Bringing the outdoors in

alligator lizard

This morning I found an 8-inch critter in my office. He appears to be a San Diego alligator lizard.

I’m leaving him here. He’s cute, and eats bugs — what’s not to like? Besides, he runs behind the credenza when I approach, so it would be a production to get rid of him.

In doing so, I resist a longstanding urge to exercise too much control over my environment. Why not let a few autonomous creatures do their thing?

At home it’s the same: we let funnel web spiders set up in the lower corners of all our windows. This keeps the mosquitoes and ants down, makes our house look haunted, and convinces our neighbors we’re insane. Again, what’s not to like?

Some animals are threats, but others are opportunities. These actually save us effort, spread no disease, and are organic substitutes for pesticide. No-brainer.

If the invited pests grow too numerous, just move up the food chain.  I’ve been thinking of bringing an alligator lizard home to control the funnel web spiders…

Urban Walkabout

Urban Walkabout is a sport I invented many years ago. You may know it by a different name: Walking a Really Long Way through Your Own City.

It happened by accident when my plane landed in San Jose, California one Sunday. Had no ride, lots of time to kill, and didn’t want to pay a $40 cab fare to Sunnyvale.

So I walked.

It was about 10 miles, maybe two and a half hours. Though the area is completely built up, it was unexpectedly and extremely interesting. I found abandoned buildings, detoured around a National Guard armory, crossed a small farm, was chased by a farm dog, went through a tunnel, found relic headquarters of hoary Silicon Valley names like Fairchild Semiconductor, and generally had a great time. It was free, I got some exercise, and was only slightly sore from carrying a duffel for 10 miles.

It was so fun that I did it again, by a different route, the next time I landed in San Jose.

Since then, I’ve done urban walkabouts of similar distance in Orange County and London. Highly recommended.

Photos from RAGBRAI

By incredible coincidence, I found on Flickr some nice photos of my own bike, shot by a stranger in Chariton, IA, day 4 of RAGBRAI 2009.

Here is his photostream, which captures the spirit of RAGBRAI 2009.  I tried to embed the photostream, but Wordpress doesn’t seem to like Flickr embedded objects.

RAGBRAI 2009 in a nutshell

Ragbrai is an annual bicycle tour across Iowa, with thousands of participants.  Here is a 5-minute snapshot of what it’s like.

Freeway of bicycles

  • Bikes out ahead on the road as far as you can see.
  • Only bikes, no cars.
  • You can talk with the other “drivers” — little conversations all day long.

Big campsites, small towns

  • Every day, pitch your tent in a new small town.
  • The tour is larger than most of the towns it passes through.
  • Towns prepare for months for our arrival.
  • The entire downtown is closed off and devoted to RAGBRAI — exhibits, concerts and food stalls.
  • When you leave town, throw your gear onto a truck to pick up in the next town — you don’t need to carry all your gear on your bike.

Eating, eating, eating

  • Cycling 70+ miles a day requires eating 1 to 2 extra meals a day.
  • Iowa’s specialties are fried pork sandwiches, pie at every meal, big meals prepared by local churches, and “walking taco,” a taco salad in a Doritos bag.
  • Churches serve big meals for riders.  Try the Methodist Meatloaf.

Strangest detail

  • Small towns have no laundromats, so how do you do laundry?  Walk into the shower with your bike clothes on, wash them on your body, then strip them off, wash yourself, and hang the clothes out to dry.


  • Biked in rain, wind, heat.
  • Huge windstorm at night.
  • Mini-tornado in camp (pictures here).
  • 4am hailstorm — heard pinging on bikes outside.  Snowplows had to clear roads for early riders.
  • Gigantic lightning storm lit up whole sky.
  • Tornado warning — flee camp!  We stayed in tents with clothes on, ready to run.  Storm never came.
  • Kids played in the storm:  pillowfights in tents, little ones chasing barefoot through camp in the rain.


  • Passed through over 30 small towns and villages, each very different.
  • Farmhouses
  • Corn, corn, corn.
  • Bikers make pit stops in cornfields.
  • Residents put chairs on their front lawns, and sit out all day watching the bikes go by.  ”Where ya from?” they ask.
  • This is the biggest event ever to occur in their quiet little towns.
  • Imagine an endless line of bicycles passing your house all day — thousands of bikes.
  • Each town we sleep in puts on a show — music, food, etc.  Indianola had hot air balloons.  Mount Pleasant had a working vintage steam tractor.
  • Kids set up lemonade and drink stands, making hundreds of dollars in a single day.

Tons of bicycle crashes

  • Ambulance passed me, lights on, at least a dozen times.
  • One guy stopped his bike, put his feet down, passed out and went over like a felled tree.
  • Another simply drove off the road into a 10-foot ditch.
  • A woman passed out on her moving bike.  Husband grabbed her handlebar, and both went down.
  • Another woman caught a wheel in a crack while descending a hill at 40mph.  Ewww.
  • I would estimate the odds of an injury crash during Ragbrai at 1 in 200.  That’s very high.

The misery of coffee

I smiled just now, for no particular reason.  Just randomly happy about how things are going.  This sentiment, once rare, is suddenly common, and I suspect the change is not circumstances, but simply that I stopped drinking coffee three weeks ago.

The change was for an unrelated reason:  I’m starting RAGBRAI on Sunday, and didn’t want to face withdrawal from a 500mg-a day caffeine habit during the ride, so I switched to green tea in advance, a move analogous to methadone for heroin addicts.

The negatives I experienced in withdrawal — headaches and sleep disruption — are well known.  What surprised me was this:

  • Suddenly my throat wasn’t sore, leading me to realize I had had a sore throat for months, and possibly longer, ending within the past 3 weeks.
  • Better rested, despite spending less time sleeping.
  • Almost nothing stresses me out.  It’s like someone tripped over the power cable to the anxiety circuit — it abruptly went dark.
  • Can concentrate better.
  • Can think more flexibly:  easier to recognize when stuck on a problem, and to change direction, rather than push through automaton-like.
  • Teeth are noticeably whiter.
  • Breath is fresher (says the wife, with genuine enthusiasm).

Health nuts sing the praises of green tea, but the real benefit may simply be the absence of coffee.

I’ve presumed for some time that, just like other drugs, coffee is manipulated to maximize psychoactive content.  Here is one example suggesting that caffeine content is rising rapidly.  The European Food Standards Agency in 2001 suggested a 300mg daily limit for caffeine, which it equated to three cups of coffee.  Yet Starbucks says its standard-size “tall” coffee contains 260mg, over 85% of the recommended limit.  Peet’s caffeine content is much higher still, judging from my own palpitations.  And again, there is more going on here than just caffeine.  Coffee has other alkaloid stimulants, and is roasted, creating byproducts.

I had planned to restart coffee this Sunday, as available, but now I’m not so sure.  And still, the pull back to the dark side is strong:  when will the macchiato cravings end?

Iphone solar charger for bike tour


A friend and I will pedal 420 miles across Iowa in July. We’ll be camping, i.e. no electricity, so to record the whole ride on GPS, I wanted a solar panel for my iPhone.

To find exactly the right thing was unexpectedly hard. Most consumers want compactness, so the ready-made solutions are almost all iPhone-sized, with a tiny solar panel, generating only a trickle of current (< 50 mA). Basically a Playskool toy, insufficient to charge the phone while it’s being used.

There are also kit solutions out there, and I LOVE that sort of project, but am busy with more important stuff these days.  So the hunt was on for an inexpensive larger panel to generate similar current to a USB car adapter (450mA).


There are a few out there, but my favorite was that pictured above, sold by, unequivocally the scariest ecommerce site I have ever used.  Product description in broken English, product title in French. They claim to be located in Alabama, but their domain is registered to an address in Shenzen, China, and they say “allow 20 days for delivery.” The site’s purchase confirmation was particularly disquieting: “Dummy string. Actual confirmation message would go here.”

Yet I think they are legit. Clues:
- Unique page content — a criminal would simply rip from other sites.
- PayPal hasn’t banned them.
- Seller’s physical address is verified by PayPal.
- Only complaint on the web was about delayed delivery.

We’ll know in 20 business days.  If they deliver, I will link to their site. I’m interested in the process partly because this may be the wave of future e-commerce. For cheaply shipped items, buy directly from the factory or a China-based middleman.

But consider the amount of waste involved in this transaction.  An individual box will (I hope) be shipped from an individual in mainland China to an individual in California.  If one considers the entire value chain, I might have a smaller ecological footprint simply to bring one huge 6-volt battery with me, and recharge from that.

Another solution, extremely low-footprint, very fun project, but way too time-consuming, would be to mine your local Craigslist for a few solar-powered garden lights.  These sell new for under $10, and for much less used, if you can find them.  Then build your own charger.

UPDATE — JUNE 8 2009 — Yes, is a legitimate website.  They delivered my solar panel within 20 business days, as promised.  The product is totally sketchy:  clearly assembled by hand, no casing on the back, exposed wiring and solder joints — really just a prototype.  Also, they failed to include the promised iPhone adapter.  However, the panel itself works, it does charge my phone, it was super cheap, and so I will give them 2 out of 5 stars, with a bonus for low price.

Kayak Sails


I’m not dogmatic.  Must I personally supply every erg to propel my kayak from point A to point B?  No.  That would be extreme, and in some cases, unsafe. Plus, I just like the idea of kayak sails like this item from Pacific Action.

Sometime after my shoulder heals, I plan to make the 11-mile crossing from Oxnard to Anacapa Island, California. I’ve done much more distance than that in my boat, but never miles from shore.

Why not bring a small downwind sail? They’re small, light, effective, and could be considered a form of safety equipment: for example, you could get back to the mainland with no paddle, or with a blown rotator cuff.

Another way to look at it:  greatly increased range. On a downwind leg you could steer with the foot pedals while eating lunch. Or you could easily do an extended trip through the Bahamas, ending with a crossing to Florida. Lots of options.

What is green?

benchmade-mini-griptilian-556Recently bought a Benchmade 556 (the oddly branded “Mini-Griptilian”) for camping and fishing.  Indestructible, expensive, nearly as small as a Swiss Army knife, but more useful:  bigger, higher-quality, locking blade, a serrated section, and a comfortable non-slip molded handle.

I come from a dedidedly non-martial family, so it was a reach to buy something that looks at home on a Special Forces commando.  But an experience in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park was instructive.

We were headed to a backcountry camp when my truck’s mudflap somehow entangled itself with the tire, bending so that it would rub the tire forever after.  I showed this to one of the other drivers, and without a word, he whipped out a small folding knife, and cut off the heavy gauge plastic flap in a single stroke.  I was too startled to point out he hadn’t asked for permission, and on reflection, couldn’t think of anything better to do anyway.  But the really interesting part was the knife.  That single sweep was far beyond the capabilities of the pocketknives I knew about.

That knife was a Benchmade.  This is a US-made product that is designed to last almost forever — the vendor will sharpen it free — and this raises an interesting subtlety about green-ness and buying American.

Now, I am NOT a xenophobe or protectionist. Practically everything I own is foreign-made. But it does occur to me that a quality product like Benchmade has an inherently smaller carbon footprint than its far cheaper imported substitutes, for at least 3 reasons. First, it need not be shipped across the ocean. Second, US manufacturing, though more expensive due to labor costs, is actually less energy-intensive than mainland China. Third, since Benchmade will sharpen it for free, for life, you rarely need to replace it.  

Of course, greener still would have been to buy it used on eBay.  But that would mean detecting cheap counterfeits, and I don’t have the time or expertise for that.

Hydrofoil sailboat

In the 1990s, Hobie made the Trifoiler, a delicate-looking twin-mast sailing hydrofoil that could make 35 knots.  This would take you from Los Angeles to Catalina Island in 40 minutes, if the boat survived the swell.


Dream job

Shane Chen of Washington State designs and sells amazing small vehicles from his own website, including a human-powered hydrofoil.