Saturday, April 14, 2007

Review: Campagnolo Carbon Record Brake Levers

These brake levers came on my Meridian Cascade tandem in 2002. At that time, they were an unspecified upgrade on the bike (I'd specified Campagnolo brake levers, but not the Record type), and I suffered a few remarks from folks who assumed I put it on the bike as a weight weenie measure.

But as I used them over the next 5 years, their value really grew on me (and it's not because of the weight). First of all, they never get cold. Carbon fiber is an insulator, not a conductor, so on cold mornings where metal brake levers would have frozen my fingers to the lever, they remain finger-temperature and keep my fingers happy. Cold hands are one of the most miserable things to experience, and during my 2005 tour of the alps, there were a few days where I wish I had them on my touring bike.

Secondly, these levers have a quick-release built into the lever. Together with Shimano long reach brake calipers, you end up with sufficient throw in both quick releases to clear 700x32mm tires! This is excellent.

Finally, the last 5 years have proven that they are sturdy enough for touring and heavy-duty use. Any levers that have to frequently stop a tandem on major mountain descents are definitely strong enough for any kind of use on a single bike, be it loaded touring, commuting, or just day riding.

I like these levers so much that I'm putting my money where my mouth is: I'm retiring my metal brake levers on my touring bike and replacing them with these. Highly recommended!

Review: The No Asshole Rule

When Robert Sutton came to Google to talk about his book, I thought that most of his points were fairly obvious: assholes are people who beat down on subordinates and kiss up to their superiors. Then again, as I read this book and considered its topics a bit more, I realized that I'd much rather see more books of this type than for instance, Built to Last. Which isn't to say that Built to Last was a bad book, by the way.

Prof. Sutton quantifies how much having an asshole costs the typical organization, and presents a number of examples and anecdotes about it. (A quiz question: who is the biggest asshole in Silion Valley?)

All in all, a quick read, worth the time, but not paying money for.

Charity Rides aren't necessarily good for cycling

I recently rode Big Sur, along the beautiful section of coast left out by the AIDS Lifecycle ride. At first, I thought the AIDS Lifecycle riders aren't cyclists, which leads them to pick the flattest, straightest route from San Francisco to LA. Someone else, however told me it was because the CHP had denied the organization permission from riding Highway 1.

Now this is odd. For instance, if you led a car rally down Highway 1, the CHP can't deny you to use legitimate, public roads. But apparently bicycles need permission. Even that aside, AIDS Lifecycle could have made a stink out of this decision. They have thousands of cyclists, and thousands of donors, and the PR ability and the cause to make a big deal out of this and force the CHP to either change its mind or raise awareness that cyclists are being treated as second class citizens, even as they work to raise money for important causes.

But that's not the purpose of the AIDS ride. As long as they get their money for their cause, they don't really care about cycling per se as a endeavor in and of itself. Hence, they are content to accept their second class citizenship and use a flat, boring route to LA from San Francisco. This type of behavior from charities is all too common, unfortunately, thus as I get older and I ride more, I agree more and more with Sheldon Brown's position on charity rides.

In any case, I'm not so sure it's such a good thing to commingle charity with another activity. Just as an insurance scheme sold as an investment is ultimately suboptimal, I think that your giving to a cause is better done directly, not as part of a commingled activity. (A few years ago, there was a scandal about the AIDS Lifecycle's organizers siphoning off the monies for their own purposes. Who knows if that'll repeat itself) Similarly, if you wish to ride from San Francisco to LA, following the AIDS Lifecycle route is not optimal, and the selection of time is also not optimal. (Riding on the coast is optimal, and the right season is in late September/early October or in mid-April to mid-May).

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Review: Dinotte Taillight

Dinotte setup a deal for employees of my company, so I took the opportunity to buy one of their tail-lights, since my next-to-last Vista-lite was failing, and I can't seem to buy Vista-lites anymore. Lots of folks had raved about how bright it was, so it didn't seem like it would be a big risk.

I got the "Pro" version, since that's the one that runs off AA batteries, which would be most useful for touring. For commuting, NiMH batteries from Battery Space have proven themselves over and over again. The light is bright. Indeed, it's so incredibly bright that it can serve as an emergency light at night for flat repair, and it paints the road behind you red if you point it at the ground. The one time I got it mounted on my chainstays, my brother who was drafting me complained that it blinded me and I had to turn the light down to its lowest setting so as not to irritate him.

The Achille's heel of the system, however, is the mount. A rubber O-ring combines with a notch on the light engine itself to mount onto a seat post or a seat tube. A separate pouch with the AA batteries mounts elsewhere with a hook-and-loop fastener. The hook-and-loop fastener is not very secure, and frequently moves during the ride: it's tough to find a place for it on the bike. But the real problem is the seat-post/seat tube mounting. Seat posts won't work if you're in the habit of using a carradice saddlebag. Seat tube mounting has the annoying feature of possibly hitting your thigh, and also not working with panniers. There's also a lot of wasted light in this system, since most of the light goes down to shine on the road instead of penetrating a driver's eyes.

You would think that the same O-ring system could work for mounting the light onto the seat stays, and you would be wrong. Seat stays are angled the other way from a seat tube, and don't angle the light correctly. On top of that, seat stays are too skinny for the O-ring and the light-engine notch to have adequate purchase.

Another fellow on the net suggested using Cateye's Small Parts Store to hunt for parts for mounting the Dinotte light onto the chainstays or seat stays. The BP-5, for instance, will wrap around the light engine with no problems whatsoever. Other collars seem like they would be perfect for wrapping around the stays. I ordered a bunch for $10 and tried them. The problem is that the geometry of the light engine is such that seat stay mounting is not practical: the engine itself gets in the way of you mounting it on the seat stay with the length protruding back into the seat stay. I had better luck with chain stay mounting, but try as I might, I could not get the mounting to be stable: road shock and vibration would knock it loose and then I would lose the correct angle for the light. All in all, it was easier to switch back to seat tube mounting, which is less than satisfactory if you actively commute with panniers or a saddlebag. And of course, there's no easy way to mount it onto a rack as well --- you simply have to keep ordering stuff from the Cateye small parts catalog until you find something that works for your rack, a frustrating experience at best.

In conclusion, I will keep my Dinotte, but am sad that I cannot use it for touring or any kind of serious night utility riding. The fact that I am able to keep a full set of clothes at my employer and do laundry at work is what keeps me from sending it back to the manufacturer. For the cost of the light ($120 MSRP), I feel that a full set of mounting options is necessary without any of the kludges I had to go through to get things to work. As it is, I will stick with my vista-lite for touring, or a $20 Cat-Eye when that vista-lite finally dies. I cannot in all honesty recommend the Dinotte for serious use on utility or touring bicycles: it is clear that their audience is that long distance randonneur or night racer, not the utility cyclist who has to carry any kind of gear at all.

Two thumbs down for the cost and lack of utility.

[Update: I've found a light that addresses my issues for cheaper]

Monday, April 09, 2007

Review: The Wall Street Self-Defense Manual

For those so young they missed the internet bubble, Henry Blodget was the internet analyst who achieved instant fame in 1998 when he predicted that AMZN would go to $400. It did so in less than 2 weeks, winning Blodget guru status on Wall-Street, along with Mary Meeker.

His fate took a turn for the worst, however, when he was accused of securities fraud after the internet bubble burst, and he had to settle with the SEC and was barred from the securities industry for life. His columns in Slate, however, have been interesting and responsible (unlike many other financial journalists), and his arguments about stocks, trends and industry on his blog, Internet Outsider, are cogent and interesting, if not entertaining.

When he published his this book to help the consumer invest intelligently, I read the internet excerpts and found them to be intelligently as well as simply written, so I placed a hold on the book at the library and forgot about it until it came in.

The book's divided into 3 parts: part one focuses on trying to convince you that the common marketing pitches made by most financial firms, advisors, and journalists are false and not in your best interest. Part 2 covers common investment approaches and points out the pitfalls of each of them. Part 3 (the shortest), covers what to actually do with your investment. What's fascinating to me is that part 3 assumes that he failed to convince you in parts 1 and 2!

This lack of self-confidence, perhaps, is justified, since I have run into any number of intelligent folks who are convinced that they can beat the market. And to a large extent, they do --- for a short while. Blodget's coverage of the common fallacies of active investors covers no less than 25 percent of the book. This is good material, and exceptionally well-written. There's no mathematics or equations to scare away the casual reader, but the examples are well-chosen and easily understood. The casual references to his prior life as a securities person also make for good entertainment.

Blodget's coverage of asset allocation and how you should approach it, however, is sadly lacking. He does point you at David Swenson's, so at least you're not stuck with nothing. He does provide 2 example portfolios, but I suspect that most new investors will be left at a loss to extrapolate from this. The subject of asset allocation, how rebalancing works, and how you change your risk profile over time is definitely worth spending more time on, and I wish Blodget had done so.

Part 2 covers the traditional ways of managing investments (investment advisors, mutual funds, hedge funds, paying for research, and reading financial press), and covers why most of these managers do not have their interests aligned with yours. This is valuable reading, and definitely worth reading. Beginning investors ignore Blodget's advise here at their own peril, and this section is written so well that I think it will actually be read and followed. In one section, for instance, he analyzes the package a financial adviser prepared for him, and points out the over-optimistic assumptions, hidden costs, and sales pitches were. This section is worth reading and reflecting upon, if you ever decide to go the adviser route.

Part 3, where Blodget provides his solution for the typical consumer, is extremely short (about 5 pages or so). He assumes that parts 1 and 2 of the book was completely in vain, and that you will want to go ahead and do some speculation anyway, and so advises that you at least do 95% investing, and spend the other 5% proving that you can beat the market. He then advises using the investment account to get some help from Vanguard or TIAA-CREF with low cost funds and get a portfolio evaluation from them. He does bring up the excellent life-cycle funds, which I think are an excellent solution.

All in all, I think this is an excellent book for beginning investors, and the biggest problem I see is that not enough people will read it. He could cover asset allocation in more detail, but as others have demonstrated, that subject could be an entire book all by itself, and Blodget's prose-style-no-numbers approach would not work well there. In any case, the book is well worth the price for the average beginning investor.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Big Sur Trip

Big Sur Trip

I was getting stale, doing the same old pigeon point loop every time I wanted a shakedown cruise. Well, this year, I opted for something different: Big Sur. I've ridden down the coast before, in 1997, but I wanted something that wouldn't take a week. My Western Wheeler friends Dick & Donna had done the Big Sur Loop from Carmel many times before, and since I'd never done it, I thought it was worth doing once, just to see what it was like.

Day 1: 51 miles, 3800': The day started out drizzly and cold. So cold that I had to break out warm jackets and gloves. By lunch time, however, the fog had blown off and we had nice sunny weather. As usual on the tandem, the climbs are much much harder than I remember from my previous ride, but the descents were fast and stable. We arrived at Lucia at 3:00pm, after all the other singles, and had plenty of time to enjoy the wonderful views of the coast and a lovely dinner.

Day 2: 51 miles, 4300': The forecast was for rain today, so I was pleasantly surprised to see clear, beautiful weather when we woke up. After breakfast, we climbed a short hill and descended down along the coast for 5 miles. This part of the coast was gorgeous and dreamy, very very pretty, and I wished we were heading further South, but not today. We climbed Nacimiento Road, a climb estimated at about 7 or 8%, which wound around the hills and gave us gorgeous views of the coast. At the top, we ran into Denise & Larry, a couple who were riding to San Luis Obispo, where they would rent a car and drive back home. Then there was a quick descent into Hunter Liggett military base, where unlike Dick's previous experience, we were quickly let through and had lunch at the snack bar on the base. Then we took the closed old road over to Jolon Road, where a gentle climb greeted us to the summit and then a furiously fast descent. This was, however, followed by a ride into a 30mph gale from King City! This gave us an 8mph speed into the city, where we stayed at the Keefer's Inn, after arriving around 4:00pm.

Day 3: 69 miles, 3000'. The morning started off with another headwind. This wasn't as bad as the day before, but we ended up doing 12mph for 2 hours, before turning into Greenfield and riding into Arroyo Seco, where the Easter weekend brought lots of annoying traffic. Then the turnoff onto Carmel Valley Road, where a gentle climb with a little breeze brought us quickly to within 2 miles of the summit before we got bogged down. Once over the summit, a quick descent (lent some urgency by using up all our water) brought us to Carmel Village, where we had lunch and topped up our water bottles. Then a quick push against a much weakened headwind brought us back to the car at 5:00pm.

My brother also has Web Album up for the trip.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Co-Motion provides new details

After yesterday's post, I got a public statement out of Co-Motion:

This date range is not correct. Piaw Na's frame, which he purchased used in
2000, was built in 1997. By the time Piaw had purchased his frame, we had
been reinforcing the eyelets for 3 years. We began reinforcement of the
Cappuccino and Cappuccino Co-Pilot (or SkyCapp) dropouts in 1997 to prevent
these problems from occuring again. I think the eyelet issue cropped up in
1997, but it would be smart to look at any 1996 or 1997 Cappuccino tandems.

If you own any steel Co-Motion Softride beam-equipped tandem manufactured
in 1996 or 1997, I would encourage you to contact us to see if it might be
prudent to reinforce your dropouts. Check your serial number, stamped into
the front bottom bracket shell. If the last two digits (indicating year of
manufacture) are 96 or 97, take a look at your dropouts. If you see a strong
definition line between the eyelet and dropout body, and you plan to mount a
rear rack carrying loaded panniers, give us a call.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

How not to manage product defects

5 years ago, I owned a Co-Motion SkyCapp. It was my first tandem, and amongst other things it taught me what I liked or did not like about tandems, in particular, S&S couplers are evil. Then in 2002, Lisa & I rode down the Pacific Coast on a 5 day bike trip, and the eyelets on the rear (which attach the rack to the frame) broke.

This was annoying to say the least: in 15 years of touring, no other bicycle frame has ever broken down on me in this fashion, but it was near the end of the trip, so a phone call to my brother got me a pick-up, and I brought it to the frame shop for a repair (cost: $60), and proceeded to eventually sell the frame and buy a new one (which I am very happy with).

In the course of interacting with folks on the internet tandem list, I discovered that a few other folks had had their tandems fail in exactly the same way. Well, so I started telling folks who were buying Co-Motions, to check their dropout eyelets, or to just re-do them. Co-Motion's representative then got on-board and said they had no such problem. When I then posted that I'd found others who'd had the same problem happen to their tandems, they changed their tune and said that it was just a bad batch of dropouts (frame components) that had since been fixed. I asked for a list of serial #s or model years affected, but they did not reply.

Fast forward a few years, and I issue another such warning for a frame made in the same era as mine, and suddenly I'm accused of having a grudge against Co-Motion, as evidenced by this e-mail from them:

It seems that somewhere along the way, I have made an enemy of you. I have
long felt that our reputation would speak for itself, and that in time, you
might mellow about this. Perhaps I underestimated the extent of your
determination. Perhaps you are waiting for an apology.

A further exchange determined the extent of their problem:
> Hm... I still remember your respond to my initial posting about
> broken eyelets:
> "I will stand our eyelets up against anybody else's". That was what
> prompted me to ask David Love and Pamela Bayley about their eyelet
> experiences on their co-motions. I'd call that a denial, but hey, you
> can call it whatever you want.

Yes, I made the above statement because I felt that our dropout, which was
made by one of the premier dropout forging companies in the world, was
indeed equal to any other company's dropout. We had no problems with any of
their other dropouts, and their other dropouts, made for Ritchey, Trek,
Schwinn and others enjoyed a strong reputation.

However, the Cappuccino/SkyCapp was hard on dropout eyelets because the
rear rack, having to extend so far to meet the upper rack mounts due to the
compact rear triangle, exhibited more lateral movement. This wasn't the
fault of the eyelets, it was more of a problem with the vast array of rack
adaptations to the beam bikes. Still, it was the eyelet that exhibited the
problem, so it was the eyelet we reinforced. We also made an effort to
recommend that anyone using a Capp/SkyCapp for loaded touring should make an
effort to get a nice rigid rack like a Bruce Gordon or Robert Beckman
design. These racks provide much better lateral stability because of their
superior upper mounts, taking the strain off the dropout eyelets.

> So you're saying that you have a problem even now?

Absolutely not.

>At some point, you
> made a manufacturing change to correct eyelet dropout problems, yes?
> So frames after that point are safe, correct?

Yes, the aditional brazing, as seen on Brian Speck's frame.

>So you could
> theoretically say, "Any frames made after this time will be free of
> eyelet problems", right?


>And that would translate to a manufacturing
> serial # past a certain # on Co-Motion frames, correct?

Yes. However, the difficulty is in identifying exactly when the problematic
dropout eyelets initiated. It would not be correct to recall all Cappuccinos
and SkyCapps made before X. Not only would it be extremely costly, it would
also involve a lot more bicycles than necessary. We did not track dropout
lots- the new parts would have gone into the same bin as the old batch.
Because we could not positively identify them, we decided to reinforce
everything after it appeared we had a problem and take care of the rest of
them under warranty. Why your repair was charged by Bicycle Outfitter to
you, I do not know- you should not have been charged.

>Or are you
> saying that you still don't know if your new frames would have this
> problem?

Not at all.

The reason why this is a case study on how not to deal with a product defect is that once a manufacturer has denied there's a problem, and then realizes that there's one, there's an honest way to deal with it: post it on your web-site, made it known there are are problems, and either issue a recall or tell folks that if you have a possibly affected frame we'll take care of you. To try to tell everyone else that my frame was suspect because it was bought used and because of its history, is being disingenuous. To then try to brush it off because it's too expensive to recall all affected frames, but not to explain to the general public what the problem was, and that they could be affected is to be cavalier about the most important part of a relationship between a producer and consumer: trust. If I can't trust you to always tell me what's wrong with even minor things, how can I trust you to tell me about major problems? If future Co-Motions were to have a manufacturing defect in their steerer tube which could cause a serious crash, would their past performance/waffling about their eyelet problems tell you that they would do the right thing and lose money and replace bad steerers? Or would they try to cover up, and fight the inevitable lawsuits.

I'll take the reverse example: when Rivendell Bicycles sold me a custom frame 10 years ago, they made it with a seat tube slightly too big. It was a 27.2mm seat tube instead of a 27mm seat tube. Just 0.2mm difference. I wouldn't have noticed. If the bike shop had called me about the problem I would have said, "no problem, put in a 27.2mm American Classic seat post." But my shop called Rivendell, and I immediately got e-mail from the company apologizing for the mistake, the employee on the shop floor berated himself, telling me he'd betrayed my trust had let me down and would never do this to me again. The company sent a UPS tag back to the shop, took back the frame, and sent me another custom frame. Let me tell you that if Grant Petersen had a bad batch of dropouts, he would personally see to it that every frame with the potential for this problem would be fixed. The man (and the company) has shown that he will never ever let making money get in the way of doing the right thing, and I will heartily recommend a Rivendell bicycle to anyone.

To me, these potential breaches of trust are what cause me to tell friends who ask me to steer away from Co-Motion bicycles. They might ride great, but integrity in business and personal relations on products that might potentially cause you and your partner great damage is just too important to me.