hypercycle bond.

And so I decided that I needed to think like an obsessed cyclist and do some weight shedding. And part of that involved undoing some of my own modifications. So I put the bike up on my PCS-12 to get a proper look.

The first things to go were, sadly, my homemade tailight and homemade headlight. The former had cracked months ago when I was loading the bike into my car and was useless anyway. With the headlamp came four AA batteries and the housing. The taillight was removed – but I replaced it with a red reflector that came from the Top Banana bike.

With the frame about at eye level, I found a bracket for an accessory bag that had moved permanently to the Bike Friday six months ago. The bracket probably weighed a few...grams...and had no need to accompany me anywhere for any reason, so I removed it.

While I was under the fiberglass seat, I noticed one of the first fixes I did on the recumbent when I first bought it in 2004: I used a metal loop and a wire tie to keep the rear brake cable in place. Not only was I sure I could come up with something lighter, I realized I could saw off the excess bolt that was holding the seat to the frame.

I know that's not something that can be easily done on a normal bike, but stay with me, because this part applies to everyone: From time to time I empty my on-board tool bag and put everything back in. Well, not everything, because I often find things like $0.87 in loose change, Powerbar wrappers, random bits of paper, a hardened tube of rubber cement, and so forth. It adds up to a lot of unnecessary weight. Also, I'll have to check with the CO2 Institute, but I think that four cylinders of carbon dioxide is probably excessive. I'll make do with two.

When I took the seat off to clean underneath, I took a good look at the brackets that hold it to the frame. They're square, and I figured I could lose some more weight by cutting a few corners. That didn't sound good.

After cutting off a total of four corners I had seat brackets that were four or five grams lighter and would still do the job they've always done.

I also got rid of the front fender, realizing that with the position of the wheel being where it was it wasn't serving much of a purpose.

I know it's an easy thing to do to change the bike box into a bag or lose the whole setup entirely, but with my head so close to the spinning rear wheel, that is a place where the 'fender effect' of the bix box works. To satisfy my curiousity, I tried putting a Planet Bike fender on to see how it would look. Turned out it looked as silly as I thought (naked without the DIYBIKING.COM logo) so immediately after this photo was taken I put the bike box back on.

Finally, I hit a wall and piled everything I removed onto the kitchen scale. I had removed a grand total of nine ounces from the bike. I'm not sure if that'll make the bike work any better or go any faster, but it makes getting it ready for the Five Boro seem a little less daunting. And even though I'm not among the obsessed, I now understand why cyclists do things like spend a little extra on carbon fiber bottle cages and lightweight pumps: it adds up.

Also, since I know you're curious: 9oz. = 255 grams.

(Follow me on Twitter at @michaelknorris)

Friday, February 10, 2012

The GoPro Hero 2...II: May The Camera Be With You, Always

This is the second part of my two-part review of the GoPro HD Hero 2. Bought with some birthday money last Saturday, this camera has already traveled nearly fifty miles – not counting the distance traveled on the radio controlled car.

I had to search hard during the first ride, but I was able to find things about the camera I didn't like – though both problems will likely work themselves out as I become more familiar with it. Because the status screen is in the front, you have to put your face in front of the camera to see if it's working and on the function you want. Since it is mounted on the handlebars, there are a few accidental pictures of my upside-down face on the memory card since I'd have to crane over the handlebars to see if it was on the video mode. If the GoPro people decide to put the display screen at the top if a Hero 3 comes out, I wouldn't be surprised. Also, I found that when I'd take a video and then switch the camera off (to save the battery) it would land on the single-shot function when I'd turn it back on, so I'm learning to check for the video icon whenever I hit the power button.

But functionally, the camera is just brilliant, and I like it on my Flashpoint mount made with the boxlid. The first video I took – a two-and-a-half minute short on the road between Rowayton and South Norwalk – showed that the GoPro people really did their homework: not only was the picture perfect, but viewing the video on my laptop was easy (and I plan to ask my dad if he has an extra HDMI cable lying around so I can hook the Hero 2 directly to my TV).

The quality of that first video is great, so why isn't it here? You can see it if you do a DIYBIKING.COM search on YouTube if you like, but take my word for it: it's a lovely video but it isn't very memorable because the road I'm on was a bit boring. Since I'm not yet familiar with editing video or adding effects, I wondered if I could do something that would make the results a bit more interesting. A few minutes of hunting through some old boxes, and I found my answer:

This, as I'm sure you know, is a 1979 die-cast Millennium Falcon. It is six inches long, so it is obviously not the version with the removable top and the secret compartment that you could jam action figures in. I have a lot of memories of the larger counterpart flying around my house (either my sister or myself carrying it at shoulder level) and it landing or crashing on different planets/pieces of furniture, but this one never saw a lot of adventure or excitement.

That was about to change.

The nice thing about this build, other than it being remarkably simple, is that I didn't have to modify or damage the Falcon in any way, nor did I have to change the boxlid bracket I had built earlier: I cut a piece of wood to size, used a coping saw to notch out spots for the Falcon's landing gear, and drilled holes in the other side for the four bolts (that were holding the box lid bracket on the Flashpoint mount) to fit through. I bolted it all back together and attached the Falcon.

Holding the entire assembly (and probably looking a bit comical) I 'flew' the Falcon around the shop to make sure I had the angle of the camera right. When I was satisfied that there was just enough Falcon in the foreground, I was ready for my Friday morning ride on the Bike Friday.

Well aware of how big video files are and my inability (for now) to edit video, I used the camera two or three minutes at a time on one of my favorite rides: Shippan Point to New Canaan. The route I go is about 21 miles round trip and I can enjoy coffee at the Connecticut Muffin Company at the halfway point. Since I had the camera and it was such a nice day, I took a different route through New Canaan to get to my destination.

Yes, I had locked onto the strongest power source: coffee.

Since the temperature outside had been steadily climbing all morning, it was a very comfortable time to walk with one hand on the bike and the other on the coffee. I wandered up Elm Street and mused that social networking sites and hokey blogs are no match for a good bookstore at your side, kid.

I headed further up and sat down on a bench in front of the New Canaan Playhouse. There I discovered something extraordinary: that bench appears to be positioned perfectly in that the winter sun reflects enough heat off the building and the sidewalk so as to feel almost 15 degrees warmer. I sat there sipping the coffee for a little while before riding back.

I got home and easily uploaded the videos of the Falcon. I'm sure I'll do other fun things with the mount and many toys will be taking flight in the weeks and months to come, but I'm also sure that the GoPro HD Hero 2 camera is great to take on any ride. And if you don't have to wait for birthday money to come in for you to buy it, get one now.

And if you want a 1979 Millennium Falcon? Check eBay.

(Follow me on Twitter at @michaelknorris)

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The GoPro Hero2 (or: How I Spent My Birthday Money)

My birthday was last week. On that day I opened my mailbox and found a very nice card from my 90-year-old grandmother, who, to the best of my knowledge, has always correctly predicted the flow of mail from the U.S. Postal Service so that greeting cards would arrive on the exact day of celebration.

I sent a thank-you note promptly.

Last year the contents of her birthday card paid for the rims I bought online for my office bike which made it look so good someone tried to steal it last August). This year, I was thinking bigger, so I combined the birthday money she gave me with other birthday money (mostly from myself to myself) so I could buy something I've had my eye on awhile: the GoPro HD Hero2 camera.

Yesterday morning, in an email to my dad I said I still had questions about it. After spending time researching it online I knew how well the thing has been reviewed, but I had never even held one. So the whole 'how is this thing going to feel in my hands?' question couldn't be answered until I went to a store.

I went to REI in Norwalk that same afternoon. Rather than ask an associate questions over and over only to leave and bargain hunt for the thing online, I asked the associate questions over and over until I thanked him for his included-in-the-retail-price-of-the-camera help and decided to buy the camera right out of the display cabinet. So I felt like I did something to reward physical stores for their customer service and paid close to $20 in sales tax (which is fine by me since the Connecticut state budget isn't going to balance itself).

As you can see from the first shot, the GoPro HD Hero 2 camera is an exercise of creative and possibly unnecessary consumer product packaging. When I took the plastic shell off the top, I removed the camera from the plastic bracket on the lid, which was very similar to the brackets one can use to mount the camera on a helmet, a dashboard or other vehicle. Two small boxes on the inside and I quickly took inventory. It did not come with the necessary SD card, but I was thankful the people at GoPro included several mounting brackets (two strap brackets, two flat self-adhesive brackets and two curved self-adhesive brackets).

Of course, a big part of the camera's value comes from the durable housing the camera sits in. It comes with two lids: one waterproof - meaning I could take it snorkeling or kayaking if I wanted – and one vented cover. It says in the manual that the vented cover is recommended if the camera isn't exposed to water and/or traveling at speeds under 100 miles an hour so the microphone would be able to pick up sound better. If you want to attach the camera to one of those sea creatures in The Abyss, the sealed lid is what you want.

The guy at REI let me take the camera out of the housing in the store so I could see for myself how well it is made. I was pleased with my impression and surprised at how small the camera is. Here is the GoPro HD Hero2 next to Chewbacca for some scale.

In or out of the housing, the camera can take HD video and still shots that can be five, eight or eleven megapixels (it goes up to eleven!) and with still shots I learned there is a setting which would allow me to take interval shots every 0.5, 1, 2, 5, 10, 30 or 60 seconds, which immediately made me wonder if I could passively use the camera to finally find out what kind of animal is living under my front porch.

But first, I wanted to figure out a way to make this...

...fit onto this (the Flashpoint bike handlebar mount my grandmother gave me for Christmas).

I immediately was going to just use one of the self-adhesive brackets that came with the camera, but I was a little nervous that the surface area of the GoPro bracket was bigger than the available mounting area. However, the display bracket on the box lid of the camera looked just as well made as the self-adhesive brackets. So I tore it off the box (I am confident I am not going to return this to REI) and set to work.

Once I centered the Hero2 bracket on the mount, I traced around it with a Sharpie and used a hacksaw to cut it to size.

When that was done, I realized that this exercise gave me an additional bracket than the already generous number the GoPro people included in the box. I also realized I hadn't yet checked the video quality of the camera when in motion. Since it was dark outside at this point I couldn't do that, but lucky for me I have a 10+ year old Kyosho Mini-Z radio controlled car that still works beautifully, cracked tires and all.

 I admit it probably isn't the kind of sports car the GoPro people had in mind when they worked tirelessly to design this camera, but I didn't know how else to test the video without waiting for sunup. So I took my crudely made Hero2 'boxlid bracket' and attached it to the radio controlled car.

I turned everything on and set it on the ground. I drove it around the recently Roombaed shop floor for maybe a minute. Shortly after, I brought the camera upstairs and easily uploaded the video to my computer. It looked like a P.O.V. film of a small animal with excellent vision running around my shop floor. The impressive results I got from putting the camera on a radio controlled car made me realize I could, if I wanted, take a proactive approach in finding out what kind of animal is living under my front porch.

Still later, I removed the boxlid bracket and added holes so I could attach it via small bolts to the Flashpoint mount. The whole thing got placed on the Bike Friday, and is now ready to go. I'm aware that the lack of a viewfinder will lead to some trial and error when I try to figure out how best to use/mount this camera, but I thank the GoPro people in advance for making a really cool product – and for packaging it the way they did.

To be continued...