Versatility: The Green Machine Phase I Testing

As we noted in our last post, the Green Machine arrived on schedule.  The Bike Friday Project Q was chosen for several reasons:

  • We needed a tandem bike that could be transported easily in any car, on trains, buses, and planes
  • Sometimes I need a single bike
  • Quality is important

To get all of these qualities in one machine, one has to make some compromises.  The bike either has to fold, or be easily disassembled.  And, it needs to be convertible from the tandem, two-seat configuration to a single bike.  And, it has to be compact for transport.  The Q is all of these.

The Mean Green Machine - transport for two

But, with any “some assembly required” product, there are adjustments to be made and a learning curve to get the bolt torque right, to get the alignment right, and to set the adjustments right. The plan of action here was to come up with at least an abbreviated version of the Phase I testing that our homebuilt aircraft will need to go through. The first ride must be solo, and not stray far from home base.


So, after having assembled the bike, the next thing, after installing luggage rack, was to disassemble the bike, at least partially, to convert it into its alternate configuration, from the Mean Green Machine to the Lean Green Machine. This entails essentially removing the center section of the bike, with the stoker seat, crankset, handlebars, and the two main frame tubes, along with the shift and brake cables that pass over them. This was fairly simple, and before long, the Lean Green Machine appeared.

The Lean Green Machine: ready for solo sprinting

Since we live on a fairly steep hill, the test area was chosen uphill, or, more specifically, working around the ridge to the south and east that juts between Hammersley Inlet and Little Skookum Inlet. A brief familiarization with the shifters put the bike in uphill mode and off we went. After a short steep climb and a dip, the route ran downhill at a fair grade for a few blocks, with a stop in the middle. Applying the brakes firmly, I forgot the machine is designed as a tandem. Riding solo in short-wheelbase mode, the front binders grabbed smartly; the rear wheel came up off the road. Fortunately, the old biker still had quick enough reflexes to avoid an endo, and we (the machine and I coming to an understanding as a result of this bonding exercise) proceeded.

At the top of the next uphill jog, I noticed a tendency to slide off the front of the saddle. Ah, fear of overtorque results in looseness. A quick stop to adjust and tighten the saddle and we’re off again. Once out on rolling Arcadia, the shifting becomes second nature. The best choice in the Q Project is Bike Friday’s Dual Drive option, with a three-speed rear hub and a nine-gear freewheel cassette, giving an honest, usable 27 gear ratios. Even with the 20-inch wheels (necessary for transportability in disassembled mode), the gear range is surprisingly close to what we’re used to on the Santana, with nine more absolute gears and a whole lot more usable (generally, with a front derailleur, only about half of the gear ratios are actually usable, due to the cross-over between the front and rear gears).

A few more steep hills and we reverse course (avoiding a Rottweiler loose in the road at the top of the next hill) and head for the barn. The only other item of note was a knocking under load in the last half of the ride, with a definite thump in the right pedal, that needs looked at, and might be movement of the pannier on the rack, or pedal adjustment. Next time out, we need to convert back to tandem mode for Phase II testing, then disassemble for the all-important packing test, to see if we can fit the components into the shipping case (which converts to a trailer, for total self-contained travel).

The Deliberate Bicycle Tourist: New Beginnings

A while back, we reminisced on our evolution from childhood bike freedom to bicycle commuter to bicycle tourist (The Accidental Bicycle Tourist: A Life Journey).  We left off looking forward to the next phase in our self-powered journeys, awaiting the arrival of our first new bike in 15 years, the Bike Friday Traveler Q.

The Green Machine - our new Bike Friday Traveler Q

Well, it’s here, at last.  It will be a few days before we give it a test run, but we got it unpacked and assembled without too much confusion.  It’s a well-made machine, designed to be packed and unpacked on tour to take advantage of planes, trains, buses, and automobiles without racks.

The new bike, disassembled, fits into a large pullman case that also functions as a trailer.  It also converts to a single bike by removing the stoker’s section, creating a versatile travel solution.  We’ll be experimenting with rack configurations over the next few months, as we plan our touring strategy and get used to the new machine.

We haven’t had it outside yet, but had to sit on it in the hallway: it fits just like the Santana–after all, it was custom-built, just for us, and has a nameplate on the frame with our names on it, giving new meaning to the bicycle as personal transport.

We’re putting our Santana, Leviathan, which has served us faithfully for 25 years, up for sale.  It has a lot more miles left in it, but we no longer have the capability of transporting it other than getting on and pedaling.   With upgrades and regular maintenance, it’s still like new.  Santana still makes a fat-tire tandem, but has switched from the classic Arriva road bike frame geometry to the lower, bent top bar configuration modern off-road mountain bikes sport, and renamed the model Cilantro XC.  But, the old Arriva XC is still an excellent back-roads touring machine.  It served us well on the unpaved sections of the Galloping Goose Trail on Vancouver Island last year, and we have ridden a few miles of gravel road in Montana when that was the only option along the route.

"Alas, poor Leviathan, we rode thee well": Our Santana posing for its sales listing.

Living Without Computer Viruses

Most of us have received at least one of those urgent forwarded virus alert emails from friends and relatives.  I got one last night, announcing a “new and very dangerous” greeting card or postcard virus that will “Erase your C: drive.”  This does not concern me, since none of the computers I use to read email have a C: drive, for one.  Second, this is just another one of those viral email hoaxes, that provoke well-meaning folks to flood their friends’ mailboxes with empty warnings.  If you get one, check it out before you forward.  Most of them say the virus alert has been issued by McAfee or other anti-virus company and verified by Scopes, a site that tracks these things.  But, if you go to those sites yourself, you will find disclaimers exposing the hoax.  Trust your friends, but verify their information.

This does not mean there aren’t dangerous computer viruses: any executable attachment or link in an email can be the source of a Microsoft Windows virus. Note I did _NOT_ say “computer virus”. Viruses infect vulnerable software, not computer hardware.  By nature, single-user computer systems like Microsoft Windows are vulnerable.  The constant parade of security fixes attack symptoms, but do not change the fundamental design.

Please consider switching to a safe operating system. The obvious choice is one based on Unix, a multi-user system built on the premise that the system files must be protected from the users and the users’ files from each other.  Unix-like systems available to the home and small business user are Apple’s OS/X, GNU/Linux, Oracle’s Solaris, or one of the several BSD variants.  If your budget or preferences exclude Apple Computer from your choices, you can convert your unsafe Microsoft Windows system to GNU/Linux for free (or, at most, the cost of a blank CD or DVD disk and a long download). And, if needed, you can keep Windows on the hard drive to run programs you “must” have, using the Grub menu to select which system to boot.

Keeping your Windows applications might not be necessary, as GNU/Linux comes with every type of program imaginable, either on the install disk or downloadable over the Internet (from the distributor of the system you install). If you are comfortable with Microsoft Office, OpenOffice will be easy to switch to.   For those who need to make the switch gradually, many of the most popular Windows programs can be installed on Linux directly, running under Wine (or the easier-to-use commercial Wine wrapper, Crossover Office), and still enjoy the safety of the underlying system.

Firefox, with which many Windows users are already familiar, is the default Internet browser in Linux. A wide variety of games, chat clients, and other office productivity tools for managing and editing photos and documents are either built-in or available with a mouse click–at no additional cost. Updates and fixes for the software you have installed are automatic, but on your schedule–the system never reboots without your permission or interrupts your work.

How is this possible? Because of a 30-year movement started by Richard M. Stallman and maintained by the Free Software Foundation to promote freely-sharing the ideas embodied in computer software, embodied in the source code itself.  It is possible because the developers are paid to solve a problem, usually through leveraging other solutions through source code written by others and freely distributed. You only pay if you need personal services installing and using the software, through print books, telephone support, and consultant support.  Even though only the source code is freely available (as in free speech), companies package complete systems on CDs and DVDs and distribute them for free (as in free beer), or for the cost of packaging and shipping.  You only pay if you decide to keep using the product and need support.

Free (openly published) software enriches society, not corporations. And, it creates jobs, by reducing startup and operating costs for small business and permits rapid adoption by larger companies.  The vast majority of publicly-accessible web sites are served by computers running GNU/Linux–a secure, stable, and scalable system that you, too, can adopt for greater peace of mind and to unlock the full power of your computer.  After all, your computer is not sick, your software is.

Process Fail

Over the weekend, we attended a very good Linux conference, the annual LinuxFest Northwest, where one of the presenters’ topics centered around the need for a systematic approach to systems and network administration–putting in place a process and following it.  But, what if the process is flawed or incomplete?  The ensuing week has been a real lesson in the frustrations of failed processes: corporate policies and procedures that simply do not address the atypical problem, or that have glaring omissions of solutions to obvious issues.

As frequent readers may know, we’ve been ranting about degraded to unavailable ADSL service for a couple of months now, as our Internet access has effectively deteriorated to a few hours of useful access between midnight and 8:00am.  During this time, Qwest has progressed from “it must be your problem” to “try a static address–it’s only $25 plus $7 a month” to “we acknowledge there is a problem” to “the equipment will arrive in two weeks” to “yes, it’s here, but it will take a few weeks to install” to “not yet, but you are on the priority list.”

Well, we depend on getting connected and staying connected to make a living.   Other customers in “our fair city” may be miffed at not being able to watch streaming movies or play multi-user online games for a few weeks, but getting cut off in the middle of a software upgrade or unable to connect at all to a customers’ remote server 600 miles away is a real business killer.  We waited.  April 15 (the date I was quoted around the first of April) came and went, and the service got progressively worse.  May 1st came, and it got still worse.

I think I’ve been patient, in the hope that a corporation as large as Qwest has some sort of survival instinct and is capable of making decisions and taking action to correct service issues.  But, patience only goes so far.  Finally, on May 2, on the advice of other IT professionals and my daughter, who home-schools the grandchildren and also depends on reliable connectivity, we decided to abandon ADSL and ordered a switch to cable internet and phone service, which will take about a week to switch over.  Not surprisingly, two days later, we noted an uncharacteristic session reset early in the morning.  Hmm.  Sure enough, seven hours later, the internet speed is staying up near the 70-80% of max (7Mbps) we would like to see.  The signal-to-noise ratio, which had been hovering between zero and 8, averaging 2, is now some astronomical number, which I looked at closer, and realized is actually a negative 32-bit signed number, which is worse than I have seen it.

Thanks, Qwest.  You finally came through.  But, too late, and not enough–by mid-afternoon, speed dropped and sessions started resetting, probably due to the low SNR. You have lost a customer.  Your customer service process and network provisioning policies have failed.  You failed by not addressing the concerns of technically-knowledgeable customers,  by not following through and responding appropriately to trouble calls, and by failing to plan capacity properly for network demand.  It is infuriating to watch bandwidth on a “standard” line drop to zero while trying to bring up the customer support screen on the corporate web through all of the advertisements for much higher bandwidth service–which we know you can’t deliver anytime soon. We also suspect that you aren’t really concerned with fixing the current service: the “new equipment” that you are provisioning is really planned to support the higher-bandwidth service, which will be quickly consumed when customers opt-in for the higher rates, and the cycle will start over.

But, Qwest, you are not alone.  The entire communications industry customer-service process is in a failed state.  When attempting to switch over to cable service, the phone number to call for installation wasn’t the “right” one.  The next call went to a call center half-way across the country, which, after getting disconnected in a transfer and calling back and giving all our information, turned out to not be the right one, either.  Yet a third number (not listed anywhere) started the process from the beginning, cancelling our original service order, which had been set up through a retail agent.  Going to the store added no value to the on-line order process except for the fact that their Internet connection actually worked to complete the transaction, which was of no importance, which leads us to believe that either the retail store is going to be stiffed on their order commission or they get paid a flat rate for writing orders whether or not the customer actually gets service or not.  Another process failure point.  But, finally, we have a tentative installation date and a plan, but a sinking feeling that we may be trading one failed support and provisioning process for another.

The third thing that happened this week to trigger the title subject of this post was instigated by text message that popped up on our Montana cell phone, which we keep active for the benefit of our many customers in our previous location.  The message stated that our cell provider was merging with another carrier and we should visit the new carrier’s store in person to effect migrating service to their network.  So, we did as requested.  Unfortunately, carrier number one did not have any stores locally, so carrier number two’s local stores, with no local customer base to draw from, have no process for doing this.  We stood at the counter in the store for an hour and a half, for the purpose of transferring $75 worth of prepaid cell time to a new $10 phone, which we will probably not renew.  The store agent was very resourceful, dedicated, and diligent, calling one customer service number after another–some of them twice–and getting forwarded in circles, to no avail.  Calls to supervisors yielded helpful but ultimately not useful suggestions.  Meanwhile, other customers came and went, spending hundreds of dollars on complicated new smart phones and expensive service plans, having to wait for other agents while ours patiently endured dead-end after dead-end trying to bridge the disconnect in the transfer process.  Cell provider number one said we should have received a new phone  “in the mail,” but, with a pre-paid account, we never get a paper statement, so they had no idea where we lived, having moved so long ago that the forwarding has expired.  It appears the process in this transfer encompasses, but does not provide for prepaid accounts that have no paper trail.  Process fail.  In this case, after tying up three people–ourselves plus the store agent–and the time of a countless parade of customer support technicians and supervisors for 90 minutes, we were told to come back in several days, after they had resolved the process issue.  Well and good, but the nearest service store is 20 miles away.  Recovery of $75 worth of cell phone minutes that will expire in six months (or in one week, if we aren’t successful) somehow doesn’t seem worth $16 worth of gasoline, four or five hours of our time, and the cost of a new phone to replace one we were planning to throw away in six months anyway.

So, Chaos Central is in full duplex mode this week, creating and absorbing the chaos that results from poorly planned and badly executed processes, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and blindly stumbling one way and then another, through–as the classic computer adventure game says–“…a maze of twisty little passages, all alike,” from which there is no exit.