Thursday, January 28, 2010

New Issue Out

The commute has gotten extra wintery this week - it's about 13 degrees outside this morning, and a wind of 15 mph is coming out of the West. Luckily, I was headed East this morning, but that still leaves the ride home. I've found so far that the cold is never really a big deal, but that wind can just cut right through my gloves. Another couple tips - batteries go dead extra quickly, so bring a couple extra pairs if you're running lights (which you should be!), and water bottles, especially metal ones, can freeze pretty quickly.

In other news, the new issue of Dreamboat cyclist should be just hitting the news stands today. This one looks like it focuses on the new fusion of skeet shooting and cyclocross, or summer duathlon. Personally, I'll be buying my copy just to get that sweet poster of Mike Woods holding a chicken.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Chilly Commute in Photos

Black and white goes well with the weather around here. In my photography, especially digital, I've found that I prefer black and white photos in places where color doesn't really matter all that much. Snow, portraits, and architecture are all examples of subjects where the lighting and composition matter much more than a bright showy splash of color. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule - bright red berries poking through the snow surely wouldn't be very picturesque without color. My commute has been mostly colorless lately, and I pass few fellow bikers on the road as well. It's a nice peaceful time to be out, and before you ask, I'm pretty rarely cold - about 10 minutes into the ride I'm already unzipping the jacket because I'm overheating.

Lots of friends think Holly and I are nuts to be out biking this time of year, but in many ways, this is the best time of year to be out. If I wasn't biking, I know I wouldn't have the gumption to be out in the cold just to take photos. But being outside, getting some fresh air, and not noticing the chill so much - these are all great reasons to head out, even on some of the worst days.

Bell Tower

Bike Commute

Hog Shack

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Road Trip Part 2: New Orleans

From St. Louis we packed up and headed towards the gulf coast. We rolled into New Orleans pretty late, making good time up until a traffic jam entering the city. The one-ways and side streets made finding our hostel interesting to say the least, and some of the neighborhoods we passed through didn't look that promising. Eventually we found the right street and checked in, right behind a couple of girls in from Texas and France.

The hostel itself was in a great neighborhood, with plenty of street parking, a safe location near a Wal-Mart and right down the street from the scenic Garden District. I'd go again, but the next time I'll be sure to bring along some earplugs and eye shades for sleeping. It was a nice place to hang out, with free breakfast, internet, parking, and a ton of friendly faces, but not everyone goes to sleep at the same time, and sound deadening can't be expected to be up to Hilton standards. Certainly not a big deal for the price paid.

Hostel room

Most of the trip centered around food, which I'll get to in another post, but I'll preface it by saying that the South, and New Orleans in particular, has a tremendous amount of good food, particularly if you love seafood as we do. We look forward to the time we can visit again when it's crawfish season.

As for sight-seeing, the first day we ambled up and down Magazine street uptown, which is the main touristy shopping district. Lots of semi-interesting antique stores, and even more not-so-interesting stores that sell antique-themed junk. This was our first taste of how football-crazy New Orleans is, as everyone had on their favorite Saints outfit, jersey, or whatever, and most of the signs had something to the effect of "Geaux Saints" or "Who Dat?" which was cute, at first anyway.

We met up with my old College room mate Alex, who has made a home in the city, and watched the Saints game with him at a local pizza place. We later went a few doors down to a bar, and were greeted by a massive crowd inside, probably 10 deep at both bars, and standing room only. To say it was surprising understates the situation by quite a bit from a Lions fan's perspective.

Christmas in the City

On another day, we decided to check out what was going on over in the French Quarter. Not much apparently - the area is home to the sleaziest of strip-clubs and sex shows, bars upon bars upon bars, and silly little Jackson Square, where the area's worst artists and musicians come to hock their wares, apparently. The place may have seemed cute in the evening or at night, when you have a few pints in you, but in the light of day it just looked like it was trying too hard, like the Carney sideshow that has overrun Niagara Falls.

Jackson Square

Street Sweeper

We took the streetcar back to the Hostel. The streetcar thing would be quite the public transportation option if it went more places - as it is the city only has the St. Charles Ave line running as far as I know. It's cheap, seems reliable, and the center lane that they take up makes for a nice spot to jog for locals too. Plus, they give the area a feel of history and provide a good way for tourists to see the incredible Mansions that line St. Charles.


New Orleans Streetcar

Just as we packed up, we met a fellow who was just stopping in the Hostel for some much-deserved R & R after biking 9000 miles from Canada, through California and Texas. His friend had continued on to Mexico, but this guy wanted to check out New Orleans first. His setup was odd to say the least - a mountain bike frame with flat handlebars, internal-geared hub, and drum brakes. He and his partner had also done most of the trip so far offroad, on singletrack. Impressive, no? His advice rang true to me - use what you know works, and when you're ready to go, just go. Don't overanalyze things, just start riding. He found no reason to train at all; he just started to ride 30-40 miles a day at first, and eventually got to a good rhythm where he was averaging 90 miles a day or so. Their plan was eventually to get down to Argentina, so if you see a British guy riding this down Latin America way, buy him a beer.

Long tour underway

An unorthodox touring bike

Our last bit of New Orleans was a Christmas light show outside of town, undoubtedly the highlight of the trip (besides the food). An entire park was lit up, a high school band was playing Christmas carols, and beautiful greenhouses were filled with decorations to help you get in the spirit. If that didn't do it, the Hot Buttered Rum they sold at the concessions did. Mmm.

Poinsettia Tree


Sculpted Light

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Road Trip! St. Louis...

Holly and I went on a recent road trip with Holly and I brought along the GF1+20mm combo. First stop: St. Louis, MO.

Getting to know the new camera
Obligatory arch shot - left exposure comp on (whoops)

St. Louis sunrise

St. Louis is famously home to Anheuser-Busch breweries, who until recently employed the most people in the city. They were recently bought out by InBev, a foreign brewery most famous stateside for its beer Stella Artois. The locals are still a bit touchy about it, so don't be surprised if you get an odd look from the guy at the brewery when you ask him to pour you a glass of Stella.

InBev, meet Anheuser Busch

The tour itself is free, and comes with two free beers at the end. That alone is an amazing deal anywhere - free beer - but when you actually see the amazing clydesdale facilities, the huge brewhouses, and the awe-inspiring miles of pipes and huge vats of beer, it is quite overwhelming to say the least. Turns out, we drink a LOT of beer.

Lots and Lots of Krausening.


Mmm, Bevo.



For our second stop, we checked out something incredible in the truest sense of the word - it's hard to believe it exists in this day and age. I highly recommend anyone within driving distance to St. Louis check out their City Museum - it's basically a giant recycled shoe factory with tons of caverns made out of concrete that look like caves and mouths etc, a bunch of recycled steel bits to form railings and slides:

Recycled Materials

Dino Cave

Xtra large rockem' sockem'

The City Museum also has a lot of sculptures outside the place too, like turrets, planes, and metal hoops and railings you can climb through to check it all out. A bit of a tight fit for adults, but it's doable.

St. Louis City Museum

On the wing

Pilot Holly

Word of advice if you crawl through these places: secure your belongings! Holly dropped her phone from about 50 feet up (it survived), and I nearly dropped my camera from my coat pocket when descending through one of those slinky-style tubes. I heard a clink, looked down, and there's the GF1 cradled between the railings. Yikes! This is one of the few places a Fanny Pack would be really advisable.

The City museum would be a great place to take your kids or to act like one yourself. I only wish I had the chance to check out all those tunnels when I was about 7 or 8 years old.

We finished up St Louis by going to the Zoo. It's free, and this time of year there really is no crowd at all. Quite a good Zoo actually, especially considering the price!

Penguins at the Pool

Sunday, January 3, 2010

I'm not against cars

It may not be apparent by the title and content of this blog that I used to be, and still am to some extent, a real car nut. See, I'm sort of like the guy from the film Adaptation, who lives life by learning all he can about something, and then abruptly getting bored and starting a new obsession. I'm currently in the bored w/cameras, interested in bikes phase, but only a few short years ago it was cars, and not cameras or bikes.

I do drive a lot, and I still enjoy it, although my point of view on driving and cars has always been different from other car nuts. I like unique cars that stand out from the crowd, even in a parking lot full of interesting cars. I'll yawn at the Woodward Dream Cruise and its oceans of muscle cars, but take me to the Lane Motor Museum and I go nuts. Chevrolet Impala? Neat, but I don't think I'd buy one. Give me a Subaru Brat or a Citroën DS any day.

One of the things that drove me away from the car hobby is the kind of groupthink that is rampant in both the car industry and the enthusiast community nowadays. Reading a car magazine is to me an exercise in frustration. They complain that some compact cars don't have enough power, give high marks to expensive sedans such as the BMW 3 series, and do not value originality or value in any way. Truth be told, every car made today is reliable and powerful enough to move itself comfortably down the freeway at 80 mph for a good 100,000 miles and not break a sweat. Perhaps that's why car magazine writers and enthusiasts have to reach to find things to set cars apart from each other in such trivial ways. In the old days, it was easy to say a car was underpowered, when the Volkwagen Beetle took 30 seconds or more to get to 60 mph. Or a car was unreliable or unsafe, when the Pontiac Fiero burst into flames from electrical fires on dealership lots. But today, to say a small car with more than 100 hp is underpowered, as my first-generation Honda Fit was often claimed to be, is simply ridiculous.

In other markets, like Japan and Europe, car companies make interesting small cars with incredible fuel economy, but car companies are too afraid to bring them to America because of the American automotive journalist's penchant for power over economy. Let's look at one clear-cut example: the Scion xB. Take a car like the Japanese-market Toyota bB, a small-on-the-outside, big-on-the-inside people mover, and within a generation of hitting US shores as the Scion xB all of a sudden it has ballooned in proportions (add over 600 lbs!) and engine size (1.3L in Japan, now 2.4L in the US!) to the point that it suffers in fuel economy and price. I still believe that if the Toyota bB and Scion xB were offered for sale side by side, the Toyota would kill the Scion in sales, but the automotive press would slam it ruthlessly for its power deficit.

Japan's Toyota bB 1.5L 109hp engine, 2,200 lbs, 37 mpg! (also available with a 1.3L engine)

The Made-for-America Scion xB: 2.4L 158hp engine, 3085 lbs, 25 mpg

The fact that cars like the Toyota bB can move easily down the highway, accelerate on the onramp to cruising speed in an adequate time somehow never registers with the press. They live in a world where the number of seconds that a car takes to go from 0-60 mph - an exercise that rarely if ever matters in the real world - determines what car is good and what car is bad. A recent US press review of the japanese-market Nissan Cube, for example, deemed its 0-60 time of 13 seconds "life-threatening." Over-the-top rhetoric like this, meant to scare the reader into believing they will somehow get killed if their car can't get to 60 mph in under 9 seconds, is sensationalist at best. At the very least, it is crap like this that is keeping fuel-efficient cars from being imported into our market.

My 1992 Honda Civic VX was made for one purpose and one purpose only - to get great miles per gallon while not sacrificing drivability. It had 92 hp (20 more than the base model that year!), came in under 2100 lbs, and was geared to turn an ultra-low 2000 rpms at 75 mph. I regularly get 50 mpg in this nearly 20 year old car that seats 4, and though it'll never set any land speed records, I've never had a problem getting on the highway or driving along at 75+ mph. Turn the keys over to most any current auto mag writer worth his salt, and I'd guarantee he'd try to record the 0-60 time and complain about its lack of power, though that would be missing the point entirely in a car like this.

The Honda Civic VX, beating out hybrids, almost 20 years ago.

It seems to me that people in America, especially in the press, have lost perspective in what's important in car design, especially in regards to so-called economy cars. A no-frills vehicle designed to get you from point A to B frugally, efficiently, and safely has no reason to be timed on a 0-60 or quarter mile run. If it gets you on the freeway, cruises comfortably at 80 mph, and has decent handling to avoid accidents, that's really all you should care about. Were I in charge of an automotive magazine, I'd outlaw all acceleration timing equipment on cars like this, and put the priority back on fuel economy. I guarantee most entry-level cars could get an extra 10 mpg if the press wouldn't nitpick on acceleration and power so much.