Saturday, December 03, 2011

Maeve Howell, theater critic

Maeve was quoted today on the UW Computer Science & Engineering News Blog.  There is also a picture of Mike in the article.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving running

Posted by PicasaNovember 24, 2011
Thanksgiving 2011.

2010 Turkey Trot
Last year, we helped with registration at the Turkey Trot, a 5K benefiting the Ballard Food Bank. Maeve had a great time stamping registrants' hands after they paid. That year, Seattle had an uncharacteristic Thanksgiving snowfall.

This year, for Thanksgiving we decided to run it! We parked at Golden Gardens Park on Puget Sound and climbed up the cliff. All that elevation to lose during the run! Maeve ran/walked the whole thing, with Silas in the jogging stroller/Mike's arms most of the way, and we finished in 55 minutes. We played a bit at the park and, despite a foreboding forecast, it started to rain only as we got in the car - perfect timing. It was a really lovely morning, and then we went home and had tortellini and cauliflower for Thanksgiving dinner (per Maeve's request, and also very popular with Silas). I forgot my camera so the photo is in our side yard (great view of the artichoke and winter cover crop coming up in our garden) once we got home.

In early October, just 6 weeks after she first rode a 2-wheel bicycle unassisted, Maeve biked 12 miles as part of the Shine On Seattle fundraiser for green energy. Most of it was very flat on the Burke-Gilman Trail. Silas rode on the back of Mike's bike, as usual.

It's snowing up in the mountains so the plan is to go up for some snow play tomorrow.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Reading foreign-language books on the Kindle

I like my Kindle e-book reader.  It's handy for checking out library books, and I like that I can use "Manage my Content" at to return the library books as soon as I finish them, to reduce wait times for other people.  The Kindle is good for inexpensive, out-of-copyright, classics, even though sometimes the OCR is of poor quality.  I don't read so much that the Kindle reduces the weight of my luggage significantly (more's the pity).  The Kindle makes it very easy to buy more books than I would otherwise, which was surely a design consideration.

But, the "killer app" for an e-book reader, for me, is foreign-language books.  More often than I like, I need to consult a dictionary to translate a word I do not know.  When reading on the Kindle, this becomes extremely easy:  just move the cursor onto a word, and the dictionary definition pops up at the top or bottom of the page.  No longer do I need to interrupt my reading to page through a dictionary, then find my place again.  This has transformed my reading by making it easier and more enjoyable to read books that are slightly beyond my reading level.  You need to buy a translating dictionary; installing it is an easy process that is available from the Home menu under "Menu > Settings > Change Primary Dictionary".

Many dictionaries have some problems with word forms, such as the frequent case when a pronoun or article is appended to the end of a Spanish verb.  If navigating to the word doesn't bring it up, you can always type the word into the dictionary search, but at that point I usually just keep reading.  If I do choose to type the word, another problem is that you cannot type accented characters on the Kindle keyboard.  Instead, I type the word without accents, then go to the list of all nearby words and select the accented form from the list.

The main downside of the Kindle is its slow display refresh.  This is completely tolerable for turning pages, but is irritating in navigating menus and other activities.  I do notice it when navigating the cursor to the word I don't understand:  the definitions of other words along the cursor's path flash at the top or bottom of the screen.  Slow refresh also makes it hard to judge when I should let up on the "5-way" joystick controller.  The forthcoming Kindle Touch may solve this problem by letting you touch the screen directly rather than using the somewhat clunky "5-way" joystick.

I notice that battery life is a bit lower when using a translating dictionary, probably because of all the display changes that occur as I navigate to the word.  But, battery life is still great:  the Kindle battery lasts weeks.

Update, October 2014:

I have now read many Spanish books on my Kindle, including ones I had given up on in hardcopy.  I feel this experience has significantly improved my Spanish.

The Kindle Paperwhite improves the experience I described above in two ways.  First, you can just touch the word you are interested in rather than using the irritating joystick (called the 4-way).  Second, the Kindle will fail over between different dictionaries.  If a Spanish word doesn't appear in my Spanish-English dictionary, then the Kindle searches in other dictionaries, such as the Spanish-Spanish dictionary that now ships with the device.  And if a word isn't found in any dictionary, the Kindle goes to the web -- though at this point I generally just go on with my reading.

By the way, someone with a PhD in linguistics gave me some advice about choosing books.  The ideal reading level for learning is one at which you need to look up about one word per page.  So try to avoid reading that requires more than that.  Furthermore, if you understand the gist of a sentence, then have the confidence not to look up words in it even though you might not know them by heart.  You will learn more by working on the fluency of your reading than by interrupting it to solidify the meaning of every last word.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Review of the FollowMe Tandem Coupling

The FollowMe Tandem Coupling attaches a parent's bike to a child's, creating a tandem bicycle in which three wheels are on the ground.  The child can't steer nor turn the front wheel, but can pedal to help power the bicycles -- or can just rest and enjoy the ride.  The child's bike attaches or detaches in one minute, so the child can ride attached or separately and switch between these modalities.

Mike, Silas, and Maeve ready to bike to daycare
I have been using the FollowMe Tandem Coupling daily for a year.  I carry two children:  my 5-year-old daughter on her own bike attached to the FollowMe Tandem Coupling, and my 2-year-old son on a bike seat attached to my rear rack.

My experiences are generally positive, but differ from other available reviews, many of which seem to be based on a day or a week of using the coupling.  This review is divided into four parts:  the good, the bad, the ugly, and the bottom line.

The Good

Children are upright.  I transport two children every day on my bicycle.  I wanted a setup that seats both kids upright, where they can see and participate in the bicycle ride.  For this reason, I didn't want a trailer; a trailer would also be harder to store and would be a step down for my daughter.  I didn't want a front-mounted child seat (such as the Bobike Mini and the Co-Rider), which are deathtraps that unbalance your bicycle -- even the few that fit on drop handlebars and don't interfere with your steering or your knees.  I didn't want to buy a new bike, which feels wasteful of resources and which I would have no room to store.  I had good luck transporting a single child on a tag-along (a single-wheel "bike" whose front attaches to the parent's bike), but most tag-alongs attach to the seat post, preventing use of a child seat on the rear rack.  The Roland add+bike looks great:  it is a tag-along that is compatible with a rear-rack child seat, but it does not seem to be imported into the US.  The FollowMe Tandem Coupling attaches to the rear axle of the adult's bike, so there is no problem putting a child seat on the rear rack.

Solid connection.  The FollowMe Tandem Coupling attaches my daughter's bike very firmly to mine.  She loved this immediately, compared to the small amount of wiggle she experienced when using a tag-along bike.  I am very safety-conscious, but I am comfortable going 28MPH every day with two kids on the bike.  There is a bit of road noise -- the metal components rattle a bit as you ride.  This has no effect on safety, nor does it cause any looseness in the connection, but it took me a little while to get used to it.  Really, it just means that the designers didn't take road noise into account.  The coupling I use also has a small build problem:  a weld connects two parts slightly crooked, so that two holes don't quite line up.  With a bit of a shove I can still get a pin to go through them as required.  As you'll see below, I didn't want to deal with the distributor (Clever Cycles) to get a replacement.

Easy attachment and detachment; coupling folds up.  It is easy to attach or detach the child's bike -- I do this every day, and it takes perhaps 60 seconds.  When attaching the child's bike, I do need to lean my bicycle against a wall rather than having it freestanding.  You will probably want to do this too, unless you are more physically gifted than I am and you have at least three hands and an armspan of 8 feet.  Attaching and detaching the coupling was a bit tricky for me at first, and in the first month I tipped my bicycle twice while attaching, but with practice it is now effortless.  The coupling folds up onto the adult's bicycle, so I can detach my daughter's bike when I want to run an errand or store the bikes.  You can also remove the coupling entirely; since it is extremely heavy, this is smart if you plan not to tow the child's bike for a while.

Attention magnet.  I get a lot of comments about the coupling.  People pull up beside me in their cars and roll down their windows to tell me how great my setup is.  People on the curb stop talking on their cell phones when I ride by.  People ask me whether I built the coupling myself, or ask me where to get one.  (The coupling says "" in big letters...)

The Bad

Expensive.  The coupling retails for $399, and I paid almost $500 when you count shipping and the extra parts I needed.  On the other hand, other solutions can be pricy too.

Heavy.  The coupling weighs 10 pounds, just for the parts that detach from the bikes, and the parts that stay on my bike are at least another 5 pounds, though I didn't weigh them before installation (and the last time I removed them, it look a hammer because of all the rust; see below).  Furthermore, all of this weight is on or behind the rear axle, which can affect the balance of the bike.  I balance this by putting my panniers on my Old Man Mountain Sherpa front rack, which accommodates my disc brakes.  With two kids, the coupling, a bike, a bike seat, and the kids' gear, I'm carrying over 100 pounds of extra weight, in addition to my own (steel) bicycle and my gear.

Fit problems.  The coupling consists of 3 parts:  axle extensions for the adult bike's rear axle, a small bracket that gets strapped to the child bike's down tube, and then the big heavy coupling itself that connects to the othre two parts.  I've attached the coupling to two adult and two child bikes (in all 4 combinations), and have had minor fit problems with three of the bikes.

The first problem was with the disc brakes on my bicycle.  I asked the reseller (Clever Cycles) three times whether my disc brakes would be a problem, and each time they assured me without question that the FollowMe Tandem Coupling was fully compatible with disc brakes and I would have no problem.  My rear disc brake is mounted on the trailing side of the seat stay (that is, behind the seat stay) rather than on the leading side of the seat stay (that is, between the seat stay and the chain stay).  This location is not compatible with the upward arc of the coupling where it attaches to the parent bike's axle; I don't know why that upward arc is even necessary.  So, I bought an extension that adds a fake axle several inches behind the real one.  Clever Cycles swore to me that this extension would not interfere with the mounting of either a child seat or my panniers on the rear rack.  They were half right:  my child seat fits fine, but my panniers do not, at least not without bending them.  So, I usually put the pannier on the front rack even when I don't have my son in his rear-rack seat.

On my wife's bike, the retaining clip that safeguards the coupling from falling off the adult rear axle doesn't fit -- it's simply so big that it needs to be in the same space as the derailleur.  The coupling itself fits, as does the retaining clip on the other side of the bike.

Finally, the coupling barely fits on my daughter's 20" bicycle -- her tire is too low to the ground and drags in 4 places on our 1-mile ride to daycare.  The coupling fits fine on my daughter's 16" bicycle.  I don't know whether a 20" bicycle with different geometry would fit better or worse than the one we have, but this is a concern for older kids.

Rust.  Essentially every piece of hardware on the FollowMe Tandem Coupling started to rust within a month.  This affects looks and ease of installation/removal, but I am not concerned about safety.  Really, this indicates unnecessary cost-cutting by the manufacturer.  Did they not imagine that people might use their product in the outdoors, where rain is possible?

When I received the coupling, the plastic bags holding the parts were torn open (I blame not the manufacturer but the distributor, Clever Cycles, for this:  apparently, the coupling had been demoed or used before), and I couldn't find one of the bolts.  I bought a stainless steel replacement at my local hardware store, at a cost of less than a dollar but quite a bit of inconvenience.  That bolt is the only piece of hardware on the bike that isn't rusted.  Why didn't the manufacturer spend a few extra cents on stainless steel hardware?

Defective small parts.  A small pin that keeps the coupling from folding up while being used (and that rattles around while you ride) has a small metal wire tether.  This broke within two months of purchase.  The distributor says that its warranty doesn't cover small parts, so I bought a replacement pin and spring-type cotter pin at my local hardware store.  This works great.  It isn't tethered to the bike, but I haven't lost it yet.

Another defect is in the strap that holds the coupling folded away when you are not towing a child's bike.  It looks a bit like this.  Every time you hit a bump, the weak spring lets out a little bit of the strap until the whole thing goes crashing to the ground.  (This happened to me when I was carrying my son in his bike seat to the emergency room for a head wound!)  So, I bought a one-foot nylon cord and a plastic clip from REI, and these have given me a year of faithful service.

The Ugly

I had a terrible experience with the distributor/reseller, Clever Cycles.  I have to give them credit for being the only importer of the FollowMe Tandem Coupling into the US (if you know of another one, please let everyone know!), but that doesn't make up for all the other negatives.

  • They told me they had the coupling in stock, then that they didn't, then that they did, then that they didn't, and I finally got one months later.
  • They told me that the coupling is compatible with disc brakes, but some disc brakes require extra hardware.
  • They told me the extra hardware was compatible with panniers, which it is not.
  • They shipped me a product with missing hardware.
  • They didn't stand behind defects in small parts, but did try to sell me replacements for the broken parts.
  • Once they had my money, they were extremely hard to contact.  I generally had to contact them at least 3 times before I got a reply:  2 emails and 1 phone call, or 1 email and 2 phone calls.  The other employees, when I gave the name of the one who was supposedly helping me, clucked in sympathy but didn't offer to give me any assistance themselves.
  • Worst of all, the customer service was offensive and patronizing.  It's bad business to belittle your customer when the customer is wrong.  In my case, I was right, yet the Clever Cycles employee was still derogatory and impolite.
The Bottom Line

The FollowMe Tandem Coupling is an ideal fit for my needs:  I want to carry two children on a standard bicycle, safely, in a way that involves them in the ride.  If you have only one child to carry, then there are other devices with similar benefits, such as a tag-along or the Trail-Gator bicycle tow bar.

I would buy the FollowMe Tandem Coupling again.  But, I would wish that there is someplace to buy it from besides Clever Cycles, whose terrible customer service was a huge hassle, costing me time, money, and headache.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Last weekend, I went hiking without the family for the first time since the kids were born. I likewise haven't been on any long bicycle rides, though pulling 100 pounds of kids and their gear to daycare and back every day can be strenuous in a completely different way.

The hike was instigated by John Leo, who was my TA in a theory class when I was a student at MIT around 1986 or 1987. An avid mountaineer, he moved to Seattle and has done a lot of hiking and climbing. He ran across my name when looking up changes to the Java programming language, and he still remembered me. He saw from my webpages that I lived in Seattle and that 20 years ago I had done a lot of mountain climbing, so he invited me to go out with him. We chose to hike/scramble up Kaleetan Peak, which is relatively close to Seattle and non-technical (class 2). I enjoy hiking with my family, but sometimes a bit more challenge and speed is fun. We had a great time walking and talking, and the day wasn't even diminished when my car's radiator cracked on the way back to Seattle.

I still haven't downloaded the pictures from my camera, but John's pictures are most likely better anyway. The captions have a lot of information, too. He uploaded them that very evening.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Summer Hiking 2011.

I haven't posted in forever, and have lots to update about summer travels (HI, NC), but here's an update about summer hiking.

We started with a weekend on Orcas Island with my mom, and did some hiking there in the state park. Just lovely. This first photo is of Maeve and Mom on Orcas.

For Father's Day, 6/19, we hiked up Rattlesnake Ledge. This is close to Seattle and only a 3.5 mile walk with 1000 ft vertical gain. Maeve walked all the way up without really taking a break. This let us know we were up to some longer hikes for the summer.

Next we went for a hike in Cougar Mtn State Park. It doesn't have as showy views, but is also close and relatively quiet. No photos.

For the 4th of July we went car camping near Mt. St. Helens. We went camping once last year with some friends at Dash Point State Park, only 30 minutes south of Seattle and Silas didn't sleep in the tent. This year was much better. Silas still had issues napping in the tent, but sleeping at night was fine. We went on several hikes - one that had great views of Mt. Adams, although we ended up just walking on the forest service road since it was blocked a couple miles from the trailhead by fallen trees. Another day we went up towards Mt. St. Helens and did a short walk with in the blast zone from the eruption. Everything's growing back and timber has been replanted, but it was clearly decimated. We couldn't go up to the visitor center because of snow.

On the way home, we drove the Mt. Ranier National Park. We walked a bit at the box canyon and then went up to Paradise to hike. Paradise was completely snowed in (this was July 4) so we did a snow hike to the Nisqually glacier overlook. The weather was nice and we didn't need jackets, just boots. Very lovely.

We stopped by Longmire on the way out out of the park and did a nature walk and looked at some trees that were in the process of being felled by beaver.

Our most recent hike was last weekend. We decided to do Little Si - about 4.5 miles long so a good hike for Maeve. We made it up with no problems and very little complaining about being tired. At the top is a great view of the I-90 corridor and Rattlesnake ledge across the valley.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Welcome to Seattle

Just after we arrived in Seattle, I was returning the rental minivan that took us from the airport. The person in line behind me said, "You're from back east, aren't you?"

I allowed that I had lived there and asked how he knew.

"Your backpack is from L.L. Bean. We usually run people with those out of town."

"But didn't you see that I'm wearing an REI jacket?", I asked.

He quickly changed his tone. "Oh, I didn't notice. In that case, welcome to Seattle!"